Seeing red

Robert Walker pledging allegiance to Mom, God, and country in My Son John: "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party."
Was there a classic Hollywood actor more unnerving than Robert Walker?  Even when playing a supposedly “straight” character—like a U.S. Army colonel in the stultifyingly earnest Cold War docudrama The Beginning or the End (1947)—he manages to make every word and gesture drip with obscene insinuation.  His screen persona would reach its apex in Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952), surely one of the most quease-inducing films ever to come out of Hollywood.  As the films title character, Walker comes to represent everything that Cold War-era America most hated and feared.   

The film is told from the point of view of John’s parents (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger), good country people who regard their son with a certain suspicious pride; where their other sons, both former football stars, happily ship out overseas with the Army (presumably to Korea), John holds a vague government job in Washington and corresponds mysteriously with strangers over the phone.  Gradually, John’s mother Lucille comes to discover that John is a Communist under investigation by the FBI for connections to some sort of Washington spy ring.  Unlike so many other films from this period in which the fight against Communism plays out on a global or national scale, My Son John imagines that fight beginning at home, within the American family itself. 

Mother with her cookbook and Bible: "I'll make you cookies, pies, cakes, and jam if you'll learn Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!"

Unfavorably received when it was first released, My Son John remains laughably strange and overwrought.  Its as funny as any of McCarey's comedies but for all the wrong reasons.  Hayes’ performance in particular is so committed, so intense, that it feels virtuosic and embarrassing by turns.  But as a relic of Cold War-era Hollywood—and a scarily timeless example of right-wing paranoia—My Son John is endlessly fascinating.  The film doesn’t just arouse panic about intellectualism, atheism, homosexuality, and irony; it couches its ideology in the most maudlin sentimental clichés.  Mom, Dad, God, and country are its sacred fetishes, followed closely by football, the military, and Sunday dinner; to insult one is to insult all of them.  Lucille proudly declares her two favorite books to be her cookbook and her Bible.  Momism is next to godliness in My Son John; John’s most unforgivable sin, worse even than being a Communist and a traitor, seems to be his ribbing of Lucille when she lapses into a memory of bouncing her son on her knee.  (“Making fun of my lullaby?” she cries.)  The film’s hysterical pitch and aggressive sentimentality arguably push it into the realm of psychotronia.  When the dead John delivers a posthumous commencement address-cum-confession via audio tape and a beam of heavenly light shines down on the podium, it feels kitschy even by the standards of Leo McCarey (no stranger to pablum).       

A cautionary tale: from beyond the grave, John warns the graduating class not to follow his example.

My tortured relationship to this film is similar to that with a film like Tea and Sympathy.  As in that film, My Son John presents us with an eerily perceptive account of the discomfort with which so many queer outsiders relate to their middle American families.  My Son John takes the awkward tension that exists between a liberal child and his conservative parents and blows it up to a nightmarish scale.  But (also like Tea and Sympathy) the conclusions to which it comes are repressive and reactionary: the parents, with their hokey platitudes and provincialism, are affirmed, while the child, marked as a deviant and a traitor, must repent or be killed.  (John repents and is killed.)  What another film might have regarded as an all-too-common stage in the process of growing up—the break with Mom and Dad—My Son John makes into the stuff of national tragedy. 

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