Sunday, December 18, 2011

MY SON JOHN (1952)

An interesting entry in the string of anti-Communist propaganda films of the early 50's; the commie plot is secondary at times to the dysfunctional family plot which seems lifted from the works of Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, All My Sons). Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger say farewell to two of their sons as they head off to the Korean War. Their third son, Robert Walker, who works in Washington for the government, misses the farewell dinner but shows up a week later and we immediately see tensions between the three: Mom and Dad are old-fashioned, God-fearing, hard-working, middle-class citizens (Dad is running for head of the local American Legion unit); Walker is an effete college-educated liberal who does soft office work and seems to be an atheist to boot. Father and son are constantly at odds--during an argument, Jagger literally thumps Walker with a Bible--though Mom seems just a little too adoring of her little boy. Soon, Van Heflin shows up, a Fed who suspects that Walker is a Communist and is giving state secrets to the Russians through a woman who is eventually arrested for treason. Of course, he is, and of course, eventually, he sees the error of his ways and wants to spill everything to the FBI, but will his fellow travelers let him go that easily?

One problem with the film is the acting. Hayes gives an out-and-out bad performance, jittery, wide-eyed and mannered, like she's on a TV soap opera (except she doesn't keep looking at cue cards). Jagger's a bit better; he goes over-the-top frequently, but he does have a certain nervous chemistry with Walker, like a father might have with a son he felt he didn’t really know. Heflin has nothing substantive to do. Walker is the saving grace; as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, he's playing a gay character but can't really let on that he is (godless commie + academic + mama's boy = light in his loafers). He does a great job balancing the character's conflicting emotions: genuine love for a family from which he's grown away, genuine belief in Communism as a panacea for the world's ills, and an apparently genuine desire to "reform." Sadly, Walker died halfway through filming, and the climactic action had to be completely rewritten in a way that largely dispenses with Walker's character; some footage of Walker from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is incorporated and a climactic speech which was supposed to be delivered by Walker at a college graduation is instead presented on tape in an interesting looking but dramatically inert scene. For an actor who always seemed a bit high-strung, he gives a remarkably natural performance. At two hours, it's too long, but worth seeing for Walker. [TCM]

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