My Son My Son! (1940)
Directed by Charles Vidor and written by Lenore Coffee (Four Daughters (1938)) this lengthy father & son (melo)drama features Madeline Carroll Brian Aherne Louis Hayward Laraine Day Henry Hull and Josephine Hutchinson (among others). The words which sum up this film are actually spoken by Day’s character about 90 minutes into it – “it’s all so complicated”. There are just too many coincidences and contrivances to make its story very credible and it’s definitely overlong with regards to making its point about parenting (e.g. that father’s shouldn’t overindulge their sons). John DuCasse Schulze’s B&W Art Direction was Oscar nominated marking his first Academy recognition.
The story begins in 1893 in the squalid streets of Manchester England. Two friends and roommates William Essex (Aherne) and Dermont O’Riorden (Hull) are going (their separate ways) out in the world to make their livings Essex as a writer O’Riorden as a woodworking craftsman. Bachelor Essex struggles the most having a difficult time finding odd jobs enough to support his “free time” writing. One evening he happens upon a bakery and sees an old man inside being bullied by another. He intervenes for Mr. Moscrop (Lionel Belmore) the baker & his daughter Nellie (Hutchinson) and then assumes the offered job of the man he’d “fought” who’d been the Moscrop’s delivery man before the dispute. Essex lives with them for their protection and when the old baker dies Essex marries Nellie. They have a child not too long after his crosstown friend O’Riorden and his wife Sheila (Sophie Stewart) have theirs (Mary Gordon’s character assists) enabling the two fathers to relish their “new” lives. Inspired Essex begins turning out books establishing himself as a successful writer; he also convinces O’Riorden to invest in a summer cottage by the ocean with him.
As time passes and the families grow the O’Riordens have another child – a daughter they name Maeve and spend time together at the cottage. It’s clear that the Essexes have a loveless marriage compounded by the fact that their son Oliver (Scotty Beckett) is a lying brat; he steals a book from O’Riorden’s son Rory (Teddy Moorwood). Oliver’s been spoiled rotten by his father who saves his son from his wife’s beating and later also encourages O’Riorden’s dramatic daughter Maeve (Brenda Henderson) to pursue acting. Years later Oliver (now Louis Hayward) is completely incorrigible able to charm his way out of any situation with his duplicity which amuses O’Riorden’s son Rory (Bruce Lester) . When Essex goes away to work in a coal mine to do research for another of the “common man” novels which made him famous he meets sketch artist Livia Vaynol (Carroll) who is unaware of his true identity. They have a brief conversation during which she learns that he’s really the mine’s owner and perchance they discuss “that writer named Essex” whose books she likes despite the fact that his female characters aren’t credible. They share some magic platonic moments which they’ll both reflect upon over the years as “true love” even though neither got the other’s name before they’d parted. Then one of the story’s many contrivances then occurs – Essex’s wife Nellie is killed in an accident.
Inspired again (e.g. with “true love”) Essex is able to write a romantic play for O’Riorden’s grownup daughter Maeve (Laraine Day) who’s got a crush on the author herself. The play is a great success. Wouldn’t you know that Oliver’s found a new girlfriend and it happens to be his father’s inspiration Livia. When Oliver brings Livia to the play’s opening and the audience screams “author author” she (and later Essex followed by Oliver) makes the connection. Of course this causes the first rift between father and son who naturally wants what he wants regardless of anyone else’s feelings. Essex gives way to Oliver until Livia convinces him that she loves him and not his son; Oliver then decides to be as disruptive as he can to his father’s fiancée surreptitiously. When Essex is finally clued in he realizes for the first time what his neglectful parenting has wrought. It’s compounded when Maeve realizing that Essex loves Livia decides to be a martyr drawing Oliver away from the betrothed by allowing him to “love” her.
When World War I breaks out Oliver and Rory go off to war and Maeve is left at home pregnant by Oliver who wouldn’t allow his father to say goodbye to him at the train station. When Essex learns of Maeve’s condition & the particulars from her housekeeper Annie (May Beatty) he offers to marry Maeve to save her (career &) reputation. She doesn’t immediately accept and promises to answer him later. Evidently she chose to be a martyr again (e.g. to allow Essex to marry Livia) because she’s then discovered dead by suicide. Essex all but disowns his son who by another coincidence is an officer in the unit that the writer now war correspondent visits. Even though his son’s Colonel (Stanley Logan) is pleased to reunite Essex with Oliver neither of them seems especially happy about it. Rory also in the same unit learns of Maeve’s death etc. and is just about to kill Oliver in another room when Essex comes in and interrupts it. His words to Rory (e.g. that he‘s the important one) to keep him from ruining his life by committing the act (he could be court-martial-ed!) have a profound impact on Oliver who later sacrifices himself in battle. His father with his wife Livia and the O’Riordens including Rory (at the summer cottage?) receives a letter from the war department with a medal the Victoria Cross.