January 26th, 2010

carole lombard 02
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Relive the red scare

The early 1950s was generally not a happy time for the entertainment industry. Television was booming, to be sure, a rapidly growing toddler whose next step nobody could predict, Two media it stole thunder from -- radio and motion pictures -- faced decline over not knowing how to react.

To make matters worse, there was the anti-Communist mood of the time, understandable to some extent since the Soviet Union was now America's chief rival. However, it devolved into witchhunts and mass hysteria, engineered by some power-hungry folk.

Above is one of the vehicles used during the "red scare," a pamphlet called "Red Chennels," whose goal it was to name those in the broadcasting field who were Communists or sympathizers ("Comsymps," as right-wing newspapers used to call them). "Red Channels" was largely funded by a businessman in my hometown of Syracuse, N.Y. named Laurence Johnson; he owned the Victory Markets chain in central New York. (I don't recall our family ever buying groceries at Victory, and I asked my 89-year-old, Keith Olbermann-loving mother whether she and my father boycotted Victory for this reason after they moved to Syracuse in 1952. Not the case, she said; neither she nor my father were aware of the role Johnson played in the red scare. They simply didn't shop at Victory because there wasn't one close by.)

Many people in radio and television lost their jobs over being named in "Red Channels." Some moved overseas. Some found other lines of work. A few committed suicide. We think of CBS as standing up to Joseph McCarthy through the likes of Edward R. Murrow, the ironically the network's entertainment division was perhaps most beholden to "Red Channels" and its ilk.

We bring all this up to give you a feel for Wednesday night's first film in the "Shadows Of Russia" series presented this month by Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. The first movie to be shown, at 8 p.m. (Eastern) is a bizarre artifact from this period of American history. It's called...

I'd like to tell you more about it firsthand, but "My Son John" has been a difficult movie to track down. It's rarely been revived, perhaps because it's viewed as so over-the-top, so hopelessly out of date. But TCM is making it available to a mass audience.

People whose views I respect tell me this film is chockfull of anti-Communist diatribes. I'll have to see it to actually believe it. What I do know is that this film was produced with help from some talented people.

The director was Leo McCarey...yep, the same guy who directed "Duck Soup," "The Awful Truth" and "Love Affair" (as well as "Make Way For Tomorrow," one of the best films about the elderly ever made). McCarey's skills were in decline, but thankfully he'd get a chance to make two more features (the "Love Affair" remake "An Affair To Remember" in 1957, and "Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys!" in 1958).

Robert Walker, who plays John, didn't have similar fortune. Walker, who first came to prominence in 1944's "See Here, Private Hargrove" and became a top star in 1951 with his memorable performance in Alfred Hitchcock's "Stranger On A Train," died during production. McCarey used doubles in some scenes, a la MGM in "Saratoga" after Jean Harlow's passing, but he also used a tape recording of Walker reading some of his lines.

That's Helen Hayes, with Walker and Van Heflin. During this stage of her career, her career was more or less the stage, as she'd retreated to Broadway after making her share of movies (and winning an Oscar) in the early '30s. A fervent anti-Communist, she likely made "My Son John" for that reason.

But there's another reason I want to see "My Son John" -- part of it was filmed in Manassas, Va., not far from where I live now. These days, Manassas has evolved into a Washington suburb. In the early fifties, it was still a small town not yet affected by suburban growth.

That's the old Manassas Presbyterian Church, which can be seen in the film. The church moved to another location in 1977.

As stated, this is a fascinating artifact of a particular time in American history, and so is its followup, "I Was A Communist For The FBI," starring Frank Lovejoy, which will air at 10:15 p.m. (Eastern).

Both of these movies provide us with a look of how life had changed in the decade or so since Carole Lombard had left.
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