Wednesday March 08, 2023
Movie Review: All My Sons (1948)
Let me give you the synopsis of an Arthur Miller play: A businessman with two sons and a doting wife has a terrible secret, and when one of his sons finds out their relationship is ruined. The family seems happy but is actually haunted—it’s dealing with ghosts—ghosts that went overseas. For a time, the father sustains himself with lies. But in the end, forced to confront his failures, he kills himself.
And the play isn’t “Death of a Salesman."
It was wild seeing “All My Sons” as the closing movie at SIFF’s 2023 “Noir City” Film Festival. One, it’s not close to being a noir, and two, it touches on many of the themes and plot points of “Salesman.” The ghost that haunts the family isn’t Ben, the older brother who walked out of the jungle a rich man at age 21, but Larry, the son who went overseas to fight the war and never returned. And the father’s secret isn’t an affair with a floozy; it’s shipping defective airplane parts that cause the death of 21 American pilots during World War II.
Directed by Elia Kazan, “All My Sons” debuted on Broadway in January 1947, ran for a year, and won Tonys for best author and best direction, as well as the New York Critics Circle prize for best play of the 1946-47 season.
Then it came to Hollywood.
The movie isn’t bad, but …
- Burt Lancaster as Edward G. Robinson’s son? I guess the wife did a lot of heavy DNA lifting there.
- Howard Duff as the moral authority? Enjoy it while you can, Howard.
- Louisa Horton as the girl you yearn for even though she reminds everyone of family tragedies? I guess?
Universal tapped Chester Erskine to adapt and Irving Reis to direct. Erskine was also producer so he had a say, but neither seems the A team.
The relationships here are interconnected enough to feel incestuous. Chris Keller (Lancaster) is courting Ann Deever (Horton), who used to be his brother Larry’s girl, and whose father is the business partner Chris’ father, Joe (Robinson), betrayed. Yeah, that’s some baggage with which to start a relationship. Worse, Chris’ mother, Kate (Mady Christians), keeps calling her “Larry’s girl” because she can’t abide any suggestion Larry won’t return—to the point where she seems a bit nuts. Meanwhile, Ann’s brother George (Duff) has just visited their father, Herbert (Frank Conroy), in prison, realizes how Chris’ father betrayed him, and arrives to take Ann away.
I like how even George has a secret—he has a thing for a married neighbor, Lydia Luby (Elisabeth Fraser), who’s on her third child. I also like how he shows up angry, ready to take Ann away, until he’s mothered into a good mood by Kate. (Kate, oddly, is at her best with George.) But he loses the good mood at dinner, when Joe begins bragging about how he’s never been sick a day in his life—even though a sick day was his excuse for why Herbert, and Herbert alone, was responsible for shipping the defective parts.
The second half of the movie is Chris realizing his father is in fact guilty. Eleventh hour, Ann brings out a letter Larry wrote the morning he left for his final mission. He says he was so distraught by his father’s actions that he planned to commit suicide by crashing his plane off the coast of China. All of which makes Joe kinda-sorta wake up and realize he shouldn’t have shipped the defective parts—that those boys overseas were all his sons. He says this as he goes upstairs. And then blam.
The movie ends with Kate shooing Chis and Ann out the door and desperately urging them to live … LIVE! I don’t know if that was an attempt at a happy ending but it comes across as the opposite.
Here’s what I don’t get. Why would Joe would ship defective airplane parts overseas when his son was a pilot overseas? He didn’t need to see every G.I. as his son, he just needed to connect the obvious dots. “Joe, what if your son winds up flying one of our defective planes?” “You’re right, Herb. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
Apparently all of this is based on a true incident. From 1941 to 1943, officials at an aeronautical plant in Ohio “conspired with civilian advisers and Army inspection officers to approve substandard or defective aircraft engines for military use.” Miller’s mother-in-law pointed out the story to him.
Interesting that the two big Warner Bros. gangsters, Robinson and James Cagney, both starred in film adaptations of award-winning plays in 1948. Cagney’s was the self-produced “The Time of Your Life” by William Saroyan, which won the Pulitzer in 1940, and in which Cagney plays “Joseph T. (who observes people).” Neither is great nor well-remembered. Cagney’s nearly sent him into bankruptcy.
This movie did make me think Robinson would’ve made a great Willy Loman. He’s what Miller envisioned the character to be: short, Jewish, charming, a perennial outsider.