If You Wanna Know, Ask Joe.



Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster headline Universal-International’s 1948 production of Arthur Miller’s 1946 play All My Sons, released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in early January of 2022.

Bringing Broadway to Hollywood — the original stage production (directed by Elia Kazan) given its own title card in the laurel-wreathed opening credits — producer/screenwriter Chester Erskine and versatile director Irving Reis (1943’s Hitler’s Children and 1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer) adapt Arthur Miller’s third play, and first stage success, as a still potent modern tragedy of family, business, middle America, wartime, and postwar reckoning. While the translation from the stage to the screen (necessarily) dulls some of the original play’s sharper criticism of capitalism, American values, and family legacy, this first film version of All My Sons, then already an American theater classic, sacrifices little of the play’s original power.

With marquee names Robinson and Lancaster brought in to sell unusually difficult material — Lancaster then a mere four films into his lengthy film career — their powerful screen presences nevertheless individually interpret and embody the play’s considerable thematic and dramatic challenges, despite or perhaps because of their respective star-power; reminding viewers that both actors, especially Robinson, had developed their irreducible talents on the Broadway stage. As such, the crucial father-son dynamic between All My Son’s self-driven industrialist Joe Keller, who has escaped wartime scrutiny to achieve postwar success, and his surviving and self-conflicted heir Chris, who retains nagging suspicion over the circumstances of his brother Larry’s flight disappearance off the coast of China two years earlier, visually communicates, despite the son here appearing a virtual half-foot taller than the father(!), the shared power and uneasy resolve between father and son that will decide the play’s central question of the activities of war reconciled (or not) by the period of peace to follow.

Flashing thirty-two years forward in movie history, this reviewer *happened* to have recently viewed a unique and, one hopes, relevant illustration of that reconciling legacy in, oddly enough, the popular workplace comedy/satire 9 to 5 (1980). This cultural touchstone of its era features its own power dynamic in its starring trio of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, who feature-length battle in terms of both pun-unintentional broad comedy and pun-intentional high-concept plotting the evil machinations of an exploitative, bullying, and harassing boss, played to malevolent extremes of early 80’s misogyny and chauvinism by accomplished screen asshole Dabney Coleman. At a point late in the film, where all seems lost for our fair triumvirate of female empowerment – Coleman having escaped the third act’s hostage-and-kidnapping situation to resume his Lucifer Throne at Consolidated Companies and to reverse the many progressive reforms enacted in his absence – who should randomly show up in this moment of extremity but the mega-corporation’s long-absent Chairman of the Board!

far right in white suit: Sterling Hayden

Played, equally randomly, by postwar noir antihero Sterling Hayden, who at six-foot-six towers an entire foot-and-a-half over five-foot-nothing country-western superstar Dolly Parton, this entirely unexpected deus ex machina of the Old School, a screen-threatening veteran of such no-nonsense fare as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Crime Wave (1954), The Killing (1955), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), as it turns out entirely agrees with many of the recent and forward-looking changes made off-his-watch at Consolidated. Although his character mistakenly credits these reforms to Coleman’s character – stopping just short of endorsing the important “equal pay” measure, it should be noted – the relevant point to our discussion of the wartime themes and postwar legacy of All My Sons is that Sterling Hayden’s resonantly-named Russel Tinsworthy himself had initially spearheaded nothing less than the innovative workplace daycare facility program at Consolidated’s nationalized factories during World War II, when women were first called to fill manufacturing positions across the country vacated by recent draftees serving the armed forces overseas.

While the film version of All My Sons — here “opened up” to include a flashback scene set at Keller’s aircraft-parts manufacturing plant during the war — shows no evidence of the historical reality of women working in similar factories throughout the second world war, squint a bit at Sterling Hayden’s 9 to 5 character and one might perceive Burt Lancaster’s All My Sons character aged thirty-four years into the future, being surprisingly open and open-minded to the far-reaching reforms of the 1980’s due to the war-era tragedy of his father. (Indeed, one might invent such a patrilineal backstory to explain Hayden’s Tinsworthy’s surprising attitude in 9 to 5; and Lancaster himself, meta-cinematically again, would go on to play another aging, eccentric industrialist progressively rebelling against his own family legacy in 1983’s Local Hero.) Bringing us back to that crucial shift between wartime expediency and postwar uncertainty, the filming of All My Sons thematically, historically, and most of all dramatically illustrates, for unforeseen better or worse, the multi-layered family tragedy existing between what America was and what it might become.

The film, like the play, opens on a clean-cut lawn framing a pleasant two-story home on a friendly tree-lined block in the warm heartland of Middle America. Patriarch Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson) walks alongside his tall, strapping son Chris (Burt Lancaster), recently returned from the war, in at least initially pleasant reminiscence of the halcyon times preceding the war, before sour notes creep in their conversation regarding, first, Chris’s present romance of the onetime fiancée of his missing, presumed dead brother Larry – an army air force pilot who disappeared two years before off the coast of China – and, second, mother Kate’s refusal to accept the other son’s likely death when there is any possibility of his being alive, or when there remains any doubt of his yet unproven death.

In addition, this tense family situation has an additional dimension in the complications of relations between Chris and the girl he here announces to Joe his intention to marry. The young woman in question, Ann Deever (Louisa Horton), was not only his (presumably) late brother’s intended, but is also a long-time neighbor and daughter of Joe’s former business partner. Her father, Herb Deever (Frank Conroy), Joe’s former partner, is currently serving a lengthy sentence in a federal prison for two years earlier selling to the United States Army Air forces a crucial shipment of what turned out to be fractured cylinder heads; faulty equipment that caused the death of twenty-one American fliers in the Far East, among whose number was none other than Larry Keller.

Joe, unlike his partner, was exonerated of the resulting charges, and had gone on to make Keller Industries a booming postwar success – a rich legacy for his surviving son Chris – but a brief, challenging visit from Ann’s brother George (Howard Duff), now a prosecuting attorney, signals a mid-drama unravelling of personal responsibility for Joe, while Chris himself must personally reconcile his father’s wartime actions with present, diminishing realities, and a gradual awakening to the unpleasant truth.

Returning after the obligatory plot description of the previous three paragraphs to the bold-typed header prefacing this review, the oft-repeated phrase, slogan, and boast “If you wanna know, ask Joe”, woven throughout the text, drama, and storyline of All My Sons, takes on deepening, darkening resonance as the character’s supreme capability and confidence is challenged and subverted by his compromises and culpability. What does Joe know? From a background of hard-scrabble poverty to achieving material success and a sizable inheritance for his sons, the American Dream nevertheless swiftly becomes Nightmare when confronted with a supreme moral choice his character possibly is incapable of making.

Y’see, ‘cos why should he throw away forty years of hard-grinding self-sacrifice because of a piddling manufacturing error? Hair-line cracks that aren’t even visible to the naked eye, and show up only on x-ray? The army probably won’t even end up using ‘em. Joe is undoubtedly thinking as much, and later says as much, as he walks down the wide and leafy boulevards of his postcard-perfect suburban community with his surviving son – the actor Edward G. Robinson’s posture, bearing, and facial expressions puffed up, out, and wide to appear onscreen as tall, broad, and vigorous as co-star Burt Lancaster – and describes a similar stroll taken, “head held up high, chest out, and eyes ahead”, after having first been accused of wartime wrongdoing.

Joe’s vivid description of his defiant march down America’s Main Street, with side-by-side images of the screen father and son on the back retina, is, this reviewer must admit, precisely the juxtaposition that inspired the possible folly of linking 1948’s All My Sons to 1980’s 9 to 5 in the introduction; with the almost otherworldly image of towering Sterling Hayden (glowering to the end) sharing the same frame as Dolly Parton (dwarfed in her high heels) providing an unlikely but (one might argue) hopeful dialectic to a postwar tragedy of unyielding American masculinity. Although only glancingly mentioned in our plot description, the play’s female characters of Louisa Horton’s Ann, first affianced to the dead son and now to the living one, and especially Mady Christians as Kate, formidable beneath a brittle façade, provide first enablement of their male counterparts – Kate’s self-delusion and denial in particular encouraging Joe to “forget” and to “live with” his mistakes – but still later a moral reckoning when the scope and true intention of the dead son Larry’s sacrifice is ultimately revealed.

Beyond registering additional tragedy, the original play could not offer an answer to that ethical cul-de-sac, but ironically it is the movie adaptation’s censorship-appeasing coda that suggests, via Kate, that Chris and Ann, freed from the mistakes of their fathers, may now be able to create something new. Again flash-forwarding three decades into the future, and four decades beyond that, a viewer in 2022 might even see, through the modern miracle of home video, an equally otherworldly conversation taking place between 1948’s All My Sons and 1980’s 9 to 5 – randomly viewed on successive evenings before preparing a review of the former – and dimly perceive in squinting visions of postwar alpha males Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden a previously unthought of ability to realistically share the same frame with a diminutive female musical performer making her screen debut.

Born in the same year that the action of All My Sons takes place, 1946, seventy-six-years-old this January 19th, Dolly Parton could be seen as representing the play’s moral point of reckoning for the likes of Joe, Chris, and Russel Tinsworthy. May we ourselves prove worthy of her.

Bringing us back to firm reviewing matters after, admittedly, questionable flights of interpretive fancy, Kino Lorber’s admirable Blu-ray release of All My Sons, from a “Brand New 2K Master”, is sharp and clear for the many murky and shaded thematic dimensions of its subject matter. Russell Metty’s celebrated cinematography is on ample display throughout director Irving Reis’s dramatic interpretation: depth-staging, dynamic compositions, and noir-ish lighting in the Keller house’s interior – balanced by glowing scenes of idealized Americana on its exterior – particularly effective and well-served by this high-definition transfer. And for a much more straightforward discussion of the play, its performers, its technical interpreters, and its filmic translation, readers who managed to get this far in the review are strongly recommended to give a close listen to the recent audio commentary recorded by authors/historians Kat Ellinger and Lee Gambin, who parse the many (relevant) layers of Arthur Miller’s original play, its adaptation to the screen, and its effective film performers and performances.

In many ways, All My Sons represents a tragedy we Americans are still living, but fortunately the foundational cracks its drama still illuminates may also offer thematic reprieve from the sins of all our fathers. May we someday admit to and learn from our own errors of inheritance!

Images are used as a reference to the film and subjects discussed and are not representative of the Blu-ray. They are credited to DVDBeaver, IMDB, The Ace Black Blog, and a 1/19/2022 image posted on the Twitter account @DollyParton.