Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Shadows Fade: Last Night of TCM Fest Brings My Son John

All right, so if you recorded absolutely nothing else for this festival, My Son John, at 8 pm EST, is the one to take a look at. Leo McCarey's impassioned anti-communist film is half a great movie, and better than you think it will be, I'll wager. Even the second half, cobbled together from Strangers on a Train outtakes after Robert Walker's terrible death, has its moments.

And if the Siren's word isn't good enough for you, there's someone else recommending it too.

The late, great Robin Wood had a piercingly accurate take on this film's great and not-great moments, here in a Google Books excerpt.

Vince of Carole & Co. has posted a preview at his Carole & Co. blog

John McElwee's piece at Greenbriar Picture Shows is well worth revisiting.
And my comrade-in-programming Lou Lumenick has posted his own complete rundown at his New York Post blog.

And for the rest of the evening, TCM is winding up things with a barrage that goes well into the wee hours. The other films are:

I Was a Communist for the FBI at 10 pm. The Siren found this one a chore, but if you're a Frank Lovejoy fan it's a must.

A short called Four Minute Fever (1956), which wasn't on our shortlist and which I haven't seen, but I am eager to check it out.

The Manchurian Candidate, the greatest of all Cold War paranoia thrillers, at midnight.

The Bedford Incident; the Siren saw this as a youngter deeply infatuated with Sidney Poitier. She still is, actually. At 2:15 am.

Scarlet Dawn (1932), which the Siren is dying to catch for the underrated Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Nancy Carroll, with whom she is criminally unfamiliar.

The Doughgirls (1944), at 5:15 am. I know nothing about this one, but all I need to know is Jack Carson and Eve Arden are in it.


Karen said...

I am so so happy that I'm back in town for this night! I can't wait.

Jesús Cortés said...

A great film, not just half of it. Very badly treated by many that probably never have seen it.
One of the best portraits of the American family of its era. much better than Ray´s "Rebel...".

The Siren said...

Jesus, I found the second half badly marred by the obvious inserts from "Strangers" and the way that crucial scenes had to be played out without Walker. But there were still good moments. Better than Rebel? I will see what commenters say after it screens!

Arthur S. said...

I haven't seen this one. Though I have a great curiosity for it.

Leo McCarey it shouldn't be forgotten is one of the greatest American directors of his generation(Jean Renoir said that he was the only one who knew about people in Hollywood) so it's no surprise that the film he made about anti-communist hysteria is not what it appears to be to many people even if I totally disagree with his political positions at that time.

Cultures tend to produce all kind of strange creatures in relation to political turmoil, where is post-war Japan without Yukio Mishima for instance?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Both Robert Warshow and Manny Farber have written about My Son John. Maybe their pieces can be Googled.

It's an exceedingly strange movie. Kind of a cross between Make Way For Tomorrow and I Married a Monster From Outer Space (a key cold war film in and of itself.)

Hayes and Jagger are heart-wrenchingly pathetic as the old married couple who don't understand anything that's happening to them -- why their son has changed, what Communism means, and what to do when its all over. They are left in the Pit of Hell by the government that claims it wants to proptect them.

As for Walker's John his effete snarkiness literally SCREAMS Gay -- like a five alarm fire coupled with the amplificatory power of the Mahler 8th.

No one has talked about this at all.

Yojimboen said...

I agree with the prevailing appraisals of My Son John - the first half promises a quality the second half doesn’t deliver. It must have been a difficult choice for McCarey - to continue or cancel the picture. Like probably everyone here, I’m glad he finished it, even with its flaws it’s an important cinematic artifact (creaky, but important).
FWIW I once worked with Madame H Hayes - it wasn't fun and a half.

McCarey is an odd duck, though; capable of superbly hip comedies, but with that unexpected streak of hyper-piety. I’m by no means the first to remark on it, or make fun of it; in his 1944 masterpiece, “The Feather Merchants” (about the funniest book ever written and I’m damned if I can find my copy) humorist Max Shulman bemoans the loss of his local movie theater: (this from memory) “In one month they played Song of Bernadette then those Leo McCarey movies, Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way. They had to close the place and consecrate it – it’s a church now.”

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh and in The Doughgirls Eve Arden plays a comminist and slings her wisecracks with fake-Russian accent.

Need I say more/

The Siren said...

David, it's true, he could definitely be read gay, although they give him a woman angle. I'll discuss more after it screens tonight, although frankly spoilers are probably a non-concept here since the way the plot is going to play out is clear from the first reel.

X. Trapnel said...


It is said that the obligatory sobriquet "First Lady of the American Theater" was devised by the lady herself.

John said...

My DVR is set for My Son John. The Manchurian Candidate, a cold war masterpiece. Laurence Harvey and Sinatra are both brillant here and Angela Lansbury is the mother of all mothers!

The Bedford Incident is a solid cold war drama. Sidney and the great Richard Widmark.

The Siren said...

Y., you have to dish! Was she like her character in Anastasia?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well there's a woman in Rope too you know.

Can we say "beard" boys and girls?

Walker in My Son John is like Clifton Webb on speed.

DavidEhrenstein said...

What you must always keep in min, Siren, is that the "McCarthy era" was largely an anti-gay witch hunt.

Whittaker Chambers AND Alger Hiss were gay (Frank O'Hara's roomate Joe Leseur once tricked with Hiss' boyfriend.) All the British spies were gay (insert Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in Another Country and Alan Bates in An Englishman Abroad)

Amd I don't suppose anyone need be introduced to J. Edgar Hoover or Roy Cohn.

Or "Tailgunner Joe" himself for that matter.

X. Trapnel said...

David, Philby and McLean were not gay.

I once introduced to the latter's daughter by my Russian companion from the Farley Granger dust up. Not much to dish

I Wonder Wye said...

This is a great movie I'm looking forward to seeing again. Did you watch 'Manhunt' last night? New one for me. I was thrilled to mark off another movie I haven't seen.......

panavia999 said...

Due to some severe storms in my area, there were power outages at some very inconvenient times and I missed most of the films in this series which I was anxious to see. Last Wednesday was the worst - 36 hours. The weather is great today so the DVR is set. Whether I am pleased with election results or not, I always watch "The Manchurian Candidate" on presidential election nights - it helps keep an sharp edge on my political cycnicism.

KC said...

If you're looking to see more Nancy Carroll, I recommend "Hot Saturday". It's on dvd, and it's good pre-code fun (with the added bonus of a very young Cary Grant!)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Depends on who you ask, X.

Alger Hiss was married and had kids too.

Back to the Brits: Anthony Blunt anyone? I see Alan Bennett raising his hand.

Yojimboen said...

Ah, bless you X, I remember when I was that innocent. My second favourite topic in life is the Cambridge Five. I must own 50 books on the subject – not that that makes me an expert, just a bore at parties (and blogsites); of course Philby, McClean, Burgess and Blunt were gay, he said in his best Noël Coward, they were Englishmen.

(I’m willing to give Cairncross the benefit of the doubt, he was from north of the border.) Burgess boasted many times, in McClean’s presence, about having seduced McClean; who in turn tried to model himself after Philby, the notorious hound. But when picking partners, even Philby wasn’t always that picky about gender.
Leave us not forget he was named for Kipling’s famous bum-boy, Kim.

VP81955 said...

Siren, thanks for the plug about my entry at "Carole & Co." As fate would have, my cable is currently on the blink (Edgar Kennedy slow burn).
Oh and in The Doughgirls Eve Arden plays a comminist and slings her wisecracks with fake-Russian accent.

Need I say more/

I saw this during my youth in the '60s, and recall liking it a lot, knowing that during WWII, the Russians were our friends.. I recall Eve Arden's character, but didn't recognize her in it. (This was probably before "The Mothers-In-Law," a serues U ebhited, and U was then not aware of the charm of "Our Miss Brooks," either on radio or TV.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

I cannot imagine life without Eve Arden.

The Siren said...

I Wonder Wye, I was going to record Man Hunt last night but a bout of stomach flu intervened. I am still not my Siren-ish self yet.

KC, I will check out the Carroll! She was so cute in stills and I don't know that I have seen her in anything, a terrible failing.

Panavia & VP, grrrr to bad cable service!

Y., Philby, really? I thought he was quite the ladykiller. Bi?

And anyway, she said, tapping her jeweled heel, where's my H Hayes dish? Hmmm? too hot for the Siren?

Yojimboen said...

HH – I'll leave my own experiences with her for another day, but I will pass on the experience of a an actor friend, who did a USIA tour with the lady round the provinces; I forget the play, but he played her son. One scene called for her to serve him dinner, his character then praised his mother’s home-cooking and what a joy it was to taste her meatloaf (or whatever).

After the second week of performances, Miss Hayes decided to have some fun, she would put down the steaming plate then, before he could taste it, take it away again and scrape it down the sink, leaving the young actor with a page of dialogue praising her dinner (his main scene in the play, of course).

After the curtain, he asked her why, she said, “No reason, just to fuck with you.”

After the third time she did it on the tour, he looked up as she jerked the full plate away and said, “Yeah, maybe it’s for the best, Mom, you’re such a fucking lousy cook!” And brought down the house.
She didn’t do it again.

Dave said...

I can imagine a world without either Eve Arden or Jack Carson, but it's a dark, cold place -- not unlike the dream world in Invaders From Mars.

The Siren said...

I agree. Life without Eve and Jack = no fun at all.

I love theatre stories. There is nothing like having to cover for a catastrophe (or a nasty costar) live and onstage.

Lou Lumenick said...

"Clifton Webb on speed'' -- very good, David.

I promise, we are going to program all the Webbs, including "Mr. Scoutmaster,'' when the Siren and I take over the Fox Movie Channel.

panavia999 said...

ha ha ! It's not bad cable service for me, it's no electricity for several hours due wind and rain. the farther you live from town, the longer it takes to get the power restored. And I wish I lived even further away from town. :-)
"Clifton Webb on speed"? I can't wait to watch my recording.

panavia999 said...

There is a poll of horrible film mothers at
Angela Lansbury as Mrs. John Iselin is winning handily so far.
She got my vote - shudder.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Clifton Webb's film career -- many years after his highly successful Broadway career -- is one of the strangest things in American culture. He is of course Beyond Fabulous in Laura. But to go from there to the family comedies that came in its wake is truly odd.

And America adored this prissy old queen.

X. Trapnel said...

Thanks for the clarification, Y. Philby too, huh; Could Graham Greene have known? I'm waiting for a film version of John Banville's brilliant Blunt roman a clef The Untouchable, which contains a scarifying portrayal of GG.

The HH sory is a gem beyond price.

Unknown said...

I watched My Son John last night. I had actually seen it during the 1970 TV broadcast. That was so long ago and I was so young that I remember nothing about it except the fact that I saw it. Anyway, it was fascinating throughout (not always for the same reasons), but not very good. McCarey was treading on the same ground, the lies betrayals of parents and sons, as his great Make Way for Tomorrow, probably his best film, but he was treading with studded army boots in this case. I think the film goes way off the tracks long before the problems with Walker’s death occur. I also think big problem with this film is Helen Hayes’ performance, which is just ridiculously heavy handed and childish. I understand that there are points to be made about the childlike dependency of women in mid-fifties, but I do not think she was capable of giving the performance to make them. Fairly early on in the film, when she is singing the title words of the film in a scene with Walker that should have been harrowing but was simply excruciating, she already to me indicated her inadequacy to the part. At times she reminded me a bit of Lillian Gish, which made me wonder how Gish would have played the part, and I think she would have been amazing. Or Beulah Bondi, for that matter. Walker was fine as always in a very tricky part and clearly in a hard time, and Dean Jagger may have given the performance of his career. Also the mechanics of dealing with Walker’s death are perversely fascinating. Given the peculiar political atmosphere of the time, it’s an impressively ambiguous in many ways, but I think it is basically a failure.

Lou Lumenick said...

David, I totally agree about Webb; his large and sometimes improbable body of work cries out for a major retrospective. One of the most striking sights I've seen in a film lately is Elsa Lanchester, who plays his boss, throwing herself at movie-star-turned-professor Clifton in "Dreamboat.''

Yojimboen said...

First half of my life, I disliked Jack Carson intensely; I found him brash, brutish and bombastic – all the characteristics we Scots are taught to shy away from (the Calvinist creed: never do anything to attract attention to yourself, it’s unseemly).

Then I saw him in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and recognized how stupid I’d been.
He was brilliant. Fact is, he was always brilliant; I just didn’t see it. Now I never miss a chance to re-see the work I once dismissed.
That’s what I love most about movies (and this blogsite), you never stop learning.

X. Trapnel said...

I too had always taken Jack Carson for granted. A re-see of M. Pierce a few years ago was the occasion for my JC epiphany/road to Damascus. Watching him adding up some real estate numbers I thought "He's a Great Actor."

To continue my Citizen Kane's Younger Brother scenario from way back: "Zat your wife, Charlie? Hiya, Charlie's wife! Whatcha doin, a jigsaw puzzle? Lemme help!" (slips on priceless Persian carpet. Jigsaw pieces going flying. One strikes the windshield of an autoMObile just as Georgie Minafer steps off the sidewalk. The driver, a Mr. Linnaker, is not charged and continues on his trip to Tijauna).

The Siren said...

David, I took the trouble of looking around to see if anyone was on the case of Walker & the alleged Mahler-rivaling volume of his screaming effeteness in My Son John, and found this via Jonathan Rosenbaum: apparently Vito Russo did notice and said something. Alas, my copy of The Celluloid Closet was appropriated by a roommate and I need to get another. But the two stills, viewable at the link, may be all the point needed.

Vanwall said...

It's curious how things change in perceptions, and also pleasant to realize sometimes one's first impressions are reinforced by both history and the passing of time. Jack Carson and Clifton Webb were early faves of mine, and it was interesting to see Carson becoming more accepted as an actor - "Mildred Pierce" sealed the deal for me long ago, and it was even more interesting to see how well he and Dennis Morgan, another fave, did in "The Hard Way" some years later in my viewing history.

The acerbic Webb was always such fun to watch, I naturally assumed he was a major attraction, altho I found many people didn't like his obvious un-alikeness to "real" men, a distasteful discovery for me, as I always like to watch a man who likes to talk with such obvious intelligence, one of my yardsticks for any live body in general.

As a kid growing up in the age of "Duck and Cover", with bland platitudes being bandied about regarding the survival rate after a nuclear strike, and watching on one hand the cascade of films allowed on TV about the Commie Menace, and on the other hand watching the gradual ramping-up of the war that started as Indochina and ended as Vietnam. A recommended pairing would be the original "Quiet American", flawed as it was, and "Go Tell the Spartans", an elegiac tribute to the "it's the only war we've got" syndrome rampant at that time and breach of sanity. No Clause jokes, please, it was effin' serious, dontcha know, what with the dominoes falling along with our 50s credibility. Burp. Oh yeah, where's my Combat Infantryman Badge? It's all they really wanted when they could stagger out of the pogue hooches.

The immense amount of sheer hardware tossed around casually by both sides in the Cold War is still with us, sadly, along with the "firepower is power" attitude we can't seem to shake. Body counts, anybody? I feel much of the anti-commie film output was to justify the mere existence of all that Iron Triangle machination, much less of it to actual meaningful pursuit of the "pinkos", who were convenient straw men to slap minorities and liberal thinkers with around endlessly. I was gradually disillusioned in small strokes, tiny stabs, little murders - they say don't look back, but there is nothing left there to see anyway - only Lessons Learned, in the jargon of those "in country".

Jagger did well to convey his convictions, altho drunken prolixity is hardly more veritas than the rather North Korean-ish seeming Commies spouting Uncle Joe's blather, (very much on display in the Lovejoy lovefest with gangster-Reds). Gish over Hayes? In a heartbeat. Walker croaked before he had to croak those awful lines at the dais - would his fine work so far have been undone? "Them what dies'll be the lucky ones!" Oh. Long John, how prescient you were.

Asher said...

Honestly, I didn't even see how the second half was markedly inferior. Sure, it was weird to see Walker's death scene from Strangers On The Train reprised and badly dubbed, and all the phone conversations with a mute Walker were a bit much. But the movie within a movie of Hayes going to the girl's apartment - or her relief when he lies and says that he and the agent were lovers (both relief that he's not a Communist and that her son is straight after all) - or her terribly sad crackup, or his graduation speech - these are all wonderful passages. And I would argue that, while not obviously McCarey's intention, you can read the second half ironically too. His repudiation of his politics at the end, in the most ridiculous terms ("even now the eyes of Soviet agents are on some of you"), can be read not as a redemptive moment, but as his finally buckling under to the pressures of his football-and-patriotism-mad parents. Isn't after all that why he confesses, to rehabilitate himself in his mother's eyes? Or take the ostensible protectors of virtue, the FBI. Doesn't McCarey seem to go out of his way to question their ruses, their surveillance of Hayes? Aren't they just as to blame as anyone else for her going mad, and note how little they seem to care - after attempting to grill her the agent calls into headquarters and says, "our main witness is in bad shape." Perhaps the ideas that McCarey is trying to defend are just so wrong that he couldn't help but inadvertently damn them (similarly, Mission To Moscow plays like satire at times because what it's saying is just so absurd, but that of course wasn't the intent), but for me there wasn't any point in the movie where it became a propaganda piece, or even anything less than a great film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Thanks for that link, Siren.As is oftent the case Jonathan doesn't quite get Vito.

Here's what Vito wrote on page 99 of The Celluloid Closet:

"In Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952) Dean Jagger and Helen Hayes play the distraight parents of a young Communist agent (Robert Wwalker). When their suspicions about heir son's activities are confirmed, it is an American tragedy. Suddenly they see their son as a shifty, unfamiliar "thing" with no respect for God or country, an unprincipled mosnter to whom it is impossible to relate as of old. The healthy family situation disappears. Walker's coldness, his superiority and his open contempt for his parents and their way of life conspire to create a perverse unnaturalness not unlike that of his sinister Bruno in . The parents' reaction on learning of their son's Communist activities is exactly the same as if they had discovered their child's homosexuality."

Vito is right on the money here, but I guess most peopele have to be actually gay to realize that.

Again, I cannot emphasize stongly enough how gayness was inextricably tied to Communism in the "McCarthy era."

BTW, Harry Hay -- one of the founders of the Mattachine Society, was a Communist in his youth. The party demanded that he and his lover Will Geer (yes, Grandpa Walton) get married. They did. Harry fathered a daughter and was not at all happy. He left the party and operated as a sexual subversive from the margins of culture until Stonewall made him "relevant" again. (Read Stuart Timmons' "The Trouble With Harry Hay" for the whole story.) Geer, as I'm sure you know, was a different story. Harry came to Geer's funeral. Geer's wife said to him "Well Harry I had him at the last," to which Harry repleied "Yeah, but I had him first!"

DavidEhrenstein said...

Jack Carson in Mildred Pierce is beyodn superb. But what sealed the deal for me was his performance as the viscious press agent in A Star is Born -- particularly for the scene where he verbally attacks James Mason. Hollywood is full of creeps like that. But the only one ever put on screen was played by the fearless Jack Carson.

Dan Callahan said...

I was so taken with the insanity of "My Son John" that I just wrote a piece about it, and late McCarey in general for The House Next Door.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Good work Mr. Callahan.

And leave us not forget Satan Never Sleeps. As Jack Brodsky wrote in the matchless The Cleopatra Paper "A Chinese girl raped in front of a priest and Fox is trying to tell the world it's another Going My Way.

The girl is the lovely France Nuyen. The priest

(wait for it)

Clifton Webb!

The Siren said...



Yojimboen said...

Dolores Grey in It’s Always Fair Weather:

“…Thanks for losing your mind.
Thanks for Fort Knox sealed and signed.
But I've got a guy who's Clifton Webb and Marlon Brando combined.
Thanks a lot, but no thanks.”

Lyrics (with tongues planted firmly in cheeks) by Comden & Green.

panavia999 said...

Wait a Minute - Did Dough Girls actually run on TCM last week? I received a reminder from TCM that it had been cancelled. I did not record it. I was looking forward to the ensemble of Jack Carson, Jane Wyman and Eve Arden.
Doughgirls is scheduled again for April 30 2010! Jack Carson always makes me smile.

A funny/sad anecdote about Clifton Webb: when his mother died at age 91 he was inconsolable. Noel Coward said, "it must be difficult to be orphaned at the age of 71."

Brian Doan said...

Dammit! I was out of town and away from my VCR, and could not tape MY SON JOHN! I saw the film years ago in a cinema class, and would love to have a copy of it. Siren, do you know if TCM or the Warner Archive or one of those wonderful resources is planning on releasing it soon? It would be great to have some of the unavailable gems you've been booking on home video again. And on that note, let me say thank you once again for this wonderful series you've been co-programming!

Buttermilk Sky said...

Clearly there are a lot of Clifton Webb scholars here -- is it true he was a member of Humphrey Bogart's circle? That Bogart invited him to a party with the words "Bring your mother, but she has to clean up her own sick"?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Doubt that he was a member of the "Holmby Hills Rat Pack" (the precursor of Sinatra's) but I've no doubt Bogie invited Clifton and Mom to dinner once with that admonition.

Clifton took Mom with him almost everywhere. Kind of like a human clutch-purse.

Donna said...

Well, Clifton never threw anything away, either. Artifacts from his parties (guestbooks, photos and letters) have been turning up in auctions over the last several years. He and Mabel (I believe that was her moniker) threw some really swell parties, obviously.

The Noel Coward quote, hilarious!

Karen said...

I had terrible luck with this night of programming--not only did my DVR apparently ignore my command to record My Son John, but when I went to play back its recording of The Doughgirls I got 90 minutes of black screen.


I did get to see I Was a Communist for the FBI, though, which prompted a spirited discussion over on the Siren's Facebook page.

And I got to see Scarlet Dawn, which I liked quite a lot. Its plot wasn't, perhaps, particularly noteworthy--it felt like it had been done before, or maybe it's just that it was done later (it reminded me a bit of an inverted Knight Without Armor)--but it was a real treat to watch Fairbanks and Carroll. Carroll I discovered only recently, in Hot Saturday on the latest Forbidden Hollywood collection, and I like her Claudette Colbert-like full face and big eyes (tho' with a bit more vulnerability than Colbert). And it was fascinating to see Fairbanks in an almost transitional time, between the callowness of his early years and his discovery of that devastating grin.

I also found myself fascinated by the phenomenon of ex-pat Russians and restaurants in Constantinople.

X. Trapnel said...

The Russian emigre world between the wars (mainly Paris, Berlin, Prague) has never been the subject of any film (except tangentially) that I'm aware of. A pity; it's a great subject. And let's remember that most emigres were not aristocrats disembarrased of their riches.

Yojimboen said...

M X, if we shift ‘between the wars’ to WWII and the next one, Smiley’s People might fill the bill. (Mini-series, granted, but absolutely superb film-making.)

X. Trapnel said...

Maybe, but I was thinking of something outside of genre, political thrillers etc.; the world of Nabokov's early novels and the emigre stories of the thrice great Ivan Bunin (read him!).

Cantara said...

Re David Ehrenstein's remembrance of "Satan Never Sleeps": The priest who was forced to hear the rape of France Nguyen--he was tied to a chair and gagged in a nearby room--wasn't Clifton Webb, it was William Holden. His first utterance to France when she's set free by her rapist and she runs sobbing to him? "You have not sinned--there was no intent."
Now THAT's a real Irish-Catholic comfort.