Leo McCarey

T. it.: L’amore più grande; Sog.: Leo McCarey; Scen.: John Lee Mahin, Myles Connolly, Leo McCarey; F.: Harry Stradling; Mo.: Marvin Coil; Scgf.: Hal Pereira, Robert Flannery; Mu.: Robert Emmett Dolan; Int.: Helen Hayes (Lucille Jefferson), Van Heflin (Kenneth Stedman), Robert Walker (John Jefferson), Dean Jagger (Dan Jefferson), Frank McHugh (Padre O’Dowd), James Young (Ben Jefferson), Richard Jaeckel (Chuck Jefferson), Minor Watson (Dr. Sam Carver), Irene Winston (Ruth Carlin), Todd Karns (Bedford); Prod.: Leo McCarey, Rainbow Productions, per Paramount Pictures 35mm. D.: 122’. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

My Son John is an apotheosis for many reasons. It’s a perverted but illuminating family problem film, in the manner of Douglas Sirk’s lucid cinema and Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life: all nominally in place, all transformed and alien, a plunge into the core of things, finding tragedy and emptiness. It also spotlights the anti-intellectualism of the time. John is an intellectual, whose sole human relations are directed towards Party officials. He is quite beyond the emotional reach of his mother – a crime difficult to surpass in the universe of Leo McCarey.

The road of an American mother, to the point when she tells an FBI agent, “Take him away! He has to be punished!” is not, as in the Soviet Union, merely a formality – it’s truly a tortured via dolorosa. Famous theatre actress Helen Hayes masterfully plays the mother clinging to her son John, who as played by Robert Walker reflects a threatening, dark presence, reminiscent of an escaped pervert from some B film noir. They seem to be from different planets: Walker’s ham acting and Hayes’ tragic performance are made moving by the freely associative use of kitsch elements, and the clash is electrifying. The high moment is a wild, shocking scene, in which John, without hesitation, takes a fake oath, his hand on the Bible.
The anti-intellectual father (Dean Jagger) is truly a fool, but he intuitively has the times on his side. The mother – “treated as if she were the American flag”, in Robert Warshow’s words – is more tolerant, even if her son is nastily critical about his father’s loud stupidity. The mother is soon at the end of her tether, crying like an animal. Then comes the deus ex machina, as the Commies kill John. Happily “the native American spy” has recorded a message, which pours from a huge loudspeaker, aptly mixed with an angel chorus. (Luckily actor Robert Walker had already recorded his climactic confessional speech shortly before his sudden death before the film’s completion.) My Son John is cinema’s most poignant testimony about the requirement – then a duty – of “naming names”. The film is all about loyalty, the great concept of the time, measured by the poignancy of emotions. Nothing else matters, even from the FBI’s point of view.

Peter von Bagh

Copy From