Since The Forgotten is a home not only to the films that Time forgot, but to films maudit of all stripes and political hues, it seems like maybe the only place that will have Leo McCarey's unfortunate and frequently dislikable My Son John, although the welcome we can offer it is still a somewhat frosty one, as you can already tell. Made in 1952, it's a pop-eyed red scare propaganda bomb that segues from domestic comedy to film noir.
Plot: Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson (Dean Jagger, Helen Hayes), proud parents of two boys shipping off to Korea to fight, have a third son (Robert Walker), university educated and suddenly a source of concern due to his questioning of the values of church and family. Has he turned commie? Such a concept, playing on the domestic peril of Hitchcock's The Lodger and Shadow of a Doubt, seems like a serviceable dramatic structure to bring to light McCarey's paranoid obsession with fifth columnists undermining his precious bodily fluids, but the film is content to use its thriller narrative as a mere washing line from which to suspend a series of wet-blanket lectures on Americanism, the dangers of liberal education, and mom's apple pie.
As if this weren't enough to sink the film, McCarey's shoot was seriously derailed by the tragic early death of Robert Walker, necessitating a rewrite of the ending which now had to be cobbled together using shadowy stand-ins, voice-over, recycled footage from Walker's previous movie, Strangers on a Train, and basically whatever was to hand. Interestingly, the film goes from a mid-point loss of confidence where the editor appears unable to find solutions to quite basic continuity problems posed by Walker's...unavailability (he starts blowing up footage to create new close-ups, and jump-dissolving bits of action together when he really doesn't need to), to an energizing indulgence in insane plotting and expressionistic visuals as the crisis deepens from a lack of coverage to a complete lack of lead actor.
My Son John is, let's face it, a crazy film, which is its saving grace, because it's certainly very poor propaganda, preaching to the converted and seemingly terrified of rational discourse. It can't actually denounce communism in any meaningful way, because in the film's skewed belief system, to engage with actual issues is to fall into the trap of intellectualism. Stalinism (a genuine evil, let's be clear about that) can only be defeated by shouting incoherently about ill-defined values, and God.
The film's first half, which is increasingly full of this kind of jingoistic bellowing (mainly from Dean Jagger), is nevertheless oddly watchable, for a couple of reasons. The first is McCarey's comic sense and sympathy for actors, which has not wholly deserted him. Like his fellow graduates of the Hal Roach comedy school, George Stevens and Frank Capra, he has adapted what he learned in slapstick and applied it to slightly more naturalistic situations, and his people are passably real. Helen Hayes is fascinating to watch, capturing the inarticulacy of a slightly muddle-headed character while somewhat undercutting this with spectacularly expressive hand movements.
The other redeeming factor is Robert Walker, who was still alive when he delivered this part of his performance. His John is so much smarter than his surroundings that he steals the film and our sympathies, and you feel that if the film had been a warning of the dangers of knee-jerk patriotism, paranoia and unthinking authoritarian paternity, this would have served as a very good beginning. Just as in Strangers on a Train, the ostensible villain is more appealing than the good people, but while the psychopathic Bruno doesn't wholly capture our hearts because we know he's a ruthless murderer, John's ill-defined treasonous activities are so vague that they never really subvert our fondness for him. The screenplay is so addicted to substituting slogans for both ideas and action that Walker's sinister spy girlfriend, possibly the cause of all the trouble, is never so much as glimpsed. Potentially the best character in the whole movie, but a sexy female agent would be far too dangerously appealing in a movie devoted to aging hicks and plodding FBI men. In fact, there are no pre-menopause women in the film at all, a bizarre omission for a Hollywood movie.
Doubly odd because Walker's John seems pink in more ways than one. Using the same sly inflection, elegant manner and wheedling, ironic tone he deployed so effectively as the effete but muscular Bruno, Walker camps it up deliciously. The film could easily play as an analog of the fears of a couple of parents that their intellectual son is "light on his feet"—communism is just a red herring. That makes sense of the film's decision to lift the political plot out of both its natural settings, Washington and Hollywood (although it keeps a foot in both, since firstly, John's job is some amorphous boardroom deal in the capital, and secondly, this is after all a movie) and planting it in the family home.
McCarey, a once-great director, would have only one further moment of glory with An Affair to Remember. Politics crippled his films not because he was a crack-brained wingnut, although he was, but because he didn't actually understand anything about them, or nothing he could express in dramatic, or even undramatic terms.
But this is a ghost story! Walker's progressive erasure from the film, as the last of the footage shot before his death (alcohol and prescription drugs = allergic reaction) dwindled through the Moviola, results in a strange, eerie effect. John starts to appear less and less, seen in shadows, or in oddly isolated closeups, as if he doesn't quite belong to the room where the action is unfolding. A long phone conversation plays out with only Van Heflin's half audible. V-Hef urges the fugitive Walker to use "whatever free will you have left," as if he's talking to a man possessed by Martian invaders. Even death, in a scene partially composed of borrowed shots of Bruno's death in Strangers on a Train, does not stop Walker's incorporeal presence haunting the film, as John's speech to his alma mater is given by pre-recorded tape, a single shaft of light picking out the empty lectern (a soft willow-the-wisp glows within the beam, inexplicable to modern optics). It's fitting that this trumpet blast of logorrhea should end with another lecture, and somehow fitting that the voice delivering it is dead.
Thanks to Lou Lumenick and Farran Nehme Smith for the Shadows of Russia season they programmed, to TCM for showing it, and for John Seal for supplying me a with a copy of this one.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.