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.
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!