Sunday, August 14, 2011

The strange case of My Son John

Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952) is a film I've read about for years but never expected to see until recently. Infamous for its far-right anti-Communist paranoia and anti-intellectualism, the death of star Robert Walker during the final weeks of filming, and its almost total lack of availability since its original theatrical run, My Son John has nevertheless enjoyed a reputation among cinephiles, filmmakers, and critics lucky enough to see it as a politically confused but emotionally and formally complex semi-masterpiece. After finally seeing it this past weekend, I can say it's all that and more. My Son John is one of the strangest Hollywood films I've seen, and one of the most personal, conflicted, contradictory, tortured, incoherent, empathetic, paranoid, frightened, anti-family, pro-God and country, specific, general, unhinged, self-negating, and controlled. Most of those adjectives shouldn't belong to a description of a single film. They belong to My Son John.
Before I attempt some kind of description, here's a little back story. Leo McCarey was one of the most gifted directors of Hollywood's first Golden Age and one of the rare filmmakers equally adept at comedy and drama. He loved actors, and he loved to let them interact with each other. Fond of the two-shot (framing the scene so two actors can be seen at the same time without having to cut back and forth between them), McCarey liked to let scenes run long, and he encouraged his actors to improvise. Some of my favorite McCarey movies include Duck Soup, one of the best Marx Brothers movies; Ruggles of Red Gap, with Charles Laughton; The Awful Truth, with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne; and Make Way for Tomorrow, an emotional but unsentimental film about aging, marriage, and the Great Depression. Something happened to McCarey as he aged, however. Like a lot of people, he became more conservative and religious. Unfortunately, that initially moderate conservatism grew into a far-right paranoia of a Red hidden in every closet, corner, classroom, and government office.
McCarey told an interviewer five years before My Son John that he wanted to keep his politics out of his films and focus on art, entertainment, and people instead. By the time of My Son John, he'd clearly changed his mind. The film's final third is so "deranged" (to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum's apt descriptor of this part of the movie) in its paranoid, anti-Communist fundamentalist zeal that it embarrassed even conservatives and anti-Communists of the time. The film flopped at the box office and received poor reviews from liberal and conservative critics alike, most notably Robert Warshow in American Mercury. (That review is available in a fantastic collection of his essays, The Immediate Experience, I recommend to anyone who likes reading cultural criticism about film, literature, theater, comic books, and early 20th-century American culture.) The film quickly came and went. There would be no VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray release, and there are no current plans for any. Aside from rare screenings at revival houses in major cities and the odd late-night TV broadcast in the 1960s and 1970s, My Son John became almost impossible to see until last year when Turner Classic Movies showed it as part of a series of anti-Communist films from the 1950s. During this time in the wilderness, the film's reputation increased, thanks to some leftist, auteurist champions like Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, Robin Wood, and others. Acknowledging the risible politics, these critics also pointed out the film's considerable strengths, which were ignored in most of the negative reviews. (They sometimes still are. This predictable, generic liberal takedown of the film by a former professor of mine is a prime example of grasping the outline but missing the details.) For the last several months, it's been streaming on Netflix in a not-bad print, which is where I finally got the chance to see it.
My Son John begins on an all-American suburban street on a Sunday morning. An older man in a suit tosses a football around in the yard with two of his sons, dressed in military uniforms. The sons are leaving that night for San Francisco, where they'll catch a ship to Korea for the war. They're tossing the ball around with Dad to kill time while they wait for their mother. She always takes too long getting ready for church, and Dad is always worried they'll be late. It's a Sunday ritual. There's another son, John, who works for the government in Washington, D.C. The mother (Helen Hayes) tenses up whenever someone mentions him. She's worried about something. She thought he might come to see his brothers off to war and go to church with the rest of the family, but he doesn't show. You get the feeling he hasn't been to church with the family in a long while. At dinner that evening, a telegram arrives. John's sorry he can't make it to say goodbye to his brothers in person, but he'll come by next weekend for a visit. Mother is sad. She sees her military boys off. One calls her "sweater girl" and swats her on the butt.
John shows up the following week for his visit. He's played by Robert Walker in a mini-masterpiece of honeyed condescension, polite contempt, and detached amusement in a role that's a cousin to his performance in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train from the year before, minus the murderous psychosis. That's going to come up again later, for odd reasons. John has quite a different relationship to his parents than his golden brothers, a picture of the two in their high school football uniforms given pride of place in the home. He was the bookish intellectual of the family. He didn't play football or join the military. He went to college, then moved to D.C. to work as a government official. John keeps a dryly sarcastic distance from his loving yet smothering, infantilizing, and hysterically menopausal mother (menopause is treated as a gateway to insanity) and his bigoted, jingoistic, suspicious, super-patriot father. Suspicions increase along with the distance between son and parents until Hayes discovers her son John is indeed a Communist spy. She must choose God and country over family ties and accept that her husband's suspicions of his son were correct. You must always think with your heart instead of your head. You must embrace Christianity and patriotism. (SPOILERS) John develops a conscience, turns away from Communism, records a practice run through a confessional speech he's giving his alma mater, and is gunned down by dirty Commies who have wiretapped his room. Fortunately, his speech is saved and played for the students at the commencement ceremony. (END SPOILERS)
My general description of the plot makes the film read like typical anti-Communist propaganda and the characters one-dimensional stereotypes. Until the hysterical final act, however, this is not true. The three main characters are complex, developed people with complicated internal struggles. The father is a proto-Tea Party loudmouth, but he's also an insecure man who feels intellectually inadequate around his son and despairs over the growing distance between them. His relationship with his wife is complex, too. They are simultaneously partners, rivals, and parents to each other, and the balance of power between the two is constantly in flux. The mother loves, babies, and smothers her children too much, but she also provides humor, warmth, and the occasional voice of reason, and she reads her son better than her husband. John is the charismatic center of the film, both its hero and anti-hero. He's smart, funny, arrogant, condescending, a bullshit detector, devious, open, aloof, hiding the pain of sharing different ideas than the rest of his family and being forced to conceal it in humor and veiled sarcasm.
McCarey does great things with this family dynamic both formally and narratively for most of the film's first hour and change. The family home is claustrophobic and dark, and McCarey creates an atmosphere of emotional distance and physical closeness. He uses every room in the house, the furniture, and the staircase, and he matches it formally with his famous two-shots and three-shots in long scenes of dialogue between John and one or both of his parents, with some sparingly but strikingly used closeups on a single character. These scenes, in terms of formal use of visual space and shot composition, could comfortably sit alongside Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life and In a Lonely Place and the films of Ingmar Bergman in their connection of confined domestic spaces and emotional turmoil. Despite the right-wing propaganda that will eventually contradict what has come before, the film in these scenes presents a major achievement by using the medium of mainstream Hollywood film to convincingly depict the growing rift between adult children and their parents in both universal and specific ways. Part of the American Dream (TM) is that you give your children more opportunities than you had, but this can create a distance between adult children and parents on top of the already increasing distance that begins when you "sever the silver cord," to quote that lousy Commie John. Some of that closeness dies just because you're grown up now. Even more of that closeness dies when you overtake one or both of your parents intellectually, financially, and/or experientially. The parents sacrificed and worked hard to help their son John succeed, but the opportunities and intellectual growth that John was able to enjoy as a result has driven a wedge between him and his parents. He's smarter than his parents, more well-read, more curious, less inclined to swallow the uncritical God and country blather that McCarey seems to be just as critical of as John until the film goes off the rails into proto-Glenn Beck irrational paranoia. The father feels this distance, too, but has a harder time articulating it. His struggles with the father/son rift give him a tragic tinge of empathy his character is otherwise lacking.

The strange thing about these early scenes is that McCarey seems to be on John's side. His sly mockery of his father's love-it-or-leave-it demagoguery, his parents' blindly uncritical devotion to Christianity, and their lack of curiosity is funny, likable, and sympathetic. Meanwhile, John's father is loud, overbearing, openly dismissive of higher education, a binge drinker, immediately suspicious of his son, quick to anger. In one scene, he rear-ends the car in front of him while driving recklessly and insists it was the other driver's fault. In one of the film's most intense scenes, he whacks his son over the head with a thick, hard-bound Bible (literal bible-thumping) in the kitchen and then shoves him over the table after refusing to believe his denials of being a Red. He returns hours later, drunk and sorry, and gives a sorrowful speech to his wife about how much it hurts him that he is not taken seriously by his son and how bad he feels about hitting him. McCarey's developing some seriously interesting material here about family dynamics.
He shreds that complexity in the bizarre, ignorant, idiotic, yet compulsively watchable final third. (SPOILERS) John is a godless Commie after all (and probably a homosexual, the movie implies often), betraying his country to get back at Dad and Mom. The stress sends dear Mother into menopausal hysteria, but she summons the courage to stand up to his manipulations and pleadings before collapsing in bed. Dad rushes to her side, where she tells him he was the only honorable and correct player in the game this whole time because he reacted emotionally, with his heart and gut, instead of using his brain. He knew John was a Commie from the get-go. I mean, just look at him. He read books. He didn't play football. He didn't have a girlfriend. He was slightly effeminate. He didn't believe in organized religion. He thought jingoism was ridiculous. He went to college. John is hiding from the FBI near the stairs and overhears his mother and father. He sees the light. Instead of escaping to Lisbon, the initial plan once he found out the FBI was on his tail, he checks into a hotel and records that draft of the speech I mentioned earlier. The Commies kill him, etc., and the speech is played at the commencement. What I failed to mention earlier is that the tape recorder is placed on the podium and a beam of light from the heavens comes down and shines on it while it plays his speech. Though he denounces Communism in the speech, he doesn't get into any specifics about why he joined the party or what it meant to him. Instead, he warns against the dangers of intellectual curiosity, a "stimulant" that leads to "narcotics," (i.e., anything not apple pie and Jesus). His parents are in the audience. After the speech, Mother hopes God can forgive him for his treason but is glad the graduates got to hear the speech. Mother and Father walk into a church across the street. Roll end credits.
This is a fucking insane ending, probably made even more insane by the death of Robert Walker (John) shortly before filming ended. Walker was home that fateful night and became severely agitated, for reasons unknown. His housekeeper called his psychiatrist, who gave him a barbiturate to calm him down. Unfortunately, he was also drunk. The two didn't mix and Walker died, aged 32. Most of the film was in the can, except for the ending. The bizarre wiretapping/shooting scene and tape recorder graduation speech scene were written to salvage the ending sans Walker. Scenes from Strangers on a Train are superimposed into the action when an image of Walker is needed. This creates a strange, hallucinatory feel (especially if you've seen the Hitchcock film) that matches the political insanity of the final scenes. (END SPOILERS)
Yes, this film's final 30-40 minutes are politically indefensible and narratively incoherent, but this film is worth seeing for all kinds of other reasons. McCarey never presents a coherent attack on Communism and doesn't seem to be interested in saying anything about it except that it is subversive and bad. His use of religion in the film is just as empty. The family is devoutly Catholic, as was McCarey himself, but there is nothing specifically Catholic in the home or in the characters' behavior, aside from an occasional sign of the cross. When the mother and father talk about the Bible or their beliefs, their ideals are much closer to a generic fundamentalist understanding of Christianity than anything Catholic. One of the major supporting characters is a priest, but the family never asks him for help in their crisis. He is eventually used as comic relief, despite some interesting early scenes. Nevertheless, McCarey hadn't lost his skill as a filmmaker, even if he'd lost his mind politically. The performances are uniformly strong. The first two-thirds of the film still present a strong visual depiction of strained family dynamics and the political conflicts that continue to divide us. The film looks like it belongs to no one else and values strangeness over cliche.
The late critic Robin Wood made an interesting observation about McCarey. Wood noticed that McCarey tended to present romantic relationships between men and women in a positive light, but portrayed the nuclear family as a destructive force. (I admit to finding this worldview much more sympathetic than McCarey's politics because I feel this has been the case in my own life for the past decade.) This is true in Make Way for Tomorrow, in which an elderly couple lose most of their savings during the Great Depression. A strong, loving couple, they want to stay together, but can't afford to find a place for both of them to live. Their children see them as either a burden or an annoyance and claim not to have space for both parents in any of their homes. McCarey loves this old couple, and he sympathizes with the adult children to an extent though they are also petty and selfish, but the extended nuclear family is seen as a fragile, strained, weak institution. My Son John illustrates this worldview as well. The mother and father have a strong marriage, but McCarey finds serious flaws in their parenting styles and in their interaction with their adult son John. Their only moments of disharmony occur when they disagree on matters involving their son. The fear here is not just about Communism. McCarey's My Son John is richer, stranger, and more perverse than that. Though the film's final act espouses the virtues of God and country, My Son John sees McCarey leaving out the final part of that right wing holy trinity: family. He loves the first two, but the third one isn't his bag. Maybe My Son John is the most perverse way of saying "three's a crowd" in cinema history.

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