An infamously hysterical red-scare artifact, Leo McCarey’s My Son John remains potent through its most laughable sequences as a menopausal thriller—an inversion of the “Is she or isn’t she hallucinating?” woman’s picture (cf. Shadow of a Doubt or The Innocents) where the cracks in consciousness are the result of reproductive breakdown for once rather than sexual repression. The protagonist, Lucille Jefferson (Helen Hayes), bids farewell to two grown, uniformed sons at the film’s start as they’re shipped off to Korea; another child, John (Robert Walker), returns home from his vague career in Washington soon after for a visit. John helps dear old mom with her cooking and dear old dad (Dean Jagger) with his American Legion speeches, but the parents quickly become concerned with his arrogant awkwardness and his nebbish defenses of science when faced with romance and theism. Lucille, who downs her daily regimen of pills with the theatrics of a medicinally skeptical six-year-old and who, while planning a trip that may require an airplane, spontaneously breaks into a frequent flyer jingle, is overcome with anxious grief. Her once merely effete and antisocial son has blossomed, she surmises, into a man with far more threatening mind—a mind poisoned by communism.
But setting aside the film’s political milieu, which leads to some wonkily imprecise rhetoric (during one argument between John and his father, the latter more or less confuses socialism with fascism, even while lit nobly from the glow of a nearby lamp), My Son John‘s plot at first closely resembles “you can’t go home again”-style tear-jerkers. (McCarey’s own Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the most emotionally genuine of these cross-generational dramas.) Implicitly undergoing menopause while watching her own once-bustling nest empty of chicks, Lucille projects her resulting identity confusion onto her most anomalous offspring; indeed, despite frequent confirmation that we’re watching an “objective” reality, we see most of the movie, and all of John, from her point of view. The title character might even appear benign outside of the context of the home he no longer belongs in. As Lucille herself puts it, “I feel we’re not as close this time as we once were. What’s happened to my boy?” (Conversations between mother and son are doused in sinister shadow, and elsewhere John is shot from behind or else relegated to the corner of the frame, surveying the action around him with a quiet superciliousness, like a waiting predator.)
John turns out to be a communist spy, which Lucille learns through the FBI agent trailing him (Van Helfin) and then through her own sleuthing, which she far-fetchedly completes during an impromptu and dream-like trip to Washington D.C. But the details of the boy’s betrayal are never revealed beyond his mere affiliation with the “malevolent” political party. It’s the fact of the betrayal alone that matters to Lucille—the fact that he’s rejected the values she strived to impress upon him. (One goopy, nostalgic scene has Lucille bouncing back and forth between a Bible and a cookbook while John looks on wryly; the heartland, McCarey seems to say, was built on an apple pie and a Psalm.) This helps to generalize the film’s message beyond simple anti-communism into an even more ridiculous defense of old-fashioned family by any means necessary—the implication being that any threat to national security can be overcome so long as mothers and fathers keep tabs on the mutating fruit of their loins. Families are meant to undergo a mitotic propagation, but the splitting process creates strain that can be easily exploited.
The film’s hallucinogenic end, which has Lucille helping to punish John herself for what he’s done and then breaking down into a trembling, talkative mess, less-than-subtly illustrates the perils of parenthood that indolently expires once one’s sons and daughters are out on their own. Lucille has “invented” John’s sins: She’s either allowed him to drift far enough from her nest ideologically to abet his deviance, or she’s constructed his razor grins, nervous tittering, and unorthodox leanings in her imagination. Both readings work, and both disturbingly ask Lucille, and mothers everywhere, to shoulder a monstrous guilt.
But compounding this culpability in Lucille’s case is the fact that she might identify more with her son’s nefarious actions than is immediately apparent. After John chuckles while Lucille breaks down crying, his cheer perks her up. “If it takes my tears to make you laugh,” she says, “that’s all right.” Like John, she’s intimate with sacrifice and knows the expendability—the cheapness—of emotions. John also has no girlfriend, and denounces romance as “sentimentalizing the human urge,” while Lucille, too, reverts to a childlike, de-eroticized state in the thrall of her impending sexual obsolescence; they’re both perversely barren, and full of doubt toward one another. Lucille’s true enemy is the alien germ that’s part of humanity’s natural state, the darkness that might be gestating within her as John’s fetus not coincidentally once did. Flushing out one’s enemies, then, is not always as simple as checking the dim corners of a room for shifty-eyed inhabitants; the womb, the heart, and the mind can all harbor deleterious sleeper cells.
An unfortunate dud in Olive Films' burgeoning inventory of pristine discs, their My Son John Blu-ray shows evidence of slip-ups at nearly every point in the high-def transfer process. There's a good deal of visible print wear (spots, scuffs, and contrast flickers) that hasn't been cleaned up; whites are soft and dewy, while blacks are shallow (on dark jackets, creases aren't even visible); and during exterior scenes the entire image has a blocky, digitized awkwardness. This carelessness is a shame, given the cinematography's emphasis on shadows, and the perfidy that occurs within them. The mono DTS track is mastered fairly low, and sports a few blemishes, but both the voices and the subtle orchestration remain audible throughout.
Leo McCarey's sociopolitical hysterectomy finally hits home video in a Blu-ray that appears downright ashamed of its contents.