All My Sons was not Arthur Miller’s first play, but it was his first success, and the work that put him in the public eye. He won a Tony Award for best author and the play’s director, Elia Kazan, won the Tony for best direction of a play. All My Sons ran on Broadway, at the Coronet Theatre, from January to November 1947 for a total of 328 performances. It starred Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden.
Irving Reis’s film version premiered in New York on March 27, 1948, and went into wide release in April.
All My Sons stars Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller, the owner of a factory that made airplane parts during World War II. His partner and former next-door neighbor, Herbert Deever, went to prison for shipping faulty cylinder heads.
The defective parts caused the deaths of 21 airmen, but Joe Keller was exonerated of any wrongdoing in court. (In the original play, Keller’s partner is called “Steve Deever,” and he never appears on stage. In the film, Herbert Deever is played by Frank Conroy in a dark and emotionally wrenching scene in which one of the main characters goes to visit him in prison.)
Joe Keller’s son Larry’s plane went down in the Pacific during the war. Larry was declared MIA, but Joe’s wife Kate (Mady Christians) refuses to believe her son is dead, and keeps everything in Larry’s bedroom the same as the day he shipped out. All his suits are hanging in the closet and all his shoes are shined.
When the film begins, Joe and Kate’s other son, Chris (Burt Lancaster), who also served in World War II, is attempting to mend fences with Ann Deever (Louisa Horton), the girl he wants to marry. Ann and Chris love each other, but several obstacles stand between them. Not only is she the daughter of Joe Keller’s disgraced and imprisoned former partner, but she used to be Larry’s girl, and Chris won’t be able to get his parents’ blessing while his mother still holds out hope that Larry is alive somewhere. “You marry that girl and you’re pronouncing him dead,” Joe Keller shouts at Chris. “You’ve no right to do that!”
I find Robinson an odd choice, physically at least, to play Lancaster’s father. He’s about the right age — 20 years older than Lancaster — but the two men couldn’t look more different. Aside from this quibble, however, Robinson is perfectly cast. His bluster and bonhomie cover up a deep well of guilt that slowly, over the course of the film, bubbles to the surface.
Movies based on plays can suffer from a sense of artificiality, but All My Sons is a perfect example of how to adapt a play for the screen. While the dialogue is pretty heavy on exposition for the first reel, it never feels stagey or bound to a single location. Small changes like the addition of Herbert Deever as a speaking character help make the film work as a cinematic experience, and Russell Metty’s dark, atmospheric cinematography and Leith Stevens’s effective musical score really tie everything together.