Most American theater lovers think that greatness descended upon Arthur Miller in 1947 with his great play THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN. It certainly is the play that people remember above all his work, even such later classics as THE CRUCIBLE and A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. But as a matter of fact, just like THE GLASS MENAGERIE preceded Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, ALL MY SONS preceded THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
If Williams found a tragic poetry in the soul of his fallen aristocratic characters - his Amanda Wingfields and Blanche Dubois - Miller found a mine of power in the failures of the American cult of business success. In SALESMAN it is Willy Loman's gradual realization that a lifetime of hard struggle and strife serving his company did not result in his being shown any respect when he can no longer bring in any large business. In ALL MY SONS, Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson) is not a small peg in the economy like Willy Loman. He is the owner of a factory - on his way to being a millionaire which (in 1948) is the proof of success in America. But while Willy Loman has a dirty secret that cost him his son's respect for him as a father, Keller has a dirty secret that makes him a criminal.
The film/play takes place in 1945 - 46. Keller's oldest son has died in World War II, in an military aviation crash. His younger son Chris (Burt Lancaster) has returned too from military service upset - he is aware that something is wrong about the death of his brother, but he is not sure what. He is also aware that his father has a secretive side - one that he is sensitive about. It appears to be connected to the wartime trial of Keller's partner Herbert Deever (Frank Conroy). It seems that Keller and Deever's plant got a big government contract that required the delivery of airplane motors at a particular date. It was a very lucrative contract: in fact, it built their company. But there was a defect in the motors - which did not prevent Deever from completing the delivery of the defective motors. As a result, twelve planes crashed in the South Pacific, killing their pilots and crews. Deever ended up going to prison, but the critical decision was made without Joe Keller being present (he was ill that day) and so Keller did not go to prison.
Somehow, despite Chris's perplexity about his brother's death in the war, the Kellers would seem not to have any problems. Joe is an apparently successful manufacturer and seems well liked. His wife Kate (Mady Christians) is always ready to smooth over any little flurries of difficulties that may pop up. But Chris comes home with his girl friend Ann (Louise Horton). This is upsetting to Joe and Kate, though they try to put their best face on it: Ann is the daughter of jailbird Herb Deever. And sometimes tagging along is angry, troubled George Deever (Howard Duff),who has occasionally visited his dad - and has heard the story of the defective motors from a different perspective. And that perspective raises issues about "good old" Joe Keller.
Up to 1945 the subject of government contracts and corrupt cost cutting rarely popped up on stage or screen. But during World War II it became a big issue because of the huge government contracts that Washington set up for the war effort. In fact, the U.S. Senator in charge of investigating waste and corruption in these contracts made a really big name for himself in the public eye. He was a Senator from Missouri named Harry S. Truman, and by 1944 he had become such a prominent figure that F.D.R. insisted he be his running mate for the Democratic National Ticket. They won, and within a year Truman had a higher office than Vice President.
But the subject never really came up before in film. There was, oddly enough, a film in the 1930s about the Spanish American War "tainted meat" scandal that damaged the career of Secretary of War Russell Alger in McKinley's Administration. This was I LOVED A WOMAN. The meat packer profiteer involved in that film was played by Edward G. Robinson of all people. But that scandal was the only war profiteering one that came to the screen. So when Miller did this film it was, if you will, "virgin territory".
Miller, of course, turned the issue into a morality situation - as Joe Keller comes face to face to his sin against his partner, his country, the war effort, and his own sons. And he does, in the end, learn that the material gain was too costly - as he realizes, the dead pilots were all his sons.