Leo McCarey’s infamous film My Son John (1952) is a key example of the virulent anti-Communist propaganda films made during the Cold War in the 1950s. During this period, a number of films displayed and embraced an atmosphere of political hysteria perhaps unparalleled. Films such as R. G. Springsteen’s The Red Menace (1949), Robert Stevenson’s I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949), William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand (1951), Alfred L. Werker’s Walk East on Beacon (1952), Edward Ludwig’s Big Jim McLain (1952) and Gordon Douglas’s I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) exemplify a subgenre of films that were made during the height of the McCarthy era.
These films uniformly display a crazed world in which “Reds” lurk everywhere, from outer space to the security of the home. Guilt is established by mere association and anything that is associated with questioning authority is assumed to be part of a massive conspiracy against the United States, Christianity and good decent patriotic citizens. Everything is suspect, especially science (because it seemed at odds with religion), higher education (because it encouraged “liberal thinking”) and liberal politics (because it led to subversion). In the mind frame of this genre of propaganda, the world was at war with itself, and the great evil of Communism was busy reaching into the hearts and minds of the good and unsuspecting.
From an æsthetic point of view, these films are unremittingly awful. Every character is a stereotype, every other line of dialogue is a patriotic speech, and the camerawork does the awkward heavy lifting of one-sided propaganda. Plots are often ridiculous and fantastic. Acting is often painful to watch. Every minute of these films is a lecture on the evils of Communism and subversion. There is little time for such things as æsthetic concerns. But from a cultural and historical point of view, these anti-Communist films are a treasure trove. Undoubtedly funny and campy (in a horrifying way), they provide a glimpse into the mindset of the fifties that is naked and exposed in all its excesses.
All propaganda trades in excesses. By its very nature it needs overly determined binaries of good and evil. It depends on excessive melodrama and trauma. Excessive speechifying is necessary to drive home the point in all propaganda. There is no “over-the-top” in the propaganda psyche because propaganda already exists in a landscape of excess and outrageous melodrama. But there is one Cold War film that is frequently cited as being so feverishly designed and so crazed in its fervour that it is frequently hailed as the most over-the-top of all the anti-Communist films. That film is My Son John.
Almost completely unseen, never revived on television or in repertory houses, Leo McCarey’s My Son John has a special place in popular culture as one of the least seen and most crazed and excessive of the batch. Despite its unavailability, those who have seen it go out of their way to mark it as special, the craziest of the crazy and worth seeking out. Reading others’ accounts of the film makes the scholar of popular culture desperate to see the film. Indeed, a whole study could be written about the cultish fervour of spectatorial pleasure and fetishism that circulates around My Son John. As law professor Terry Diggs admits, “It’s unlikely that most of us will ever see My Son John”, but
for 5 years, My Son John’s facial message – that platitudes are wisdom, that suspicion is care-taking, that insularity is purity, that inquiry is subversion, that jingoism is loyalty – has stunned the Americans who’ve seen it. (1)
Even the critics who saw My Son John when it was originally released were amazed by the film’s excessiveness. Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, called the film “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”. Even in an atmosphere of heated excess, My Son John stuck out as particularly notable. Its excesses were so apparent that critics and audiences went cold. Crowther himself wondered if the film’s excessiveness might ultimately work against it as effective propaganda. The final sentence of his review suggests almost hopefully “In the present confused national climate, My Son John may add heat and wind, but it may also startle some people into making a new and sober estimate of things” (2). No, the film did not have the effect of a particularly good episode of the Colbert Report, but Crowther was onto something here. Indeed, My Son John seems so overheated as to self-implode.
Because so few are familiar with the film, I offer this brief plot summary. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing (Leo McCarey) in 1953, My Son John revolves around the parents (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger) of a young man, John (Robert Walker), who appears to have succumbed to the temptations of Communism. Most of the story takes place in the home of the Jefferson family, a dark noirish hotbed of Œdipal conflict, motherly love and fatherly anguish. The Jeffersons have three sons. Two are picture-perfect ex-football heroes who heroically march off to war. Their arrogant, intellectual brother misses church and family dinners in order to spend time hanging around with his former professor.
John is effete and intellectual. He has no girlfriend, so he must be homosexual. He makes fun of his father’s patriotism and he makes fun of his mother’s religion. Robert Walker seems to relish the part. He’s so campy and over-the-top that he almost acts to his own Greek chorus. He’s working in Washington D. C. On a trip home, his parents begin to suspect he’s become a subversive, a spy for the Communists. Soon, an FBI agent (Van Heflin) shows up to ask questions about him. Mom follows him back to D. C. to do some detective work and discovers to her horror that he is really a Communist agent. In the meantime, John has promised to give the commencement speech at his Alma Mater. Just as the FBI is about to pick him up and arrest him, he realizes the error of his ways and decides to tape-record his final confession about how he has been duped by the Communists. More important, he singles out higher education as the “poison” that led him to subversive activities.
In an amazing scene, his speech is played from the tape recorder after his death at an empty podium that is lit with a shaft of light as if from God above, as the graduating college students listen. It is one of the nerviest scenes in film history, but the film had hastily been reworked when Robert Walker had tragically died during the filming of My Son John. Indeed, a few scenes were pasted together with shots from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) in order to complete the film. It only adds to the bizarre nature of My Son John to have visual shards of Walker’s performance as an effete and smarmy psychopath in Strangers on a Train.
Everything about this film is charged with a certain element of the bizarre. It is directed by Leo McCarey, who had once leaned to the left and directed such great films as Duck Soup (1933). McCarey leaned far right by the 1950s and he was as much anti-Communist as he was fervently pro-Catholic. As Paul Harrill notes in Senses of Cinema, My Son John’s final scene of John Jefferson’s commencement address is his “confession, not just in a legal sense, but also in a spiritual one”. Harrill notes that McCarey’s solution to his lead actor’s death is a scene that “could accommodate his obsession with spiritual matters” (3). Bizarre indeed, this scene is so rife with excess that it’s a jaw-dropper.
John speaks of education as an evil worthy of equating with Satan. That this takes place during a commencement is beyond irony; it is an indictment and screed against the bright-eyed graduating class as much as it is an indictment of the viewer. Education is called a “stimulant”. But, John intones,
“stimulants lead to narcotics. As the seller of habit-forming dope gives the innocent their first inoculation, with a cunning worthy of a serpent, there are other snakes lying in wait to satisfy the desire of the young […] Even now the eyes of Soviet agents are on some of you.”
As Nora Sayre writes in Running Time, this sequence manages to ironically “make Communism sound rather tempting” (4), even as it damns it from beyond the grave.
Helen Hayes’ performance is completely over-the-top as a hysterical menopausal woman who has been far too motherly towards John. There are sequences in the film that insinuate that it is her mothering that is the cause of John’s problems. His lack of a girlfriend is of paramount concern. When a female spy calls her home asking for John, she leaps to the conclusion that he has a girlfriend and relishes the idea. “John has a girlfriend”, she squeals as she jumps up and down.
But John doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s a smarmy intellectual and the subtext of the film clearly implies that he is a homosexual who has succumbed to the “other snakes lying in wait to satisfy the desires of the young” alluded to in the final confessional. David K. Johnson’s work on Cold War persecution of gays in the federal government in his book, The Lavender Scare, demonstrates that anti-Communist hysteria was closely linked with the Queer panic of the 1950s. Fellow travellers were not just politically perverted, but also portrayed as sexually perverted. Less known than the purge of Communists and so-called subversives in Hollywood was a huge effort to rid Washington, D. C., of gays and lesbians, many of whom worked for the federal government.
Spies, subversives and homosexuals were grouped together as one using the sort of illogic found in My Son John. Led by political opportunists such as Nebraskan senator Kenneth Wherry, a series of hearings was held on the question of “security risks” in Washington, D. C. As Johnson demonstrates, the phase “security risks” was often a euphemism for homosexuals during the height of McCarthy hysteria. Thousands of men and women, many of them gay (or sometimes even simply single and assumed gay), were fired from their jobs during the Lavender purge of Washington, D. C.
Films such as My Son John thus helped to promote the notion that all questioning of things political was inherently subversive. Subversiveness was in turn associated with perversion and lack of Godliness, and the ideology of guilt by association applied to the homosexualization of the subversive. Spies already tasted the forbidden fruit of subversive thought. It was only natural that they must also be sexually subversive.
While John doesn’t come right out and acknowledge his homosexuality, he expresses disdain for heterosexuality when his mother asks him if he “has a girl”. The boy “with more degrees than a thermometer” responds with a nasty little barb against heterosexuality when he responds. “Sentimentalizing over the biological urge isn’t exactly a guarantee of human happiness, dear”, he says to his mother, almost contemptuously. Contempt, open contempt, is what is memorable about John. He has contempt for everything in his family, especially his patriotic father. John considers his father to be beneath him intellectually. Dad brags that he reads the paper but son snaps him off at the knees with a deadpan, “The local papers”.
John is thus a subversive influence on this happy, patriotic and religious family. His conversations with his father and the local priest are dripping with his condescension, and the film is loaded with long periods of uncomfortable laughter. John’s ex-professor is textually treated as if he’s a lover who takes John away from the family for long periods. His mother is especially unhappy about John’s interest in his ex-professor. John simply doesn’t fit in anymore in his childhood home. He might just as well be a mutant from another planet. He’s far too educated to put up with his father’s jingoism and far too jaded to put up with his mother’s constant attentions.
This home is ruined by John’s subversive nature. Its dark mise en scène is memorable. No one even turns on any lights in the Jefferson home. The Jeffersons are a microcosm for the sick society of America that was supposedly teaming with subversives, intellectuals, perversions and spies who were Godless and dangerous. But it was not simply daylight that could expose these threats. Ultimately it is only the religious shaft of light that seems to come from heaven above during John’s climactic speech from the grave that exposes the dangers of being intellectually curious, leftist and thus subversive.
In the final analysis, My Son John sheds light on the cultural politics of the period of Cold War hysteria that nakedly exposes how film was used as propaganda in order to promote an ideology that had no toleration for free thought and an ideology that equates higher education, lack of religion, sexual perversion and anything even vaguely subversive as evil. It is an ideologically excessive film from a period of repression that seems to have returned to American society despite its ridiculous and dangerous claims.
Bosley Crowther, “The Screen in Review: Helen Hayes Returns to Films in My Son John”, The New York Times, 9 April 1952, accessed 29 January 2009.
Terry Diggs, “Our Son John”, Cal Law, 16 January 2002, p. 2, accessed 29 January 2009.
Paul Harrill, “Leo McCarey”, Senses of Cinema, September 2002, p. 8, accessed 29 January 2009.
David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War (New York: Dial Press, 1980).
- Terry Diggs, “Our Son John”, Cal Law, 16 January 2002, p. 2, accessed 29 January 2009.
- Bosley Crowther, “The Screen in Review: Helen Hayes Returns to Films in My Son John”, The New York Times, 9 April 1952, accessed 29 January 2009.
- Paul Harrill, “Leo McCarey”, Senses of Cinema, September 2002, p. 8, accessed 29 January 2009.
- Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War (New York: Dial Press, 1980), p. 99.