Cast & Crew
Dan and Lucille Jefferson, middle-class, religious Americans, live in a small town north of the nation's capital. They are disappointed when their son John, who works for the government in Washington, is unable to attend a Sunday dinner in honor of his brothers, Chuck and Ben, who are leaving that night for military service in Korea. However, the following Sunday, as Dr. Carver is delivering pills for Lucille's anxiety attacks and dizzy spells, John pays a surprise visit, his first in almost a year. Although John is greeted warmly by his father, a teacher, there is a distance between them as Dan staunchly espouses of traditional American values, while John wants change in the world. John and his parents then go to Mass, after which John is impertinent to the priest and, on their way home, asks to be let off to visit a professor for advice on a speech he has been invited to give to his alma mater's graduating class. While driving home, Dan tells Lucille that he feels that John has outgrown his family intellectually and has become condescending. Preoccupied by this thought, Dan is involved in a minor car accident, which is resolved amicably. When John returns home late that night, Dan tells him that he is running for commander of the local American Legion Post and John offers to read his speech, which is virulently anti-Communist. John mocks the speech and rewrites it. Later, Lucille also has difficulty talking with John and accuses him of deriding her. The next day, Stedman, the driver of the car Dan involved in the accident, comes to the house to explain that the repairs cost more than he had expected. Lucille welcomes him and tells him about her sons, including John. After Stedman reveals that he and John attended the same university, Lucille finally persuades him to tear up the repair bill. That night, Dan reviews the changes made to his speech and discovers that John has inserted ideological material with which his father does not agree. Dan tells his son that he sounds like a Communist and, if he were, he would take him out to the back yard and beat him. Dan then leaves for the Legion meeting to deliver his original speech, while John receives a phone call from a woman. After Lucille tells John about the accident and the other driver's visit, John makes arrangements to leave town early. Before he goes, however, he explains to his mother his belief that Americans must learn to help minorities and create a better-ordered world, but that his father regards this liberal philosophy as Communistic. John then swears on his mother's Bible that he has never been a member of the Communist party, and when Dan later returns from his meeting, he is pleased to learn that John has reassured his mother. However, Dan points out that if John were a Communist, his swearing on a stack of Bibles would be meaningless, and they become involved in an argument about the veracity of the Bible, which ends when Dan smacks John's forehead with the Bible and pushes him over, tearing his trousers. Lucille, greatly upset by the confrontation, sends Dan back to the Legion hall, while John changes his trousers, then leaves. Later, Dan returns intoxicated and angry that his son has mocked his beliefs and shows Lucille a newspaper headline about the sentencing of a female spy in Washington. The next day, John phones Lucille to ask for the damaged trousers, but learns that she has already taken them to the church clothing drive. Lucille, by now deeply worried by John's behavior, is about to return to the church to retrieve the trousers at her son's request, when Stedman comes to the house and reveals that he is an FBI agent. Stedman asks to talk with her about John, and although he states that he is not sure that John has done anything wrong, Lucille chooses not to answer his questions. After recovering the trousers, she discovers a key in a pocket. She then takes a plane to Washington, goes to John's office and gives him the trousers, but retains the key. When she tells John about Stedman's visit, John tries to convince her that Stedman was probably conducting a routine loyalty check, but Lucille senses that John is deceiving her. Later, while waiting for John near the Jefferson Memorial, Lucille is approached by Stedman, who has had her followed. Stedman appeals to Lucille's patriotism and asks her to accompany him to a jail to determine if the voice of the female spy is the same as that of the woman who phoned John. Wracked by doubts, Lucille agrees and, later, goes to the woman's apartment and opens it with John's key. Lucille, whom Stedman has had tailed and filmed, returns to her home, and Dan later finds her collapsed on her bed. As Dan leaves to fetch the doctor, John enters and Lucille tells him that she went to the convicted spy's apartment and knows that he was somehow involved with her. John then confesses that he and the woman had been having an affair and, although Lucille does not approve, she is relieved to learn that he has not been involved in anything treasonable. Suddenly, however, she becomes suspicious of John's story, and advises him to confess to the FBI. When Lucille refuses to hand over the key, John tries to convince her that she is ill and that no one will believe any report she may give. After Stedman arrives at the house and John informs him that his mother is delusional, Stedman discovers that Lucille is indeed delirious and accuses John of causing his mother's illness. When Dan and the doctor arrive, John slips out of the house as Stedman shows Dan his identification. Stedman then phones his office to report that the witness is ill and that her testimony may never be valid. Back inside, John overhears the doctor telling Dan that Stedman will have to let John go as he cannot prove him a traitor without his mother's testimony. Dan is distraught and enraged by his son's treachery, but joins Lucille in prayer for him. Later, from the airport in Washington, John phones Stedman to tell him that he has decided not to flee the country and wants to meet with him. At his office John finds a telegram advising him that his alma mater has decided to award him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. John, now deeply troubled by the conflicts with his parents and his mother's illness, revises his speech and makes a tape-recorded draft of it. Afterward, when John phones Stedman and asks him to listen to his new speech, Stedman realizes that the line is tapped and advises him to come to his office immediately. John takes a taxi, but is followed by another car. Shots are fired and the taxi crashes onto its side at the bottom of the Lincoln Memorial. The taxi driver is unhurt, but John is mortally wounded. John is still trapped inside by the time Stedman arrives, but with his dying breath, tells him about the recording. Stedman promises John that, if he thinks the students should hear the speech, they will hear it. At the graduation ceremony, John's recording is played verbatim. In it, John explains that he had intended to flee to Lisbon but realized that his conscience would not permit him to be free there. Somewhere along the way, he says, he substituted faith in man for faith in God. John's words warn the students that even now they are being observed for potential recruitment to the Soviet cause, and while exhorting them to hold fast to honor, confesses to being a traitor and Communist spy. John's speech ends with the observation that he expects to begin a new life with his arrest and asks God's help. As Dan and a recovering Lucille leave the ceremony to pray in a nearby chapel, Dan says that there was a lot of good in what John said. Lucille hopes that John's misdeeds will be forgotten, but that his words to the students will be remembered.
Robert Russell Bennett
Robert Emmett Dolan
Robert Emmett Dolan
John Lee Mahin
Best Writing, Screenplay
My Son John - MY SON JOHN - Cold War Era Paranoia from Director Leo McCarey
Standing alone is Leo McCarey's controversial, extremist My Son John. Once the grand master of the screwball comedy, McCarey made one '30s classic after another: Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth, Love Affair). His superb Make Way for Tomorrow was a courageously heartfelt drama about an old couple forced by their children to split up in their old age. But by 1951 McCarey's driving interest was pro-Catholic, anti-Communist politics. Produced with the media-savvy priest Father James Keller, the short subject You Can Change the World shows Hollywood celebrities holding an informal neighborhood meeting to pool their energies against the 'negative forces' at work in America. No specifics are mentioned, but Loretta Young, Jack Benny, William Holden, John Wayne and others all decide that the "1% that wants to destroy America" can be countered, if we all just encourage people to ... do what exactly? The little show carries an almost sinister aspect. Could actor William Holden be participating to clear his name of political suspicion, or as insurance against future snooping by the unpredictable blacklisters?
In My Son John Myles Connolly and Leo McCarey's Oscar-nominated story brings the Red Scare into the American home. Aging Lucille and Dan Jefferson (Helen Hayes & Dean Jagger) proudly send their sons Chuck and Ben (Richard Jaeckel & James Young) off to fight in Korea. But they harbor grave doubts about their third son, John (Robert Walker). Not only has John abandoned his conservative church upbringing, he works for the Federal government in Washington (presumably the State Department), and now seems a changed man, an untrustworthy 'intellectual highbrow'. Urbane and condescending, John says nothing outright yet his reactions belittle Dan's emotional fervor for the American Legion. That's enough for Dan to suspect John of being a Communist. Already in weak health, Lucille is disturbed when John evades her attempts to make him affirm the family's core beliefs. She becomes agitated when a stranger they meet turns out to be Agent Stedman of the F.B.I. (Van Heflin) seeking to link John to a ring of spies. Lucille wants to believe that John is loyal, but she keeps catching her son in little lies and evasions.
McCarey clearly had a heartfelt message to impart in My Son John but it is difficult to imagine a more awkward movie. As if ghost-written by J. Edgar Hoover, the story shows America, Mom, God and Apple pie threatened by Communism. John Jefferson's exact activities are never shown and the stalwart Van Heflin's Agent Stedman won't discuss them: "We're the F.B.I. -- we gather information, we don't give it out." Stedman sympathizes with the stricken Mrs. Jefferson, but lectures her that the right thing to do is to inform on her own son. Dean Jagger's Dan Jefferson boorishly demands that his grown, independent son fully account for his personal politics. Dan's Red Radar is functioning as well: John works in that corrupt place Washington and would rather hang out with an intellectual professor friend than stay at home with Ma and Pa. John questions fundamental church values and makes snide remarks about the American Legion. If that's not the profile of a Commie, what is?
The great Helen Hayes was primarily a star of the stage and hadn't made a movie in seventeen years. As the emotional Lucille, Hayes' performance is initially fascinating but soon seems overly emphatic. It doesn't help that the frequently outrageous script hands Hayes so many impossible moments. Lucille constantly implores John to stop being insincere, to let his true goodness out. She knows by instinct that he's gone bad in some way, and we see her suffer like a penitent on a pilgrimage. Lucille's conservative values and insular self-identity seem like something from the 19th century. At one point she hefts her large Bible and cookbook in her outstretched hands, and proudly proclaims that they contain everything she needs to know to be a good woman.
In the middle section of the film are two wildly misjudged scenes that may have been improvised on the spot by director McCarey. Dan comes home drunk from the Legion meeting to confront Lucille, who has waited up for him. Director McCarey plays it for comedy, complete with the gag of a lamp that Dan almost destroys, and a series of pratfalls down the stairs. In another scene My Son John earns the prize for the most awful 'big drama' moment of the Cold War. Lucille uses football imagery to encourage John to 'get on the right team' and score a big touchdown for the side of good. The esteemed Ms. Hayes sells it like prime Shakespeare, and the effect is mind-numbing. It's as if Lucille were possessed by a jingoistic Knute Rockne.
My Son John distills the popular image of the dreaded Communist foe during the early years of the Cold War. Robert Walker's traitor represents everything conservatives despise. John is an elitist intellectual who looks down his nose at his parents' values. He foolishly dismisses Dan's exaggerated patriotism and his mother's devotion to the church. Yet another snide remark puts Father O'Dowd, the family's priest (Frank McHugh) on his guard. John explains his political views to his mother as if speaking to a child, saying that he simply wants to 'change things' to help the poor and make the world a better place. But he giggles when Lucille implores him to affirm the values of love and family. From that point on John's goose is cooked -- he's doomed not because he's a Commie, but because he crosses Mom.
John's parents will not grant him the right to choose his own opinions about issues of God and politics. Dan physically attacks John at one point for the crime of ideological disobedience, literally smacking him on the forehead with a Bible. He also remarks more than once that Commies need to be killed, plain and simple. The dialogue insists that John has been changed or transformed by contact with dangerous ideas, that he's now an alien being with a malevolent agenda, like something out of a science fiction film. My Son John portrays the F.B.I.'s counter-espionage agents as patriotic social counselors. Only they understand the depth of Lucille's torment. Agent Stedman and his assistant Bedford (Todd Karns of It's a Wonderful Life) are portrayed as sympathetic to John, and treat him as if he were an innocent victim of possession by the Devil. They implore him to cooperate and name names.
Star Robert Walker died unexpectedly just before filming wrapped on the big speech scene, and the editorial patch job to explain why John missed his speaking engagement is nothing short of disastrous. McCarey's editors concocted a truly bizarre editorial plan. Not long before the finish, choppy scenes and oddly integrated images of Robert Walker begin cropping up. When Lucille and Stedman talk with John on the phone, his side of the conversation isn't heard. One sequence shows John riding in a taxi with a strange determined look on his face, and a final scene sees him framed strangely in the shattered window of a crashed automobile. All of these Robert Walker images are outtakes from the actor's previous hit movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. In one shot John Jefferson lights up with the Hitchcock film's key prop, a cigarette lighter: we can clearly see the little crossed tennis rackets embossed on it. Part of an actual dialogue line from Train is re-used as well. None of this material is well integrated, and the film has an air of editorial desperation.
McCarey's editorial revisions deleted earlier sequences as well. The original cast list includes several actors whose characters are mentioned, but that were cut from the film. John apparently visits his old professor (Erskine Sanford or David Bond), a scene that might have told us more about the nature of John's activities. Was it perhaps an opportunity to accuse America's academics of political disloyalty? Also eliminated were scenes in which Stedman may have taken Lucille to visit the captured spy Ruth Carlin (Irene Winston) in her jail cell. In the completed film we only see Carlin's photo in a newspaper.
One of the final images in the film has an empty podium lit from above by a heavenly light, as John Jefferson's voice condemns higher education as a poisonous influence on the human spirit. Thus anti-Communism is linked directly with a narrow definition of God and a condemnation of academia as anti-American. Considering that its issues of national security, religious fervor and political hysteria are today more acute than ever, My Son John cannot be regarded as just a quaint relic of the Cold War. The audience that identifies with its message is larger and more vocal than ever.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of the previously difficult-to-see My Son John resurrects this bizarre chapter in American moviemaking in a picture-perfect HD presentation. Harry Stradling's B&W cinematography provides a good match between exteriors in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and interior sets back in Hollywood. The clarity of the images allows us to see the special effects used to cobble the false ending with outtakes from Strangers on a Train.
For more information about My Son John, visit Olive Films.
by Glenn Erickson
My Son John - MY SON JOHN - Cold War Era Paranoia from Director Leo McCarey
My Son John
In spite of all this stellar talent, a screenplay by McCarey and John Lee Mahin (Red Dust , Captains Courageous ), and a production team that included cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. (A Streetcar Named Desire ,My Fair Lady ), My Son John was lambasted by many critics upon its release and dismissed as McCarey's greatest folly. Based on the surviving evidence, however, it is not hard to understand its reception. A patriotic rant served up as a suspenseful drama, the film alternates between the dogmatic and the hysterical and depicts the title character as something as insidious as a vampire or alien parasite (a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956). McCarey's ultra-conservative sensibilities were actually no secret to those who knew him well and had become more pronounced in the late forties. In fact, prior to My Son John, McCarey worked with Father James Keller, a writer and founder of a Catholic sect called the "Christophers," to produce a series of short films that would address a "war on evil influences." Although only one short was actually produced, it was a religious sermon against the rise of communism entitled You Can Change the World (1951) and featured such guest stars as William Holden, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Irene Dunne.
The short subject was merely a warm-up for My Son John. Set in a small town not far from the nation's capitol, the film tells the story of the Jeffersons, an all-American family whose lives are thrown into turmoil when John (Robert Walker), the eldest son and a government worker in D.C., is suspected of being a communist agent by the F.B.I. At first, Lucille (Helen Hayes) and Dan (Dean Jagger) are clueless about their son's secret activities but during a recent visit from him they become aware of a change in his personality; he seems more argumentative, condescending, and even mocks them openly at times. It isn't until Stedman (Van Heflin), a federal agent investigating John Jefferson, shows up and slowly ingratiates himself into the Jefferson home that events escalate quickly. Once Stedman has revealed his true identity and mission to Lucille, she panics and, with the protective instincts of a mother, rallies to her son's side, intent on protecting him despite mounting accusations. It is only when she forces herself to verify an important piece of evidence against him a key to the apartment of a known subversive that she finally learns the devastating truth. Yet, even in the darkest hour, John gets a final shot at redemption.
Prior to production on My Son John, Robert Walker was excited about the possibility of working with Helen Hayes and Leo McCarey even though he thought the screenplay for the movie was overwrought propaganda. Unlike many of his fellow actors in the industry Walker was neither liberal nor conservative and would probably classify himself as apolitical. As for Hayes, her reason for doing the film was due to the encouragement of her husband, playwright/screenwriter Charles MacArthur, who, at this stage of his life, had become an incurable alcoholic. "I wanted to refuse," Hayes recalled in her autobiography My Life in Three Acts, "having finished with the movies more than twenty years before, but Charlie insisted I accept. McCarey was a fine director, he said. It was a good script, and a few months in California would do me good. Jim [her adopted son] went with me, and we rented a house in Beverly Hills. We waited for Charlie to join us, but he never did. I think he was glad to have me out of the way. He knew it was torture for me to watch him destroy himself; he couldn't live with my need to help when he knew he was beyond helping himself."
It wasn't until filming began on My Son John that real problems developed, both on and off the set. For one thing, McCarey was fond of improvising on the set and would often depart from the script, forcing his cast to ad lib and learn new dialogue on the spot. Walker, in particular, became increasingly annoyed at McCarey's impromptu brainstorm sessions and rabid message-mongering which sometimes became so extreme he couldn't take it seriously. "Corny, comic-strip symbolism" is how Walker described the film to a family friend. McCarey, on the other hand, was convinced he was making an important American film and conducted the production under great secrecy, utilizing FBI agents, former Communists and government officials as advisors on the movie. Many scenes were shot in and around Washington, D.C. including the National Airport, Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and nearby suburb of Manassas, Virginia, which served as the main characters' home town.
Although principal filming of My Son John was completed by June of 1951, McCarey continued to tinker with the footage and planned to add some additional scenes. In preparation for the scene in which John reads a prepared speech/confession about his misguided ideals to the graduating class at his former alma mater, Walker recorded the dialogue on a tape recorder at Paramount Studios on August 25th but when it came time to film the scene on August 28th, he was stricken ill at home and died. Although details about the exact cause of death have always been murky, Walker, who had recently returned from a stay at the Menninger Clinic (a psychiatric hospital), began to display erratic, agitated behavior. His housekeeper immediately summoned his psychiatrist Dr. Hacker to the house and he was soon joined by an associate, Dr. Silver. To calm Walker down, they gave him an injection of sodium amytal. "Many times before, we had given him a similar treatment," Dr. Silver stated, "and he always reacted successfully and well, by falling asleep and waking relieved and refreshed. In this instance, however, the patient soon showed signs of respiratory failure." They were not able to revive the actor.
Walker's unexpected death forced McCarey to revamp the ending of My Son John. [Spoiler alert] First, he decided to have John murdered by unidentified subversives while on his way to the graduation ceremony. Using a double for Walker in long shots, he was able to borrow footage of Walker from Strangers on a Train for shots requiring him to be seen in a cab and in a phone booth, talking to Heflin. For the movie's final shot of Walker, "a close-up showing Walker muttering a few words and dying was taken from Hitchcock's final merry-go-round scene," according to AFI notes. "The Hitchcock footage was then matted into new footage of a wrecked taxicab, and McCarey dubbed Walker's last words." McCarey also filmed Van Heflin delivering John's alma mater speech to a crowd of 900 extras at the Wilshire-Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles but later decided the scene would be more effective with John's pre-recorded speech broadcast from the empty, spotlighted lectern as the students listened. All of these changes are blatantly conspicuous in the completed film and contribute to the film's already heightened sense of alienation and paranoia.
Typical of most critical assessments of My Son John was Bosley Crowther's review for The New York Times who called it "a picture so strongly dedicated to the purposes 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." He went on to comment that "There are some other things about this picture that may cause a thoughtful person to feel a shudder of apprehension at the militance and dogmatism it reveals its snide attitude toward intellectuals, its obvious pitch for religious conformity and its eventual whole-hearted endorsement of its Legionnaire's bigotry." McCarey was so upset by the negative reviews of New York City film critics that he visited the city to publicly protest that he had been "insulted as an artist." At the same time, My Son John was well received and endorsed by such conservative groups as the American Legion and the Catholic Institute of the Press. It even managed to snag a Best Writing/Story Oscar® nomination for McCarey. But in some ways, the film signaled the end of this terrible period in American culture and politics. Joseph McCarthy's fall from grace and popularity would began with his unfavorable behavior at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings and HUAC would be rendered impotent by the end of the fifties when former President Harry S. Truman called it the "most un-American thing in the country today." (The committee wasn't officially abolished until 1975).
McCarey would go on to make the immensely popular tearjerker, An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of his earlier 1939 Love Affair, but My Son John is surely his oddest and most disturbed film and wouldn't look at all out of place on a double feature with a David Lynch movie. In recent years, deconstructive readings of the movie by film scholars offer an entirely different take on My Son John, depicting it as a nightmare vision of social conformity, one in which the family unit is so suffocating and repressive that the viewer ends up sympathizing and identifying with Walker's rebellious idealist. In the end, God, Country, Mom and Apple Pie represent something much more menacing than the shadowy world of commie boogiemen that McCarey has conjured up.
Producer: Leo McCarey
Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Myles Connolly; Leo McCarey (story and screenplay); John Lee Mahin (adaptation)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction: William Flannery, Hal Pereira
Music: Robert Emmett Dolan
Film Editing: Marvin Coil
Cast: Helen Hayes (Lucille Jefferson), Van Heflin (Stedman), Dean Jagger (Dan Jefferson), Robert Walker (John Jefferson), Minor Watson (Dr. Carver), Frank McHugh (Father O'Dowd), Richard Jaeckel (Chuck Jefferson), James Young (Ben Jefferson).
by Jeff Stafford
Star-Crossed: The Story of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones by Beverly Linet (Berkley)
Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy by Wes D. Gehring (Scarecrow Press)
Helen Hayes: My Life in Three Acts by Helen Hayes
www.sensesofcinema.com "Leo McCarey" by Thomas Leo McCarey
My Son John
Parts of the film were rewritten after actor Robert Walker (John Jefferson) died during production. Several scenes use a double shot from behind, and others recycle footage of Walker from Strangers on a Train (1951). The final scene, where a recording of John delivers an anti-communist speech, is lit with a halo around the tape-recorder.
As noted in a March 1951 New York Times article, some scenes in this film were shot in Washington, D.C., including the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, National Airport and various government buildings. Shooting also occurred in the Washington suburb of Manassas, VA, the place director Leo McCarey picked as a "typical Eastern home town." While in Washington, the production operated under great secrecy, as McCarey did not want to divulge the story's anti-Communist plot. A May 1951 Los Angeles Herald Express item claims that members of the FBI, former Communists and government officials acted as advisors on the picture.
According to many contemporary sources, McCarey did not work with a polished shooting script, ad-libbing during filming and writing and rewriting scenes between takes. Principal photography ended in mid-June 1951, but in late August 1951, McCarey announced he was doing additional shooting-the scene in which Robert Walker's character, "John," delivers his alma mater speech. In a contemporary interview, McCarey recalled that after viewing a rough cut of the picture, Walker tape-recorded the speech at Paramount on Saturday, 25 Aug, and was to film it on Tuesday, 28 Aug. Walker, who had a history of depression and alcoholism, died on August 28, 1951, a few hours after he was "stricken ill," according to Walker's Los Angeles Times obituary.
As the speech scene had not been filmed, McCarey decided to revamp the story's ending by having Walker's character murdered on his way to the graduation ceremony. To accomplish the change, McCarey filmed Walker look-alike double Jon Keating recording the speech, in a darkened office setting, with his back to the camera, and intercut this with close-ups of Walker taken from previous scenes. Walker's telephone call to Van Heflin, as his character "Stedman," was created by inserting shots of Walker from an earlier scene into new footage of an empty phone booth. For the taxi ride and murder, McCarey worked with director Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he had previously consulted about the picture, and extracted footage of Walker from Hitchcock's 1951 release Strangers on a Train . According to a modern interview with McCarey, a close-up showing Walker muttering a few words and dying was taken from Hitchcock's final merry-go-round scene. The Hitchcock footage was then matted into new footage of a wrecked taxicab, and McCarey dubbed Walker's last words.
According to a Variety item, in October 1951, McCarey filmed Van Heflin delivering Walker's speech at the graduation ceremony. The scene was shot at Los Angeles' Wilshire-Ebell Theatre with 900 extras. While shots of the extras were included in the final film, Heflin's footage was not. Instead, the speech, as recorded by Walker, is played from an empty lectern.
"Lucille Jefferson" was Helen Hayes's first dramatic screen role in seventeen years. She appeared briefly as herself in the 1943 release Stage Door Canteen; her previous dramatic role was in the 1935 M-G-M film Vanessa: Her Love Story (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 and 1931-40). On May 1, 1952, the CBCS submitted a "corrected" cast list for My Son John, excising many actors who were included on a March 1, 1952 list. The following actors were included in the early CBCS list and were not seen in the completed picture: Gail Bonney, Irene Winston, Nancy Hale, Frances Morris, Gary Lee Jackson, William Harris Pihl, William McLean, Russell Conway, Lee William Aaker, Vera Stokes, David Newell, Margaret Wells and Mishka Egan. Marguerite Campbell, Elaine Edwards, Phyllis Brunner, Robert Oberhauser and Callie Schroeder were announced as cast members in Hollywood Reporter news items, but do not appear in the completed film.
The film received mixed reviews but was applauded by conservative groups such as the American Legion and the Catholic Institute of the Press, and by conservative lawmaker Sen. Karl Mundt of South Dakota, whose praise of the picture was published in the Congressional Record. As noted in a January 1953 Motion Picture Herald item, John Chapple, managing editor of Wisconsin's Ashland Daily Press, lauded the film, claiming to have once been a Communist sympathizer whose life "paralleled" Walker's character. According to an April 1952 Motion Picture Herald article, McCarey complained publicly about the drubbing New York critics gave the picture, saying he had been "slighted as a director" and "insulted as an artist."
The picture was nominated for a Best Story Academy Award. On October 27, 1952, Dean Jagger reprised his role for a Lux Radio Theatre version of the story, co-starring Fay Bainter and John Lund.