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The Forgotten: Is My Face Red

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Above:  "I am not now nor have I ever been..." Yes, they actually do that scene.

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.

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Above: McCarey doesn't quite cut to feet walking on a glass ceiling, but the effect is similar. "I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost." The quote is from Robert Crumb's "Whiteman" character, but it fits Dean Jagger's uncanny impersonation of an erect penis precisely.

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.

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Above:  The dying Bruno is superimposed into a car wreck and asked to play stand-in for the dying John.

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.

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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.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

I think you misjudge McCarey’s political motivations, and thus dismiss this—mistakenly—as a political film. It is not. Like many of McCarey’s films, it’s about the human beings involved in the depicted relationship; the politics is nothing more than a MacGuffin. This film was made well before Communism became the boogey man of American politics that it would eventually become. To presume that the main agenda of “My Son John” is political to ignore not only the historical context of the film, but also to ignore the themes of family and the bonds of familial life that are the themes of most of McCarey’s work. The son’s “sin” could just as easily have been crime, or any other randomly chosen political skullduggery, and the themes of “My Son John” would remain intact. It’s an unfortunate accident of the history subsequent to this film, not prior, that overemphasizes the importance of the specific nature of “My Son John” ’s MacGuffin.
While of course the family is central to McCarey’s work, politics is not incidental to this film — otherwise he would not have spent so much time having his characters discuss them, sometimes at the expense of drama. And I think the crisis in American culture was already well underway — communism may not have been America’s boogeyman, but it was certainly McCarey’s, and he was not alone — he had already been a friendly witness for HUAC as early as 1947, after all. The blacklist lasted longer than most people imagine, with Lionel Stander blacklisted from most of the major studios as early as the 1930s. I do agree that John’s “crime” resonates in more than one way, though, as you’ll see in the piece.
I still haven’t seen this film but I thought I’d offer this reaction. James Baldwin wrote a memoir about his moviegoing days. And he mentioned that at one point he was interrogated by the FBI. He notes that after that he went and saw MY SON JOHN and noted how he identified with Robert Walker angrily denouncing his parents and their values. It’s interesting he made this after GOOD SAM which is a very forceful critique of modern consumerism replacing and stiffling human conscience. He seems a genuinely divided film-maker.
It’s a very odd film, because bits of it do read as a critique of small-town values, and possibly there’s the intention of showing how John’s environment forces him to look for something deeper. And perhaps Walker’s death muddled a lot of the intention… but the wingnut stance is also an organic part of the film, with McCarey apparently sympathetic to the view that the only books a mother needs are a bible and a cookbook… There’s also the fascinating snapshot of 50s life where the family conspire to bully mom into taking what must be Valium, because older women need special medicine to keep them sane. She’s skeptical about this, and we’re on her side, but the authorities are proved right once more…
“The son’s “sin” could just as easily have been crime, or any other randomly chosen political skullduggery” Or gayness. Walker’s John reads as gay all over the damned place. Not wonder Baldwin reated as he did. Far more than anti-communist the film is deeply anti-intellectual (the most pernicious disease in American culture0, made all the more ghastly by Hayes and Jagger playing a basically nice old couple who don’t have the slightest clue as to what’s going on when the film begins and are no better off by its conclusion.
Katya
“…the most pernicious disease in American culture” So true that today’s American ‘winger can’t even enunciate anti-intellectualism as a value, as that would be too much like having an idea. Instead we get just raw celebration of stupidity. The country’s second Red Scare began almost as soon as the war ended, and as regards Hollywood, Hoover had been making his little lists and compiling his dossiers all along and had them ready to deploy.
The parents in this film are “decent,” although it’s interesting how un-civic they are about their traffic accident (rear-ending Van Heflin) but so devoid of thought that it’s easy to picture them as good Nazis if they were living in 30s Germany rather than 50s America. Without critical thought, just accepting the slogans handed down from their leaders, and going along with whatever matches their existing prejudices, they’re frighteningly susceptible to fascism or whatever the dominant politics might be. I can imagine Baldwin, or any thinking man, reacting strongly against this. Whether McCarey intended a gay subtext is highly uncertain, but he evokes it beautifully nonetheless, and whether John is gay or communist, he still can be read as the most sympathetic character, which doesn’t SEEM like McCarey’s intention.
I was going to suggest gayness as one of the wildcard MacGuffins I offered speculatively in my original post, but I didn’t want to spend any time making it clear that I considered it a “sin” only within the the cultural context of the film. So I left it out for simplicity’s sake. But this film, and many, many other cultural touchstones, evoke such parallels very easily: whenever a protagonist struggles with self-honesty and self-knowledge, against cultural obstacles—even if the culture being portrayed is only family culture—appropriation as a gay metaphor is sometimes difficult to avoid. Think of the TV show “Bewitched”: few other stories fit the contour of the gay psychological experience more closely. But was that the intention? Doubtful. More importantly: does it matter if it was? “High Noon” ‘s metaphorical footprint changes every time there’s a shift in the political wind. The use of art and metaphor is an extremely useful, even universal, method of understanding the world we live in. The intent of the metaphor’s creator is ultimately irrelevant.
McCarey’s intentions, on any level, are hard to figure out. The parents are sympathetic, but so ill-informed and incurious they almost appear mentally defective. Anything happening to such a hapless pair would be awful. But here it’s especially so as they don’t appear able to understand ANYTHING that’s happend to them. Why di he settle on a couple like this. Wouldn’t it have been better to have had more generally aware middle-class pair? They could have had suspicions that somethign was really wriong with john early on rather than it coming out of left field (REALLY left field) as it is in this film. They would have had a ore complex reaction to heflin’s agent too. Here they’re just confused. John’s death would likewise have provided na opportunity for a different response. But McCarey made the film that he made — and we’re stuck with it.
McCarey’s deeply felt anti-Communism is also the driving theme of his last film, SATAN NEVER SLEEPS (1962), which concludes with the Chinese Communist villain “seeing the light,” repenting, and becoming Catholic or something. William Holden and Clifton Webb play priests.
“William Holden and Clifton Webb play priests” COMEDY GOLD!!!!
Regarding the parents’ cluelessness: again, suggesting the irrelevance of the political specifics of the film. “My Son John” is not a film about communism. It’s a film about the experience of being suddenly aware of how utterly your son is a stranger to you. The events of the plot are not everyday family events, the kind of thing that most parents would have some inkling of, some general awareness of. It’s a story about those times in a parents life when something does, indeed, slam you right out of left field, and suddenly the child of your loins is a total stranger.
On Robert Walker’s “…unavailibility,” as you wrote it: Did you find that humorous with your choice of ellipsis and a word that is defined as “neither accessible, nor at hand”? Given your comment further down in your review regarding Mr. Walker, the one that reads: “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”—makes me question where your sympathies lie in life, in general. Lissener appears to have given much more serious and mature thought to the process of life and the period in which this film was produced. “My Son John” is as apropos in 2011 as it was in 1952. Some reflection on your part may find more similarities than you were aware of when you first wrote this review. For the record, since you correctly labeled this film “a ghost story!” you may want to clarify the tragic event of Mr. Walker’s death as it truly went down, which was not as easy as “(alcohol and presription drugs = allergic reaction)." That description fits many Hollywood tragedies, but not Walker’s. Jim Henaghan, Walker’s best friend, was present prior to, during, and after Walker’s death. Henaghan dropped by his house and found him playing cards with his housekeeper, and described his behavior as “quite normal.” A few minutes after arriving, Walker’s psychiatrist, Frederick Hacker and his associate, Dr. Sidney Silver, showed up in a panic and forced Walker, against his will, to have an injection of sodium amytal to “calm him down and put him to sleep.” Henagher was confused by Hacker’s insistence to inject Walker and pin him down on his bed because, and I quote, “Aside from resisting the medication, he didn’t seem the slightest, the least bit disturbed to me.” The medication immediately caused Walker to pass out, turn blue, and he stopped breathing. The doctors began artificial respiration, however, he had already passed away. It’s called murder or manslaughter, depending on your prosecutor, but there wasn’t one in this case due to Walker’s family failing to request an autopsy. There’s your “ghost story.” And as Mr. Walker is…unavailable to defend himself once again, or respond to your review, I am sure that whether he is in heaven or just dust in a casket, which is what “My Son John” asks us to question and answer with conviction, he is at rest in peace. -T.T. (www.reelcelluloid.com)

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