Van Johnson’s big break: A Guy Named Joe (1943)

Peter Lawford and John Hodiak were both charming and handsome. They were not, however, Van Johnson.

But why make this distinction? I love all three men. Peter Lawford was a better actor than most people remember and John Hodiak simply isn’t remembered enough.

To be honest though, Van was special. He just had that certain something.


In 1943, Van was going to star in his first major movie, and opposite two major stars, Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. But fate intervened in the form of a life threatening car crash. Doctors thought he would never work in movies again, that he would surely die. And while he recovered in the hospital, MGM executives worried about their film. The solution was to replace Van with Peter Lawford or John Hodiak.

But those two big MGM stars, Dunne and Tracy, used their clout on Van’s behalf. Neither of them would proceed with the film if Van was replaced. For added good measure, Spencer even volunteered his own blood for Van’s transfusions.

Van was among friends. Soon, he’d be a star.

A Guy Named Joe is a fantasy-romance about WWII pilots. Pete Sandidge (Tracy) is in love with Dorinda Durston (Dunne; say that 3 times fast!) and the two of them are in love with flying.


Relationship goals!

When Pete is assigned an instructor position in America, Dorinda urges him to take it, as she fears that his “number is up,” that he’ll die soon. Pete does accept, but not before flying one last dangerous mission, when he loses his life just as Dorinda had feared.

Pete wakes up in the afterlife, where The General (Lionel Barrymore) informs him that he will now guide Ted Randall (Van Johnson), a student.

(In 1944, Van and Tracy would star in another WWII aviation movie, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Van’s character in that film was named Ted Lawson.)


Ted doesn’t impress Pete at all, but with the latter’s help, he rises to become one of the best fliers. Ted still doesn’t endear himself to Pete though, especially when he falls in love with Dorinda. He even asks her to marry him. Pete can do nothing but glare at Ted during his love scenes with Dorinda.

Pete resents Ted and his new life, and has to learn to let go. It’s quite a transcendent film.


You might be wondering about the film’s title. Who is Joe? It’s just the name used for pilots in the air force. This film was remade by Steven Spielberg in 1989 with the title Always. Apparently it’s one of his least loved, but I enjoy it a lot. A Guy Named Joe is really lovely, as most films about pilots are. Dorinda is a female pilot with just as much skill as the men around her, and she performs daring heroics too.

Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne didn’t like each other. But they put their differences aside in order to keep our man Van in the film. I don’t think the film would be as resonant with anyone else playing Ted. Maybe Peter Lawford or John Hodiak would’ve risen to stardom if they had won the part, but I doubt it would’ve been as meteoric as Van’s.

The car accident left scars on Van’s forehead which were usually covered up by makeup. I agree with the women who thought they made him even more attractive. His injuries meant he wasn’t eligible to enlist for military service, and this made the soldiers who were fighting admire him. At showings of A Guy Named Joe, teenagers were swooning and shrieking, just a small sign of what was yet to come. As Ronald L. Davis writes in his biography of Van, the nation was “encouraged to take this personable, hurt youth to its heart.”

And who wouldn’t want to take Van into their heart? I have and I don’t regret it one bit.



Today is Van Johnson’s 101st birthday! This is my first entry for Michaela’s Van Johnson blogathon. Click the banner below for more posts and celebrate Rhode Island’s best son!


9 thoughts on “Van Johnson’s big break: A Guy Named Joe (1943)

  1. I get kind of misty thinking about what Tracy and Dunne were willing to do for Van, especially since Tracy was one of his idols. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen this film yet (I mean, my gal Esther has a small part in it, for goodness sake!). I’m just dying for TCM to play it, and your review has only made me more excited.

    P.S. What gorgeous screenshots of Van!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would have been so easy for them to not fight to keep Van in the film. But they obviously noticed that star potential or maybe they just wanted to give him a break. I can’t imagine Peter or John in this role, it was really made for Van. All his earnestness, sweetness. I think (actually I know) you’ll like Esther’s cameo. It’s small but worth it.


  2. It’s heartwarming to think that Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne would put aside their differences and present a united front to the studio when it came to keeping Van Johnson in the movie. Like you said, he had a certain charisma, and you can tell from watching this film he was going to be a Star.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the “special something” he had was depth. He could experss complex, latered emotions, not just a simple happy/sad/angry — his happiness or sorrow would have more, possibly conflicting, feelings behind it. Somehow that blue-eyed, freckled face was transparent enough to reveal more than the average actor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, what a beautiful comment. You’re so right. Thank you. Van deserves much more recognition for his skill as an actor, not merely to be dismissed for his musical & romance films.


      1. I actually remember seeing him on Murder She Wrote (with June Allyson) and noticing the same thing; he was well above your average TV actor at the time, especially on this type of show. (Not Angela Landsbury herself, I hasten to add.)

        Liked by 1 person

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