As hunters go in pursuit of some rare and exotic quarry, we drove two and a half hours last week so I could realize a near lifetime desire of seeing My Son John, which was shown in 35mm at the splendid North Carolina Museum Of Art. Some of you know Raleigh merely as that place where Barney Fife eventually went to work and was mistreated by Richard X. Slattery, but in actuality, it’s our state capital and has one of the best classic film series going thanks to The Movie Diva, whose efforts for the Museum have yielded many rare screenings, but none so remarkable as this wounded survivor out of Paramount vaults. The only print of My Son John they had, so I was told, and its oft-warped struggle projecting was the result of dreaded vinegar syndrome, that curse of safety film and celluloid’s equivalent of terminal cancer. My Son John has been buried alive for fifty-two years. It is the bastard offspring of many distinguished careers. Leo McCarey was pilloried for directing it. Helen Hayes regretted coming out of movie retirement to make it, and Robert Walker died before they could finish it. Misinformation was put out on My Son John months before release and a lot of that is still in circulation. I've not heard of the film being shown on television since ABC had a single Sunday Night At The Movies run around 1970. Syndication listings did not reflect My Son John in any US available package, though Paramount still owns the negative. TCM recently made a deal with the latter to broadcast a large group of features starting in a few months (I noticed Union Station coming up in January). Will My Son John finally resurface there? --- a phoenix rising out of ashes much like Paramount's neglected Ace In The Hole, also difficult to see until recently? I don’t expect DVD exposure. Would even Criterion embrace a feature so discredited? One that’s been described variously as hysterical, malignant, embarrassing, McCarthyite, idiotic, paranoid? Appropriate perhaps that the Museum’s print be tainted with vinegar, for My Son John remains a pariah best handled with sterilized gloves, as hot a social and political potato as it ever was.
Leo McCarey had been a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Prior to that, he’d supervised Laurel and Hardy, made screwball comedies, and produced/directed a pair of smash hits about priests and nuns (Going My Way and The Bells Of St. Marys). He was devoutly Catholic and deplored Communism’s dismissal of religion. It was only natural that McCarey would catch a wave of films attacking totalitarianism in the early fifties. Most were easily digestible spy and espionage melodramas wherein ideology took a back seat to chase action and sneaked documents. Slinky women would cast nets to ensnare otherwise loyal Americans as malcontented weaklings turned traitor in hopes of money and power. It took Yanks with the mettle of a John Wayne to overcome them (and indeed, it was his Big Jim McClain that alone would profit from the Red Scare cycle). Robert Ryan, John Agar, Robert Taylor, and others purloined secrets on behalf of the Party during a half-decade’s run of alarmist thrillers. Virtually all of these, including The Red Danube, Conspirator, The Iron Curtain, and The Woman On Pier 13, lost money. A heavy hand of propaganda reflected industry anxiety over public perception of Hollywood’s own loyalty. The HUAC was busily ferreting out movie-making Communists even as these films strove to reassure everyone of that town’s unswerving patriotism. Studios probably knew their ledger ink would end up as red as regimes they were attacking, but with Hollywood itself under siege, such gestures, even if unprofitable, had to be made. Leo McCarey departed from these by focusing on Communism’s impact on the American family. He viewed the latter as unwitting incubator for youth misguided by too much education as imparted by highbrowed intellectuals ready to take over from within now that we’d won the war against fascism. Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger play parents invaded by would-be body snatching son Robert Walker, he of suspect graduation from University and black sheep among brothers otherwise shipping off to Korea to fight for their country. Had My Son John been properly completed, there might have been stuff here for quite a movie, as it does reflect heartland fear of sinister and barely understood forces preparing to take over. No wonder science fiction found this a fertile ground for exploration, the American public having readily equated Communist threats with alien encroachment. Whether such fears were rational or not was beside the point.
Leo McCarey was already in decline when he began My Son John. There were complications over substance abuse, and he’d directed only one feature since The Bells Of St.Marys, a Gary Cooper vehicle called Good Sam. Both these were profitable, the first immensely so. McCarey’s approach was highly improvisational. He’d come on the set most mornings and noodle at a piano while searching his mind for ideas. Helen Hayes said he threw out the script for My Son John and every day was chaos. The picture was in production through the summer of 1951 and indeed had much work still to complete when co-star Robert Walker suddenly died over the weekend of August 25. Nothing about this was expected. Walker had been in and out of rehab during the last several years, but fortunes were looking up after his triumph in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train. Now he was gone and McCarey was stuck with a picture only half finished. Damage control necessitated white lies for the press. I have worked closely with Bob during these past few months and learned to know him as both a fine gentleman and a great actor. We had our final working session together only last Saturday. At that time he showed no indication of being in ill health. On the contrary, he did his final recording with great zest. I had just run the rough-cut of the picture for him, and, although a modest fellow, he fairly beamed at the results, said McCarey to The New York Times, while The Motion Picture Herald was assured that Walker had just completed work in My Son John. With a final negative cost of $1.8 million, this was not an investment Paramount could write off. Such breakdowns were not unheard of, as there were minor players often replaced due to unexpected death or disability, and most famously there was Jean Harlow and her demise during Saratoga. Disasters subsequent to My Son John would be covered by cast insurance. Montgomery Clift’s auto crash and attendant delays on Raintree County were compensated, while United Artists collected for losses sustained when Tyrone Power collapsed and died more than halfway through Solomon and Sheba. Leo McCarey had no such out. My Son John would somehow have to be completed.
In fact, it should never have been released. My Son John plays like a jigsaw puzzle with parts missing and others jammed into place. The crude surgery goes way beyond mere patching of Walker footage from Strangers On A Train to cover for an ending they needed. Truth finally willed out in 1969 when McCarey sat down with interviewer Peter Bogdanovich and gave his account of the salvaging. The director was by then near the end of his life and My Son John had been out of circulation for years. I like it. It would have been a great picture if Bob Walker had lived --- it might have been my best picture. McCarey then admitted what critics and viewers had to suspect in 1952. We were right in the middle of shooting. The whole crew was as floored as I was. Salaries were stopped and everybody went to work on other pictures. We stopped shooting for three months. Now it was necessary for this veteran since silents to use all the tricks I’d learned trying to transform the few scenes we’d shot into a real film. That job would take another twelve weeks. My Son John was not released until seven months after Walker’s death. In the meantime, McCarey had to change his ending altogether and cobble scenes out of outtakes and doubling gymnastics. Vital story points play out torturously during telephone conversations between chattering cast survivors and slowed-down-to-a-crawl footage of Walker standing in booths or reacting to something other than the scene he’s now been grafted onto. McCarey had become a filmmaking Baron Frankenstein attempting to breathe life into something irretrievably dead. The referred to by others finish was indeed made up of footage from Strangers On A Train, as are scenes of Walker riding through Washington just prior to his onscreen demise (there’s even a brief shot where he consults a pivotal lighter that caused so much trouble for Farley Granger in the Hitchcock film!). McCarey matted Walker’s head and shoulders (from S.O.A.T.) into a shot of the actor’s My Son John character dying in the back of a taxicab shot up by Communist assassins, going so far as to personally dub in dialogue for the deceased player. McCarey was many wonderful things as a director, but he was not a convincing vocal stand-in for Robert Walker. It had never been his intention to kill off the character in any case (the public and New York critics would see to that). By soon-to-be happy coincidence, Walker had made his rehearsal recording of a climactic speech (two days before his death) that McCarey was now able to impose upon a final reel as clumsily executed as it is uncomfortable to watch. Everyone at Paramount had to realize this unfinished hodgepodge would win few laurels, but an April 1952 opening date was looming. What choice but to release it and let chips fall where they may?
Reviews would be split along ideological lines. The New York Times excoriated My Son John and an indignant McCarey flew into town for a reckoning. He’d been slighted as a director, insulted as an artist, and libeled as a human being. The same sort of highbrows that misled his benighted character were now calling McCarey a bigot and trashing his movie all over the New York press. There were champions at the ready to defend him however, and they wielded a lot more influence. The American Legion had tied in with Paramount when advance screenings assured them this was their kind of picture. Now on board with a Legion-sponsored premiere (as shown here with its honor guard), they generated literature to further encourage attendance. We forget today just how powerful the Legion was at that time. This was the combined fighting force of two World Wars and now they were taking up arms against Communism. Harrison’s Reports warned exhibitors not to cross them. Legion agitation and picketing had already sunk Columbia’s Death Of A Salesman owing to suspect political sympathies on the part of playwright Arthur Miller. Protective measures recommended by Harrison’s included the purchase of The Star Spangled Banner from National Screen, a trailer that would cost $6.50 and play seventy seconds at the beginning and end of each theatre’s day. As patriotic Americans, we must take aggressive steps to obliterate any blight of "red" or "pink" that may attach itself to our theatres. Patrons in many situations were encouraged to stand and salute during the trailer. With regards The American Legion, editors at The Motion Picture Herald minced no words. You can do well to be on their side of a controversy. McCarey was, and appeared to benefit by it. Legion honors were accorded and he basked in praise from the Catholic Institute as well. The photo here shows him being awarded after guest speaking at a communion breakfast in the same New York where he’d so recently been vilified. You’d think a film so polarizing might catch a little boxoffice by virtue of its controversy, but My Son John sunk like a stone. Domestic rentals of $895,000 were the best it could scrape up. Against that $1.8 million spent, this was plain disaster for Paramount and McCarey. Variety had been on record with a warning: It faces selling difficulties because of the usual public indifference to propaganda pix. Henceforth, anti-Communist messages would be delivered via giant ants, jet pilots, and lone cowpokes fighting totalitarianism on the plains, while My Son John, deemed dated and useless as yesterday’s editorial page, limped off into oblivion where it’s very likely to stay another fifty-five years. The fact my long delayed screening smelled faintly of vinegar might even have appealed to the comic, if not ironic, side of Leo McCarey’s complicated nature.