SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: SONS AND THEIR FATHERS - FOR BETTER OR WORSE
This is the fourteenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Sons and their fathers — for better or worse
We must lay adoption titles on one side now, since very few of them have anything interesting or provocative to say about alternative modes of living, a different but equally valid modus vivendi. Films about “male bonding” within the family must be excluded from discussion here too, even though there are many significant boy-and-man titles in that category, among them “AUTHOR! AUTHOR!”, “THE CHAMP”, “DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD”, “A DRY WHITE SEASON”, “LE GLOIRE DE MON PERE”, “HOLE IN THE HEAD”, “THE KENTUCKIAN”, “KRAMER vs KRAMER”, “THE MOSQUITO COAST”, “PELLE EROBREREN” (excellent film), “POPI”, “ROAD TO PERDITION” (Tyler Hoechlin, hot damn!), “SORRELL AND SON” (1927 and 1933), “THE TENDER YEARS”, “UNDER MY SKIN”, “LA VIDA E BELLA”, “THE YEARLING” and even the Chuck Connors TV Western series “The Rifleman”, in which widower Connors and son Mike (Johnny Crawford) were the mainstay, with no ersatz mom on the horizon at all, which was certainly refreshing. “The Rifleman” was actually the first US series to star a widowed parent, but the Australian export-minded children’s series “The Adventures of the Seaspray” and “The Adventures of Skippy” were both structured around widowed fathers and their families. (A Sheila had to be parachuted in from abroad to the Hammond household in “Skippy”, the Bush being another of those exclusive male domains which made room for females only with reluctance.)
There were several US TV soaps on the father and son theme (few of them ever shown in the UK) including “My Son Jeep”, “My Three Sons” and, probably the most successful, certainly the longest-running, “The Andy Griffith Show”, which doggedly tracked the growing pains of a young Ronnie Howard. Each was for its own day (and “Diff’rent Strokes” for the adoption game) a self-conscious and unapologetic sermon from the TV folks on “correct parenting” technique. Quite who mandated the TV folks to tell the nation how it should raise its children was neither asked nor answered. Watch and learn was couched as “light entertainment”, and it still is.
Boys and their fathers may be genuinely devoted (usually one more than the other), but only in rare exceptions does a boy make the acquaintance of his father as he would any stranger on the street, and become devoted to him in despite of it (as, for example, with Tommy Rettig and Robert Mitchum in “RIVER OF NO RETURN” (54), or Roger Daniel and Adolphe Menjou in “KING OF THE TURF” (39), or Sam Huntington and Tim Allen in “JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE” (97), itself a Disney transposition of the French film “UN INDIEN DANS LA VILLE” (94). Father son relationships in general are tainted not only by parental authority, but by the stigma of fore-knowledge. The boy cannot treat on equitable terms with a person who supervised his potty training. He cannot assert himself as “no longer a child” with that man of all men.
This dads-&-sons category spawned its own quaint sub-genre: the sentimental all-male weepie, which generally entailed long-neglected son contracting some fatal (but non-disfiguring) disease. Absentee dad discovers — O alas, but too late! — what a treasure he has in his bosom only when the boy goes on the blink, as it were, so that he can be smitten with remorse before son expires prettily in the final reel. “L’ULTIMA NEVE DI PRIMAVERA” (“The Last Snows of Spring”, Italy 73), with Renato Cestié, was but the best-known example of this shameless tearjerker strand. Others included “L’ARBRE DE NÖEL” (“The Christmas Tree”, 69), “IL VENDITORE DI PALLONCINI” (“The Balloon Seller”, 74), “TABLE FOR FIVE” (83), “INCOMPRESO” (67), “MISUNDERSTOOD” (84), “FATHER’S SON” (31 & 41) — evidently the want of a close father/son tie is as rich a seam for melodrama as the presence of it.