Edward, My Son (George Cukor, 1949)

This review is part of our Auteurs Gone Wild series. The movie will screen at Anthology Film Archives on 3/21, 3/23 and 3/26.  

Edward, My Son is a very strange movie and I’m not really sure how much I actually like it. I’ve seen it three of four times now and my feelings seem to change with every viewing. Not because it’s narratively a bit flat and disjointed or because Spencer Tracy is miscast, no, that stuff doesn’t bother me. I usually love oddball movies because I’m an oddball gal. What does bother me is the cruelty housed inside its lopsided episodic structure. Told almost entirely in flashback via a handful of short, dated segments, Spencer Tracy plays a pretty horrible guy named Lord Arnold Boult who will stop at nothing to give his son, Edward, every possible opportunity in life. The world is his oyster and all that. Affording him every opportunity includes committing arson, causing two suicides and basically breaking all of the commandments in the book. Not to mention just being a real bastard to everyone around him, especially his loving wife, Evelyn (Deborah Kerr).
The prodigal son is never seen because he’s already dead before the movie begins. Spencer Tracy is the one orchestrating what we’re supposed to be seeing and feeling. Most of the action takes place indoors, inside apartments, cramped houses and sad-looking mansions and offices with lengthy 5-10 minute shots for each segment. The ghost of Edward hovers over the space of the movie as much as it does over the story. The long, almost uninterrupted shots offer only a handful of close-ups, which, along with the heavy makeup and melodramatic storytelling, cause the movie to feel quite theatrical and stagey. Because Edward is never seen, I feel as though he’s the one who is really supposed to be watching what’s happening, watching what his father arranged for him. Lord Arnold Boult asks the audience for their opinion of him at the beginning and end of the movie, but I think he only ever wanted Edward’s. To know he did the right things for him even if he didn’t do the right things for anyone else.

Caught in the middle of this father-son confession fest is poor Deborah Kerr, who very well might be Cukor’s most troubled heroine after The Chapman Report’s Claire Bloom. Kerr’s Evelyn is batted around, pushed to the side and smeared into becoming an empty-shelled drunkard because she doesn’t have the power to combat Boult’s tricks and manipulation. There are few sadder images than that of dear Evelyn, looking tacky and cheap, sitting alone, mumbling to herself by the fireside drunk off her ass. No man (or men) should have ever done that to Deborah Kerr.

Cukor’s subsequent heroines didn’t suffer the same fate, however. After Edward, My Son, Cukor seemed to really step into the modern age and closely examine what the post-war malaise was doing to the women around him. He began to shy away from the Tracy Samantha Lord’s (Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story) and Mrs. Stephen Haines’ (Norma Shearer, The Women) of filmdom and started focusing on the more down to earth, working class types like Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday, It Should Happen to You) and Mae Swasey (Thelma Ritter, The Model and the Marriage Broker). Evelyn was the last of his female characters, at least between 1949 and 1954, to really seem boxed-in and caged by her lack of independence. With its confined, lifeless spaces, Edward, My Son is a fitting, if not punishing, finish to the feminine creampuff way of living and a wonderful introduction to the blue collar social sparkle ideals I love so dearly in his filmography. I just wish it hadn’t been Deborah Kerr who got caught up in the suffocating bromance of her screen husband and son.

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