“What has Gable got for me?
Or Mrs. Johnson’s blonde boy Van?”
Once upon a time, these lyrics from “Prehistoric Man” in On the Town applied to me. I thought Van Johnson was about the most boring boy next door MGM ever imagined. But Van, reaching out from the grave, didn’t want me to merely change my opinion, but to eat it too. So here I am, in conductor’s cap, fully on board the Van Johnson train.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Van Johnson was the most adorable blonde movie star to ever exist in the history of the world. Whoever was orchestrating his careful ascent to stardom was very clever. They must have known that girls were going to lose it any time that boyish face appeared onscreen. And the MGM brass was especially canny in conspiring to cast him opposite June Allyson more than once.
Two Girls and a Sailor was the first of five films the pair made. Costarring the late Gloria DeHaven, it’s one of those fluffy MGM musicals with just the whisper of a plot. But it’s such a sweet, fun time.
Jean and Patsy Deyo (Gloria DeHaven and June Allyson) are former vaudevillian child actors who perform now as the Deyo Sisters. Ever since they were small, Patsy has been overprotective and a little overbearing. Even though she’s not that much older than her sister, she assumed that she was her primary caretaker as a child. While their parents were performing, Patsy kept a close eye on Jean offstage.
Now that they’re older, Patsy still keeps a close watch. Jean is a little flighty and boy crazy. Naturally she attracts a lot of attention because she’s so gorgeous. Patsy however, isn’t jealous. What she wants most is for Jean to marry well so she’ll be taken care of. And woe to the man who breaks her heart. June Allyson really nails this role of the fiercely loving big sister. Gloria DeHaven is wonderful too. What’s so nice about their relationship is that they aren’t pitted against each other. They’re two bright contrasts and you can love them equally.
In addition to their singing act, the sisters also have aspirations of running their own canteen for soldiers. One night they invite numerous soldiers to their apartment where they serve them food and entertainment. Jean is the life of the party while Patsy mainly works in the kitchen. A sailor named Johnny (Van Johnson) is smitten with Jean and she with him. But Patsy develops feelings for him too.
So which one ends up with the sailor? You might be able to guess the outcome, but a really lovely film emerges even if it’s predictable.
The girls’ dream of running a legit canteen comes true when Jean’s secret admirer donates an abandoned warehouse to them along with plenty of money. They nickname this admirer “Somebody” and try to uncover his identity as everything falls into place.
The canteen is such a great success, with Virginia O’Brien and Lena Horne appearing as themselves and singing. Ava Gardner also makes an unbilled cameo in one of her earliest roles.
Meanwhile Patsy is falling fast for Johnny and has no clue what to do about it. He’s dating Jean.
A dream sequence is one of the film’s most inspired moments. Patsy envisions a magical world when she falls asleep; one ensconced in the clouds with Johnny, who loves her.
What could possibly taint this? Baby sister Jean! Things turn ugly when Patsy and Jean start fighting, pulling each other’s hair, slapping each other, and yelling cruelties. It made me cringe because sisters fighting over a boy? Yawn and no thank you.
But of course, it begs the question: is Johnny worth it? No guy ever is, but what’s interesting is that Johnny oblivious to Patsy’s affections and so is Jean. Johnny’s not the type who would be pleased by girls fighting over him, even if it’s only in their imagination.
So we have our two girls. They’re both sweet, talented, and generous. One is practical and tough while the other is a carefree flirt. How does our sailor fare?
On paper, Johnny seems like a thankless role. He just has to be cute and passably charming. I’d argue that Two Girls and a Sailor is really June and Gloria’s show with Van just smiling serenely in the background. But that’s not true.
What is so appealing about Van Johnson? He wasn’t devastatingly handsome and the characters he portrayed weren’t mysterious or gritty. I actually don’t have time for the latest “heroes are boring” trend, so I love straightforward good guys as much as I love complex anti-heroes and villains. The concept of nice guys finishing last is a myth when it comes to Van Johnson. I don’t mean the nice guys who feel entitled to romance because they behave civilly towards women, I’m talking about genuine nice guys. Van Johnson was cheerful and easy going; he makes you feel at ease. You’re safe with him.
I don’t know for certain if MGM promoted him as an outdoorsy type, but he had that all American robustness which made him look really healthy. It also helps that in addition to his wholesome rosy cheeked good looks, Van was over six feet tall with a muscular build. Swoon. He’s adorable and sexy. That’s such a rare combination. I can’t think of anybody else who achieved it.
This lovely little film is sure to lift your spirits and keep you smiling. Van Johnson will certainly do the same.
I wrote this post for The Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film. Click on the banner for more posts dedicated to Van on the 100th anniversary of his birth! And what better way to celebrate than with 24 hours of film on TCM?
Happy birthday, Van.