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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Forgotten But Not Gone --- My Son John

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, and prior to that, had supervised Laurel and Hardy. He made screwball comedies, and produced/directed a pair of smash hits about priests and nuns (Going My Way and The Bells Of St. Mary's). McCarey was strongly Catholic and deplored Communism’s disdain of religion. It was only natural that he would join the fight against totalitarianism in the early fifties. Most anti-Red melodramas dealt in spy thrilling where ideology took a back seat to chase action and sneaked documents. Slinky women would cast nets to ensnare otherwise loyal Americans as malcontents 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 actioners. 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 stress over public perception of Hollywood’s loyalty. The HUAC was busily ferreting out movie-making Communists even as these films reassured everyone of the town’s unswerving patriotism. Studios probably knew ledger ink would end up red as regimes they were attacking, but with the industry itself under siege, these gestures had to be made. Leo McCarey took a novel slant by detailing Communism’s impact on the American family. He viewed small towns as unwitting incubator for youth misguided by too much education as imparted by moles ready to take over from within now that we had 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 a sinister and barely understood threat. No wonder science fiction found such anxiety a fertile ground for exploration, the American public  equating Communist presence 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 had 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 arrive to the set most mornings and noodle at a piano while dreaming up ideas. Helen Hayes said McCarey 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 to 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. 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 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. 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 My Son John 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 had 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 had 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 $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 to oblivion. 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.

UPDATE: Although I still find no evidence of its having been syndicated on US television, My Son John was available for 16mm rental from Films Inc. during the seventies, being featured in their Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogues from that period. Thanks to David Martin, whose e-mail about having seen My Son John in 16mm has been posted in the comments section.

And more on My Son John in a Greenbriar update HERE


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A truly fascinating post! I saw My Son John in 1981 at a UC Berkeley screening...I wonder if it was the same print? Perhaps Pacific Film Archive holds a copy. At any rate, I've been longing to see it again ever since. Your information regarding the death of Walker and the resultant production challenges jibe well with my memories of the film--which I now remember as seeming oddly dreamlike and removed from reality. It makes sense now! Anyway, I've been hoping TCM would give it an airing at some your column at least provides a crumb of hope!

2:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

John, I agree with your assessment. "Dreamlike" is indeed the operative word when we're talking about "My Son John". Speaking of prints, I've never seen or heard of one in 16mm. Has anyone?

2:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Mr. McElwee,

I don't have a Google account, or I would post this on your blog. Feel free to post anything in this email if you see fit.

At Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 or '96 we saw a 16mm print of My Son John in Professor Charles Derry's class on the Hollywood blacklist. I missed the class myself, so I watched it alone in the film department's 16mm screening room, to which students had 24 hour access.

I don't know where the department found the print, I presume they rented it from one of the remaining 16mm distributors at that time. We regularly got prints from Films Incorporated and Em Gee.

Once Prof. Derry borrowed a print of Un Chant d' Amour for his class on gay and lesbian film from a private collector of his acquaintance.Other than that, the department usually wasn't very adventurous in finding films; even at that time we saw a lot of stuff on video, so I'll bet they rented the print through legal, above-the-board channels.

The print was in pretty decent shape. As for the movie itself, I'm sorry to say I remember little of it, except that I too found it - I guess dreamlike is the word for it. I knew of it's controversial nature, but if I had any idea at the time how hard it was to see I would have paid a lot more attention.

I visit your blog at least a couple times a week, often to reread a post after it has prompted to see a film I might otherwise never given a first thought to, much less a second. Please kep up the good work.

All the best,
David Martin

6:01 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I caught that ABC airing in 1970, or at least the second half. At the time I didn't catch any of the "surgery" that McCarey had wrought on it. My only clear memory is Helen Hayes holding Walker's hands, panting, "My son John! My son John!" Even as a 14 year-old I thought it over the top. I'd like to see it again, thanks to your post.

And I'd forgotten those "Star Spangled Banners" trailers. At least one of the local theatres was still running them into the early '70s, scratches, tears and all.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually look forward to seeing this bizarre McCarthy-era flick. It is interesting that even than most right-wing propaganda tends to die at the box office. I remember in the early 1980s when a lot of folks in Hollywood were all excited that money would flow into right-wing projects now that the Regan crowd was in power. Other than RED DAWN (which is a "guilty pleasure" for those who were teenagers at that time) are there any of that bunch that made money?

I am considerably to the left of most folks posting here so I have no love for the McCarthyite crowd but I've always wondered … In what way were Commie writers, directors, actors, and technicians supposed to be "subverting" America? If any character in a film is going on about nationalizing industry and restricting corporations I doubt if ANYONE would listen, no matter who is saying the lines.

2:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

East Side, now that you mention those "Star Spangled Banner" trailers playing into the seventies, I'm reminded of television stations here in NC that used to sign on with that or a similar patriotic opener each morning. Some of these stations undoubtedly used that same trailer, since National Screen provided TV spots for features and would have made this item available in 16mm as well.

Spencer, I don't know offhand how "Red Dawn" performed. As to the boxoffice fate of so-called right wing films of the eighties, there might be interesting comparisons to be made later this movie season when final tallies are in for all the Mid-East war features presently in theatres.

2:45 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The only time I was able to see anything from MY SON JOHN were clips in a series on special effects, mainly dealing on the death of Brandon Lee while he was making a film.

I saw that documentary series on HBO Latin America, when I was still in Argentina... and the clips from the McCarey film were by far much more interesting than any of the more recent films they usually featured.

It was fascinanting. They gave very good explanations on how they reedited the film, in the same way your article describes, and it could make a terrific extra in a DVD release... which I think it will never take place!

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello John - - - Another excellent posting on a relatively obscure piece of film history. I've not seen the film but I am familiar with it because of the 1952 essay on the movie written by Robert Warshaw (it's in the collection "The Immediate Experience").

This makes me wonder if what Warshaw reviewed in 1952 is the same film (barely) in circulation now? Warshaw wrote: "Against the monstrous son - Robert Walker's characterization is essentially the same as in Strangers on A Train, where he plays the role of a pathological murderer - - there is a father no less monstrous, a pillar of the American Legion presented so outrageously bigoted, so hopelessly benighted that one fails to understand why the Legion has not organized a boycott of the film..." - - about the father and son "... blind intolerance that feeds on its opposite and is mirrored in it."

Warshaw says McCarey took pains to build up something intelligent at the beginning of the film, but that it starts to fly apart, and the bit of Walker getting gunned down is a "gangster movie solution" that doesn't fit the rest of the film.

Between reading Warshaw's old review and your writing about it, the film sounds like something well worth examining!

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incidentally, Union Station is set for Jan 6th 2008 on TCM.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Mark R. Hasan said...

John -

Ontario's public broadcasting station, TVOntario, aired the film at least twice that I can recall (the last maybe within the past 10 years) on Elwy Yost's Saturday Night at the Movies. The show's host & researchers were brilliant in acquiring rare films in their original British edits, or long-unavailable U.S. films, including some early Canadian that have since disappeared from the radar again.

Yost's fancy was classic Hollywood, and Leo McCarey was one diretor whose films were often shown. I think Yost may have double-billed the film with either similar work from that period, or as part of a Red Menace/Blacklist night, as each Saturday show consisted of two films following a straightforward theme, with either new interviews or interviews from TVO's substantive archive.

(I'm pretty sure Yost's amiable Q&As with the greats have been used in a few U.S. documentaries, but it's doubly-rare when DVD producers use material. Yost's Q&As go back to the mid- to late-seventies, when it was much simple for a broadcaster to sit down in a star's living room or patio, and just talk about the old days for long stretches.)

In any event, TVO was able to acquire a copy (quite clean if I recall) for broadcast, and as anyone who knew of the weekly show, it was mandatory to set the VCR, as many of those films weren't out on video, and some still remain unavailable.


Mark R. Hasan (

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always wondered what happens when a star dies in the middle of production. Obviously with over 100 years of filmmaking it must have happened many times, and I'm sure they rarely scrap the film after they already have so much money invested. Radiotelefonia mentions Brandon Lee's untimely death which occured while filming. That must have occured late in production of the The Crow, as it is hard to see any covering up. However, that brought to mind for me a film starring Bruce Lee in which he must have died midway. I can't remember the name of the film - just remember Kareem Abdul Jabbar being in it and I remember scenes where Bruce's head was clearly pasted onto another actor's body and fight scenes that clearly borrowed footage from other features.

11:24 AM  
Blogger djwein said...

Bert Lahr died during production of THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S - and his role seems very curtailed. Apparently he was to have the conclusion of the film to himself - we see a quick glimpse of his face and then just a lengthy shot of his feet as he closes down the empty theater.

1:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

We can credit Robert Walker's premature death with gangster movie solution to "My Son John", Erik. Maybe TCM will play it in 2008. Can viewers suggest the title at their website?

Mark, I had a feeling "My Son John" was available in Canada for TV broadcast, as one of the syndication books hinted at that. Thanks for the confirmation --- and did you know Elwy Yost's son wrote the movie "Speed"?

Djwein, I remember seeing "The Night They Raided Minskey's" first-run in 1969 and thinking then that Bert Lahr's role was somewhat truncated. I haven't seen the picture since.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous sjack said...

I know this post is pretty old but in case you didn't know, this film will be broadcast tonight on TCM at 8pm. You might want to to record it.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Following up on some other comments, I just subscribed to Netflix streaming and noticed that "My Son John" is available there.

I'm glad to be able to finally see it - it sounds like a fascinating 50s artifact.

10:04 PM  

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