“He’s good. It’s written all over him.”
–The Big Hangover (1950)
2016 marked Van Johnson’s centennial on August 25th. Was it coincidence or fate that I fell in love with him this year? Seems like it was something I just had to do, and 100 years of his birth was the occasion for it. I watched my first Van Johnson movies this year. I watched 30 Van Johnson movies this year.
The Caine Mutiny (1954) was first, but it would be some time before he captured my heart or attention. This film boasts one of the most excellent performances of Humphrey Bogart’s long and illustrious career. Initially, my reason to watch was Lee Marvin in one of his earliest films. The cast also features the great Jose Ferrer, second billed even though his appearance is brief, and Fred MacMurray, a legend best known for his wholesome Walt Disney movies, playing a scoundrel (which he was exceptional at). It’s easy to overlook Van Johnson among those men. Because I was unfamiliar with his screen image, I didn’t have any expectations. Van was one of the most bankable MGM stars during WWII, usually cast in musicals as a romantic lead and cheery boy next door. In Mutiny he’s a conflicted man, more gloomy, and lacking the buoyancy that made him so popular with teenage girls. I’m glad that was my introduction to Van Johnson.
Late in his life, Van derisively referred to himself as the male Doris Day. But that doesn’t take into account his versatility. And in any case, there’s nothing wrong with his and Day’s sunny appeal. I watched the equivalent of one Van Johnson movie a month this year. Sometimes it was once a week. I treasured being able to see him frequently, especially after long days at work or long days of feeling down. His sunniness was often key in helping to chase away the blues.
I’m convinced the reason Van was never a highly regarded actor is because his fan base consisted largely of teenage girls. They’re the ones ridiculed for “frivolous” interests and behavior that is typically excused in grown men. Young girls screaming and crying over boy bands is something to sneer at, but grown men behaving in a similar way over sports is totally acceptable. Teenage girls are some of the most politically and socially conscious people around, in addition to being major trendsetters. Teenage girls overcome adversity and follow their dreams in Disney Princess films. Hayao Miyazaki has portrayed them as heroic and worthy of respect alongside boys and men. Along with MGM’s well oiled publicity machine, teenage girls made Van a star. Of course his boyish good looks and self effacing charms also helped him achieve stardom.
“For Van we live
For Van we die
This man we love
For him we sigh.”
The rumors are true! I was a bobby soxer in my past life, with a great passion for Van Johnson.
There was another major star of the 1940s who enjoyed a similar level of fame and was adored by bobby soxers. His name was Frank Sinatra. Van was actually nicknamed, somewhat wrongly, the voiceless Sinatra. Yet Sinatra gained certain prestige as an actor following his Oscar winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953) and his harrowing performance as a drug addict in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955).
Van never received Oscar recognition even though he was capable of distancing himself from his sunny, uncomplicated image. The Caine Mutiny was significant, but it wasn’t the first.
William Welman’s Battleground is an intimate war film that saw Van headlining a cast of other favorites which include Ricardo Montalban and John Hodiak. It’s one of his best performances. Bosley Crowther called it the best WWII movie of the period. He praised Van as “honestly appealing as a wise-cracking, scrounging rifleman.”
Scene of the Crime was also released in the same year. It’s a violent noir with Van as a gritty, relentless cop.
His two films with Elizabeth Taylor dealt with alcoholism. The Big Hangover (1950) is a silly little comedy about a law school grad who’s allergic to alcohol after he almost drowned in a vat of wine during WWII. (The plots in some of these old movies are so outrageous and…weirdly specific). Taylor plays a budding psychologist trying to cure him. The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) is much more somber, with alcohol ruining both of their lives. This time Van is so morose and volatile. Those traits also belonged to Maurice Bendix in The End of the Affair (1955).
Based on the Graham Greene novel, Affair is a brooding meditation on the relationship between Maurice and the married Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr). Maurice is so possessive and that makes him unsympathetic and unlikable at times. I’ve read that Van is considered the weakest part of the film but I disagree. It’s a strong performance and somewhat unexpected for him. This is not the jovial Van I was used to, but someone with a stormier face set in hard lines and frowns. According to him, “It was probably the happiest picture experience of my entire career.”
Van was also really convincing as a cynic. He’s much pluckier in Frank Capra’s underrated political drama State of the Union (1948) than he is in Brigadoon (1954). In the latter film he is thoroughly uninterested in an enchanted village. All he wants to do is go home. Gene Kelly, who falls in love with Cyd Charisse, dances about in the heather while Van just looks on, bewildered.
As much as I admire Van’s ability to take on complex and challenging roles, I also love him in those frothy films where he’s the good guy next door.
My favorite movie is probably Miracle in the Rain (1956). It’s sentimental but not mawkish. It’s like all the best qualities of Van Johnson coalesced into one pure movie character that I desperately wish was real.
In the Good Old Summertime made everything click. Suddenly I realized that I had a crush on him. I remember the exact date. It was April 28th. He was much more playful and flirty than I had seen him, whispering in Judy Garland’s ear while she grows more and more flustered.
“Psychologically I’m very confused but personally I feel just fine.”
I was seeing him through new eyes.
Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) was his first film with June Allyson. What it lacks in plot it makes up for in musical numbers and plenty of charm. Van and June were friends before making it big in Hollywood, often going on platonic dates and sharing their love of movies. They also had a lot in common. Both were raised by single parents, fell in love with the movies from a young age because it allowed them to escape dreary childhoods, and were introverts trying to be extroverts. They’re my favorite screen team, and it’s their close friendship that made their chemistry so palpable. Louis B. Mayer really wanted them to fall in love and get married. I can relate. Their fans did too. They picked out names for their future children: Van Jr. for a boy, and Vanjee for a girl (!) Mayer has a reputation as a tyrant, but Van and June always spoke fondly of him. He was a father figure to them.
In Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy, Ronald L. Davis credits Van’s enormous appeal among older women to their desire to mother him. A lot of these women had sons who had gone away to war. Van himself said that he reminded people of their sons and brothers. Davis also made a shrewd point about why the bobby soxers were delirious about him. He “seemed to convey sexual virility without being threatening.” I’m well out of my teenage years, but I understand why a tame version of masculinity is reassuring to young girls.
With his strawberry blonde hair, freckles, and rosy cheeks, there was something angelic about him, even as he stood at 6’1 with a robust build.
In 1943, Van suffered a tremendous injury from a car crash that nearly cut short his burgeoning film career. The other driver was at fault, running a red light and ramming into the side of Van’s car. If you’re squeamish, I advise reading with caution. Van’s skull was fractured as a result and horrifyingly, the back of his head was peeled off. What’s most distressing about the ordeal is that he couldn’t be rescued immediately. The crash occured at the border of Los Angeles and Culver City. Van was on the Culver side and an L.A. policeman couldn’t assist him. Van was prepared to crawl over to the other side, but he ended up waiting for the ambulance for almost an hour.
Naturally there was talk of replacing Van in his latest movie, A Guy Named Joe (1943). His costars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, however, refused to continue working on the picture if Van was removed. Tracy even volunteered to give his own blood for Van’s transfusions. A metal plate was put into his head and scars from the accident were carefully concealed by makeup. It is visible in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and The Caine Mutiny.
You always run the risk of growing disenchanted about a beloved public figure when you learn unsavory details. I’m happy to report that while there are disheartening aspects of Van’s life, it hasn’t lessened my love for him. I’m the loyal bobby soxer.
Although Van’s personality was at odds with the version of himself onscreen and in the fan magazines, he remained a generous and hardworking actor. He was forever starstruck by his favorites and enamored with the movies. 100 years have passed and he’s still as bright and warm as when he first appeared.
He’s good. It’s written all over him.