I first learned about this film—which features Helen Hayes, an incredibly campy Robert Walker, and Van Heflin—in Nora Sayre’s fantastic book Running Time, which I also recommend.
I had pretty much forgotten about the movie. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly rumors began to surface that Mohamed Atta was guy.
The whole thing was so reminiscent of the plot and premise of My Son John that I had to revisit the film and write about it for a piece I did in the New York Times Magazine.
It’s funny re-reading that piece now; you get a vague sense of the weird frenzy of paranoia and fear that set in immediately after 9/11.
So in honor of the film’s coming release, here’s a bit from thatTimes piece.
During the cold war, red-hunters loved digging in the dirt of radical lives, particularly when it yielded a juicy bit of gender trouble. Joe McCarthy called Dean Acheson — no Communist, but a confirmed Democrat — “the Red Dean of Fashion.” A psychological profile read by J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower explained, in hopeless bureaucratese, ”The tendency seems to be that in Communist marriages the wife is the more dominant partner.” Earl Browder, head of the American Communist Party, was described as ”henpecked.” And then there were the Rosenbergs, perhaps the most confused couple since Samson and Delilah: ”Julius is the slave and his wife, Ethel, the master.”
But it took the Technicolor dream machine of Hollywood to really put the pink in the pinkos. In ”My Son John,” the urtext of sexualized McCarthyism, a limp-wristed Robert Walker camps his way through his scenes, cooing at his mother, played by Helen Hayes. Meanwhile, his father, an American Legionnaire, pummels whatever remnant masculinity the boy might have salvaged from his mother’s embrace. Eventually, Walker goes off to college and finds manly reprieve in the Communist Party. When Hayes confronts him about his tendencies, she suggests that if only he had played football like his brothers, her two ”fighting halfbacks” in Korea, he might have been spared this political perversion. Begging him to seek help from the F.B.I. — You listen to me, John, you’ve got to get in this game, and you’ve got to carry the ball yourself. . . . Take the ball, John!” — she launches a desperate final cheer: ”My son John. My-son-John. My son John!”