Leo McCarey’s 1952 drama My Son John arrives on DVD/Blu-ray with a reputation as the Reefer Madness of Red Scare propaganda films, a hysterical indictment of communism and its ruinous effects on the American family. There are times when that reputation is entirely warranted, like a scene where a patriotic father thwacks his grown son in the head with the Bible, or another where the young man’s God-fearing mother condemns him for getting a fancy-pants education while his square-shouldered brothers were out triumphing on the gridiron. Yet McCarey, whose eclectic career includes two of the greatest comedies ever made (Duck Soup and The Awful Truth) and the classic tearjerker Make Way For Tomorrow, doesn’t entirely abandon his dramatic instincts for the sake of his right-drifting politics. Look past the absurdly schematic plotting—in fact, forget about the Red Scare hokum altogether—and My Son John tells a more common, relatable tale about the disappointment all parents feel when their children stray from the path.
Before the wayward boy turns up, My Son John establishes the God-fearing, All-American decency of his family with a propagandistic zeal that would be outrageous if it weren’t so tedious. The opening scene has Dean Jagger, a pipe-smoking patriarch and community leader, collecting wife Helen Hayes for church with their two other sons, who are heading off to serve their country the very next day. (Whenever the good sons are brought up, Hayes drags out a picture of them crouching and smiling in their football uniforms.) When the eponymous son, played by Robert Walker, turns up after falling out of touch, his parents are happy to see him, but skeptical of all his book-learnin’ and his time among the Washington elite. Walker infuriates his father by hanging out with a college professor and mocking his love-it-or-leave-it patriotism, but he finds a more sympathetic audience in Hayes, who doesn’t recognize Commie rhetoric when she hears it.
As the tension mounts, particularly between Jagger and Walker, My Son John turns into a full-blown McCarthy hearing, with Jagger blasting his son with accusations of Communist subversion while Walker smugly, arrogantly, and ineffectually tries to deflect the charges. Once the Bible gets whipped out, the film reaches a comical nadir of moral high-handedness. The second half isn’t exactly elegant, partly because of a hammy FBI investigation subplot and partly because Walker, who died before the production was finished, is absent from some important late scenes. (The use of leftover Walker footage from Strangers On A Train is the opposite of seamless.) But the focus becomes less on Walker and his father, who even McCarey seems to think is a bully, and more on Walker and his mother, who wants to trust her son and understand his motives. There’s a subtle cruelty to the way Walker uses sarcasm and humor to belittle his hayseed mother; if it can be divorced from the film’s politics, the gap between them is as recognizable as any between older people and the younger generation. When My Son John is not about losing America, it’s about losing a family member, and that’s a more rational and recognizable fear.
Key features: No handouts.