Friday, November 21, 2008

“If you wanna know—ask Joe…”

When I’ve written in the past about old-time radio anthology programs—like Lux Radio Theater and Screen Director’s Playhouse—I inevitably point out my disappointment with the broadcasts because, more often than not, I’ve already seen the movies. This hasn’t always been the case, particularly with Playhouse (which I listened to back in the 80s on Savannah’s WWSA as part of Victor Ives’ Golden Age of Radio Theater); the series allowed me to preview such films as Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), A Foreign Affair (1948), The Killers (1946)…and too many others to mention. But one such broadcast—from December 2, 1949—introduced me to Arthur Miller’s breakthrough play, All My Sons…all neatly wrapped up in half-an-hour, and starring Edward G. Robinson and Jeff Chandler (filling in for Burt Lancaster).

The 1948 film version was shown on TCM yesterday—not too surprising, in light of its recent stage revival featuring John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and Katie Holmes in the principal roles. I don’t have access to the big Broadway shows so it may be presumptuous of me to pass comment, but I can’t possibly see how any production can top a movie which features the likes of Robinson, Lancaster (becoming more and more self-assured with every screen appearance since The Killers), Mady Christians and Louisa Horton.

Joe Keller (Robinson) is a self-made big businessman whose son Chris (Lancaster) has invited his fiancée Ann Deever (Horton) to the family home for a visit—ostensibly to propose marriage. This doesn’t sit well with Kate (Christians), his mother, because Ann was engaged to Chris’ brother Larry—who’s been reported MIA and is assumed dead to all except Kate, who stubbornly insists her son is alive. There’s a bit of bad blood between the Keller and Deever households: Ann’s father Herbert (Frank Conroy) was Joe’s business partner—but both men were brought to trial when their company shipped a consignment of valued airplane parts (cylinders) that turned out to be defective. Joe ended up beating the rap (he was apparently bedridden with the flu at the time of the shipment) and Herbert continues to do his time in prison. Chris and Ann’s impending nuptials have also been jeopardized with the arrival of her brother George (Howard Duff), who’s starting to believe his father’s claims that Joe was involved to the same extent he was…and Chris, knowing that he’ll never be at peace with Ann until he learns the truth, sets out to uncover the real story—afraid of what he might find.

All My Sons was the first big stage hit of Miller’s long career, and the content of this melodrama contains many of the themes that would later resurface in what many consider to be his magnum opus, Death of a Salesman: how “the American Dream” often perverts a good man’s value system, how a father’s sins are (or are not) visited upon his son(s)…and how the “typical American family” acts as a façade for a decay and rottenness at its moral center. Some of Sons’ substance is probably old news in today’s jaded era (where bad business ethics is more-or-less an everyday thing and, regretfully, an accepted practice) but for me, both the play (and movie) still packs a pretty potent emotional wallop.

Edward G. Robinson has always been one of my favorite movie actors, and though he often complained about being typecast in gangster roles, occasionally he would get a plum part in movies like Sons (and House of Strangers [1949], in which he plays a similar character) to demonstrate his tremendous range. His Joe Keller is a fascinating individual, completely incapable of understanding how his unethical deeds are chiefly responsible for several deaths until the reluctant Chris is forced to rub his nose in the evil that he has done. His scenes with Lancaster are among the highlights of the film, as Burt plays a man torn between loyalty to his father and the unshakable certainty that Joe needs to atone for what his twisted business ethics have wrought. I was also mesmerized by Christians’ portrayal as Keller matriarch Kate—she plays Kate as a cold, distant woman who nevertheless can bend people to her will if she so desires. (Sadly, though Christians has a significant body of work in silent films, the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Letter From an Unknown Woman [1948], her last appearance on the silver screen.)

My favorite scene in Sons is the arrival of George Deever to the Keller home; he tells his sister that though he’s been estranged from their father for many years his new career as a lawyer has made him more flexible in examining both sides of an issue and, after having a heart-to-heart talk with Herbert is convinced that Joe knows much more than he originally told. There’s tenseness here between George, Ann and Chris—and then Kate enters the picture, softening George up with her motherly wiles (reminiscing on how she took care of him as a boy) and insisting that he stay for dinner, “just like old times.”

Later at dinner, George is being treated like the prodigal son—feted with all his favorite foods and receiving all the attention. Joe tells him he’ll talk with one of the respected judges in town to see about hiring George on as an attorney, while Kate coos over him and declares that her mission is to find him a wife. George is flummoxed and overwhelmed by all the consideration and declares the Kellers to be good people—pointing out that Kate hasn’t changed at all since the old days, and that Joe himself is the very picture of health. “Never been sick a day in my life,” Joe crows proudly.

You can almost hear the BOINNNNGGG! on the soundtrack. Joe backtracks and mentions that, of course, there was that time when he had the flu during the trial. But George isn’t buying it; his illusions have been shattered and he realizes what a schmuck he’s been—allowing himself to be played as a sap by a family he should rightly treat with contempt. (Were it not for Robinson’s wow performance, Duff would have walked off with the movie with this presentation alone.)

Sons features an eclectic supporting cast: Lloyd Gough, Arlene Francis (as a busybody neighbor who tells Ann that everyone in the ‘hood knows Joe is guilty—they just admire the way he weaseled out of it), Harry Morgan (the comedy relief), Elisabeth Frasier…and quick cameos from OTR vets Jerry Hausner, William Johnstone and Herb Vigran. If I have a quibble with the film, is that its dramatic punch comes to a halt with a tacked-on “happy ending” for Lancaster and Horton…but even this “necessity” doesn’t detract from what still remains a commanding, tragic statement of a family regretfully gone wrong.

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