My Son John

My Son John is a 1952 American drama film, directed by Leo McCarey, starring Robert Walker as a suspected Communist spy.

My Son John
Theatrical release poster
Directed byLeo McCarey
Produced byLeo McCarey
Written byMyles Connolly and Leo McCarey,
adapted by John Lee Mahin
StarringHelen Hayes
Van Heflin
Robert Walker
Dean Jagger
Music byRobert Emmett Dolan
CinematographyHarry Stradling
Edited byMarvin Coil
Rainbow Productions
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • April 8, 1952 (1952-04-08)
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States

The strongly anti-Communist film, produced during the height of McCarthyism,[1] received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. The nomination was later viewed as a possible attempt by the motion picture industry to signal its loyalty to the anti-Communist campaign then underway.[2]

Plot summary

In uniform, Chuck and Ben Jefferson, strapping blonds who played high school football, attend Sunday Mass with their parents before leaving for army service in Korea. Their older brother, John sends regrets that he can not join their farewell dinner because of his work for the federal government in Washington.

A week later, John visits his parents, his devoutly Catholic mother Lucille and American Legionnaire father Dan. In conversation with them and their parish priest, John uses humor to make provocative statements and his attitude is resented. He spends hours with one of his college professors leaving his parents feeling short-changed. John makes sarcastic remarks about the Legion and his father questions his loyalty. After a visit from the FBI, John assures his mother of his loyalty by swearing on her Bible, but John and his father argue. His mother tells John to "think with your heart, not your head". When John leaves a key behind when he returns to his job in Washington, DC, his mother, while trying to return the key to him, learns it is for the apartment of a female spy. Mother enters the apartment and confronts John, who confesses to having an affair. She refuses to accept his assurances of loyalty and begs him to confess, and declares that he deserves to be punished. The FBI agent tells him he should "use whatever free will you have. Give up. Name names." John escapes, repents his actions, and decides to turn himself in, but is killed by Communist agents before he can do so. The FBI finds his tape-recorded confession and play it at his college's commencement exercises.[1][2][3]


Pre-production and casting

The film was based on an idea by Leo McCarey, and developed into a script by John Lee Mahin.

Paramount built interest in the project by reporting the casting of each role, beginning with the news in December 1950 that Helen Hayes was considering it for her return to motion pictures after more than 15 years away from the film industry.[4]

The details of the story were kept secret while it was first described in one news report as "a contemporary drama about the relationship between a mother and son, described by McCarey as 'highly emotional but with much humor'".[4]

Despite McCarey's "close-mouthed silence" for two months and a public warning to Hayes not to discuss the plot, it was reported that "word has gotten around Hollywood with the authority such wisps of information always have that the son ... is a traitor to his country–an agent of Communist espionage." Daily Variety reported that Hayes, mirroring certain current events, would shoot her son in the film and be tried for his murder.[5]

Hayes called it "a natural, human part" where she didn't have to worry about her appearance.[6]

In February 1951 Robert Walker was borrowed from MGM to play the title role.[7] The same month Dean Jagger signed. Hedda Hopper reported the script "has gotten raves from everyone who's read it."[8]

Van Heflin signed in April 1951.[9]

Ten days into shooting, the plot's unknown elements continued to garner press coverage. McCarey denied it was the Alger Hiss story and said it had a "happy ending". He offered this:[10]

It's about a mother and father who struggled and slaved. They had no education. They put all their money into higher education for their sons. But one of the kids gets too bright. It poses the problem–how bright can you get?

He takes up a lot of things including atheism. The mother knows only two books–her Bible and her cookbook. But who's brighter in the end-- the mother or the son?
It's such a fragile little point, but so is nuclear fission. It's not bad sometimes to have a small point and get the most out of it.

Hayes denied that the film's "message" attracted her to the project: "I just like the character and the story. I am deadly set against messages as the prime factor for taking a part. But I do feel the picture is a very exciting comment on a certain phase of our living today".[10][11]

It was the last film role of Robert Walker. It was reported that he died less than a week after completing work on the film,[12] though in fact McCarey had to alter the film's ending because of Walker's unfilmed sequences and insert a shot of Walker from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.[3]

Filming took place in Washington, DC, Manassas, Virginia, and Hollywood.[10]

Reception and box-office


Bosley Crowther wrote in his review for The New York Times that the film represented its time perfectly in that it "corresponds with the present public ferment of angry resentment and fear", that it is "a picture so strongly dedicated to the purpose of the American anti-Communist purge that it seethes with the sort of emotionalism and illogic that is characteristic of so much thinking these days". He wrote that allowing a mother to condemn her son based on flimsy evidence shows the film's "hot emotional nature" and that its endorsement of bigotry and argument for religious conformity would "cause a thoughtful person to feel a shudder of apprehension". While praising all the actors, he regretted the film's "snide anti-intellectual stance".[13]

Other critics underscored the cultural attitudes behind the film's politics. In the New York Herald Tribune, Ogden Reid, later a Congressman, wrote: "McCarey's picture of how America ought to be is so frightening, so speciously argued, so full of warnings against an intelligent solution to the problem that it boomerangs upon its own cause."[3]

The New Yorker said the film advised the public to "cut out thinking, obey their superiors blindly, regard all political suspects as guilty without trial, revel in joy through strength, and pay more attention to football".[3]

Others have appreciated that the film locates the ideological conflict within a complex set of family relations, with father and son competing for the same woman's affection, but noted that John is not just intellectual, but "an unathletic, sexually ambiguous intellectual", both "sullen" and "slick".[14] Others have interpreted John's character as homosexual.[15][16][17]

In response to negative reviews from the New York critics, the Catholic Press Institute unanimously endorsed a resolution praising it and Senator Karl Mundt entered a statement into the Congressional Record calling it "undoubtedly the greatest and most stirring pro-American motion picture of the last decade. ... It should be seen by the people of every American home."[18] McCarey told the magazine Motion Picture that he felt mistreated and hurt.[3]

In April 1952, just after the film opened, Bosley Crowther noted that My Son John provided an ironic contrast to all the public outcry about Communist subversion in the film industry on the part of the American Legion and the Catholic War Veterans. He wrote:[19]

Amid all this turmoil, an irony is that one of the latest films from Hollywood, My Son John, is a passionate endorsement of the relentless pursuit of American Communists to the extent that the acceptance of "guilt by association" is espoused. Helen Hayes is the star of this picture as a mother who condemns her own son when she learns that he has been consorting with a girl who is charged with being a spy. The irony is that the sort of cultural vigilantism that is currently being forced on Hollywood is made heroic in the person of Dean Jagger, who plays an American Legionnaire.

A month after the film opened, the Catholic Press Association awarded McCarey its 1952 Literary Prize for "exemplification of Christian, Catholic principles", citing his work on My Son John and other films.[20]

The picture was not a success at the box office. It grossed under $1 million and failed to make the list of the Top Ninety pictures of the year as compiled by Variety.[18]

Reputation and legacy

Patricia Bosworth, writing about a festival of blacklist-era films in 1992, characterized My Son John as "hysterical", "the anti-Communist movie to end all anti-Communist movies".[21]

An assessment of McCarey's extraordinary sympathy for his characters found that the director had lost that feeling by the 1950s, or at least failed to have succeeded in maintaining it consistently. In My Son John, wrote Stuart Klawans for The New York Times in 2002, "gentleness itself had become a sin". In his view, McCarey's "exquisitely sensitive" handling of the mother-son relationship in the first part of the film was undercut by Myles Connolly, a screenwriter known for writing many a "bullying speech" for Frank Capra. Klawans hears Connolly's tone in the film's finale, a commencement address warning the young against liberalism.[22]

J. Hoberman noted the film's dual personality, writing that it "aspires to the warmth of a domestic comedy while remaining tendentious to the core, relentlessly unfunny and starkly melodramatic".[3]


  1. Haas, Elizabeth; Christiansen, Terry; Haas, Peter (2015). Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films (2nd ed.). Routledge. pp. 141–2. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  2. Whitfield, Stephen J. (1996). The Culture of the Cold War (2nd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 136–7. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  3. Hoberman, J. (2011). An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. The New Press. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  4. Hill, Gladwin (December 21, 1950). "Helen Hayes Plans Return to Screen" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  5. Brady, Thomas F. (February 18, 1951). "Hollywood 'Freeze'" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  6. TV Assists Helen Hayes' Return to Film Career Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 23 Jan 1951: A8.
  7. $55,162 WON IN SUIT BY ANN SHERIDAN: Federal Jury on Coast Gives Actress Damages for Claim Against R.K.O. Studios Of Local Origin By THOMAS F. BRADY Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]07 Feb 1951: 47.
  8. Drama: Howard Duff Will Soon Starr in 'Cave' Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]09 Feb 1951: B10.
  9. Academy Award Line-Up Set for 'My Son John' Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Chicago, Ill. [Chicago, Ill]22 Apr 1951: g2.
  10. Otten, Jane (March 18, 1951). "Some Notes about a Secret Movie Plot" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  11. Gilroy, Harry (March 30, 1952). "Earnest Lady in Funny Play" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  12. Hill, Gladwin (August 30, 1951). "Actor Walker Dies After Drug Dosage" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  13. Crowther, Bosley (April 9, 1952). "Helen Hayes Returns to Films in 'My Son John'". New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
  14. Quart, Leonard; Auster, Albert (2011). American Film and Society since 1945 (4th ed.). ABC-CLIO. p. 46. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  15. Schwartz, Richard Alan (2003). The 1950s. Facts on File, Inc. p. 152. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  16. Barrios, Richard (2003). Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall. Routledge. p. 229n. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  17. Humphries, Reynold (2008). Hollywood's Blacklists: A Political and Cultural History. Edinburgh University Press. p. 136. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  18. Frankel, Glenn (2017). High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Bloomsbury. p. 245.
  19. Crowther, Bosley (April 13, 1952). "Facing a Real Dilemma" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  20. "Presenting Annual Catholic Press Awards Yesterday" (PDF). New York Times. May 5, 1952. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  21. Bosworth, Patricia (September 27, 1992). "Daughter of a Blacklist That Killed a Father". New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  22. Klawans, Stuart (December 15, 2002). "A Kind Man Who Became A Hard Man". The New York Times. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
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