An unsettling study in the accumulation of wealth and how such desires to possess more can ruin a man, director George Cukor’s Edward My Son (1949) provides Spencer Tracy with the opportunity to play a self-destructive heel; a man so brutally maimed by his own flawed logic to give his only son every advantage that money can buy, he willingly and systematically annihilates his own happiness. Based on Robert Morley and Noel Langley Broadway play the screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart strictly adheres to the elements that made the stage show a smash hit. The tale is basically one of ‘spare the rod/spoil the child.’ ‘Edward’ is never seen on the screen, but through the eyes of his maniacally adoring father, Arnold Boult (Tracy). Exactly what turns this seemingly proud papa into a despicable demigod who terrorizes and eventually turns his meek wife into an appalling harridan and drunkard is never quite explained. But Tracy’s performance reveals a remote figure of eccentric obsessions that presumably began as mere possessive influences inexplicably grown more toxic as time wears on.
Edward My Son is one of MGM’s first joint Anglo-American alliances made in England after the war. The British locations give the movie an air of sophistication but also, at least in hindsight, seem oddly out of sync with Spencer Tracy’s character, rechristened a Canadian so the actor wouldn’t have to contend with a British accent. Cukor had initially intended the film to be yet another reunion for Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. But the pair balked at working together too often on film, fearful that the association would bar them from working apart on other projects they wished to pursue independently. So Cukor cast Deborah Kerr in the role of Evelyn Boult instead. Kerr, who had risen through the ranks in British film before being signed by MGM proves a formidable presence in the film – much more than her character had been in the play – particularly during the last third when Evelyn’s spiral into alcoholic despair is complete, having been transformed from the youthful promise of a young bride into a bitter, careworn and utterly distraught wreck by her husband’s manipulations.
Our story begins in 1919 with the buoyant return of Arnold Boult (Tracy) to the modest flat he shares with his wife Evelyn (Kerr) on the bank of the Thames. Arnold has just bought a shiny new pram to celebrate the first birthday of their son Edward. Arnold’s heart is swollen with pride as he tells Evelyn how he has quit his insurance job and begun to make plans for a new alliance with a former acquaintance, Harry Simpkin (Mervyn Johns), fresh out of prison after having served time for fraud. In short order Harry arrives to bless the house and child with a gift, as does another close friend and physician Larry Woodhope (Ian Hunter). In turn the men go upstairs to view the boy who is fast asleep in his crib, before returning to the modest front room to toast Edward’s future.
Five uneventful years pass. But then Edward is diagnosed with a serious illness requiring costly surgery on his hip to prevent him from walking with a limp. Woodhope consults a specialist who concurs that without the operation Edward will never walk properly. However, there is only one clinic performing the surgery in Switzerland. Owing to the couple’s limited finances the specialist suggests Woodhope not share this information with them. Instead, Woodhope confides his findings to Arnold who tells him to arrange for the operation with all speed. Arnold will get the money to pay for it somehow. Unfortunately, with his retail credit business doing poorly there’s only one option – to torch the building for its fire insurance and then collect on the policy. Harry implores Arnold to reconsider. He doesn’t want to go back to prison. But Arnold assures him that his plan is foolproof. And so it seems.
Through wily – some might suggest ‘slightly crooked’ commercial deals as a financier Arnold makes his family very rich in a very short time. He sends Edward to the best prep school that money can buy, and quietly buys up its mortgage when the principal Mr. Hanray (Felix Aylmer) threatens the boy with expulsion. Evelyn can see what is becoming of their son. He is lazy, devil-may-care and spendthrift with a sense of entitlement that has been inculcated in him by his father. But Arnold insists that the boy is merely strong-willed, free-spirited and interested in exploring a fulfilling life.
Since the dissolution of their retail credit business the years have been unkind to Harry who, hard up and penniless, comes to Arnold to ask for a job. Denied by his onetime friend, a distraught Harry leaps to his death from the roof of the Boult Building. When the police begin to make inquiries about the suicide, Arnold and his secretary, Eileen Perrin (Leueen MacGrath) both lie that Harry never came to see them beforehand. The rouse is sufficient to ward off any undue suspicion, but shortly thereafter Eileen and Arnold become lovers. Another year passes uneventfully.
Woodhope confides in Evelyn that he loves her dearly – news that she will not entertain, though she obviously feels for him too. One evening Eileen takes notice of a detective, Summers (Julian D’Albie), hired by Evelyn’s attorney to observe her apartment while Arnold is visiting. The pair confront Summers and Arnold recklessly threatens before kicking him out. Thereafter he comes to another decision however, that he must end his affair with Eileen. Unable to accept the breakup Eileen commits suicide with a bottle of pills and Arnold departs for Switzerland to visit Evelyn and Edward. Bitter and determined to spare herself further humiliation, Evelyn threatens to tell their son what kind of a man his father truly is. Arnold, bitter and demanding, chides that he will do everything in his power to wreck Woodhope’s career unless she remains silent.
Determined to spare the man she truly loves from her husband’s wrath Evelyn acquiesces. But her decision leads to great bitterness that eventually causes Evelyn to chronically seek her solace at the bottom of a bottle. Like mother like son? Well, Edward has also become an alcoholic. In fact, without constant intervention from his father to clean up after his messes Edward’s life has spiraled out of control; engaged to socialite Phyllis Mayden (Harriette Johns) while having fathered an illegitimate child with Betty Foxley (Tilsa Page) who firmly believes Edward is about to propose to her. Arnold slyly commands Woodhope to help with an abortion, but he refuses and thereafter incurs the financial burden of Betty’s medical bills.
The narrative leaps ahead to 1939. We learn that Edward, who had been serving in the RAF has died in a plane crash and that Evelyn has also died – presumably from alcoholism. Living in his interminable Arctic isolation, Arnold begs Woodhope to learn of the whereabouts of Betty and her child – his grandchild. Knowing too well what a destructive influence Arnold has been in his own family, Woodhope absolutely refuses to provide Arnold with this information. His life in tatters, for the police have finally assessed that he committed arson so many years before, and with the prospect of prison time looming large on the horizon, the ever-obsessed Arnold addresses the audience directly, vowing that he will never give up his search for Edward’s lost child.
There are some fascinating moments of introspection and suffrage peppered throughout Edward My Son, though on the whole the story seems maudlin and more than slightly outdated. It goes without saying that Spencer Tracy is a fine actor – arguably, the finest Hollywood has ever produced. His portrait of this maniacal and soulless potentate is more than a tad unsettling. But it doesn’t quite get under our skin. At times it’s even rather difficult to swallow: how, having begun with the promise and overjoy of becoming a father, Arnold Boult so completely degenerates into a manipulative bastard; a sort of paternal Dorian Gray – utterly lacking in any sort of humility, morality or even humanity, but who seems to derive great pleasure from the ruination of just about everyone in order to maintain that pedestaled deification of his only child.
Deborah Kerr is the impressive standout in the film; wholly believable as the new mother with a sparkle of optimistic love for both her man and her child; terrifyingly affecting and effective as the hardened cynic wallowing in self-pity and driven to self-destruct. Kerr’s transformation – unlike Tracy’s – seems natural (in all its unnatural and unhealthy state of physical decay). Ian Hunter, a sadly forgotten name and face in today’s movie culture, provides very solid support herein. Hunter was exceptionally deft at extolling the virtues of the English gentleman in many movies from the golden age; his best probably being his Dr. Lanyon in 1941’s remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also starring Spencer Tracy).
George Cukor’s career is predicated on two fundamentals; first, the taming of temperamental beauties. Indeed, Cukor was first and foremost known as a ‘woman’s director’. Every actress in Hollywood adored and wanted to work with him. But Cukor is also known for his exquisite use of interiors; the way he cleverly manipulates space to evoke superb drawing room dramatics that, in any other director’s hands, often became stilted and stultifying. Edward My Son takes place mostly in a series of rooms – some grand, most modestly mid-sized to downright small. Yet the action never seems cramped or wanting to break out into more wide open spaces. Regrettably, the film – at least in spots – is a rather numbing experience to wade through.
The fault is not Cukor’s but strangely in the material; wordily scripted by Donald Ogden Stewart deferring whole portions to Morley and Langley’s original. That faithfulness to the material is commendable – but only to a point, and in reviewing the movie one simply wishes Stewart had taken the time to shorten certain scenes and/or perhaps prolong others. The first person address to the audience from Arnold Boult that bookends the film also grounds the action in a sort of moving tableau of the stagecraft instead of evoking a genuine cinematic experience. For the next two hours we are made aware that what we are seeing is one gigantic flashback told from the perspective of one man. In essence, the audience is denied the experience of that mutli-varied omnipotent perspective – the camera as judge - because Arnold Boult is recounting his flawed history to us. We have no choice but to see it through his eyes. But as a flashback device it doesn’t quite work and this is a shame, because Edward My Son is competently played and expertly told.
The Warner Archive has advertised this transfer as ‘remastered’. Perhaps, but the results are hardly exemplary. Age related artifacts persist throughout. The image exhibits higher than usual levels of film grain and contrast that seems slightly boosted, blowing out the mid-range of tonality that is not in keeping with Freddie Young’s cinematography. Fine detail is nicely realized in spots, but there are also moments when the image is softly focused. We also have to contend with severe water damage (which manifests itself in the form of spots) and the occasional obvious horizontal tear. I can’t say I’m a fan of the way the image tends to wobble from side to side about 20 minutes into the movie and continues to do so until roughly 40 minutes before the final fade out. Such imperfections are perhaps inevitable with the ravages of time and improper preservation, but again, these oversights need to be corrected – particularly when advertising the transfer as ‘remastered’. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Occasionally dialogue is inaudible. I found I had difficulty discerning some of Spencer Tracy’s early conversations with Kerr – he seemed to be mumbling and no amount of audio adjustment – either volume or bass/treble enhancing seemed to help. Like most other titles in the Warner Archive this one comes with NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)