There’s a Korean term for obsessive fans, the ones who stalk kpop idols and violate their privacy; saesang. The stories that come out about saesangs are truly alarming. Know who they remind me of? Bobby soxers. Now you might be thinking that bobby soxers were just harmless Frank Sinatra obsessed teen girls, but you’d be wrong. Although I haven’t read any bobby soxer stories that compare to one saesang getting plastic surgery to look like her favorite idol’s ideal type (an idol in my favorite group, actually), there were some pretty extreme fans back then. Take for instance, the girls who once broke into Van Johnson’s house.
I do feel a kinship to bobby soxers, but I wouldn’t have done anything like that. Even now, stories about invasive fans make my skin crawl. Celebrities are still people, who deserve to have their privacy and boundaries respected just like the rest of us poor slobs. I just deeply understand how those girls felt when they saw Van in a movie or in person. There’s one story about a young girl who wrote him a letter, telling him not to get married but to wait until she grew up. Isn’t that the sweetest thing? That’s the bobby soxer I relate to most.
I’ve written before that I think Van Johnson wasn’t taken seriously in his time and isn’t now because his fanbase was overwhelmingly made up of teenage girls. I won’t rehash the point, but their devotion to him just proves they had impeccable taste. Some actors play the same roles over and over again. Others, like Method actors, lose themselves in whatever varied part they play. Van was a versatile actor whose boyish image belied a man of depth. And he didn’t need the Method to be convincing.
He’s best known for romancing June Allyson and Esther Williams, the kind of guy mothers would fawn over. But he was capable of so much more, evidenced by his roles in Scene of the Crime (1949), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The End of the Affair (1955).
And obviously the bobby soxers had more than enough reason to swoon over him. He was a dreamboat; nay, a dream ship! A vessel for everyone’s innocent fantasies.
In Inglewood, a preview of Van’s film Three Men in White was such a sensation that the teenage girls “set up an uproar of squeals, howls, and applause when the main credits flashed on the screen.”
Once while leaving a barbershop, he found fifty kids surrounding his car. Fans were ripping his clothes, smearing his face with lipstick, sending him gifts, even baking bread for him. Get this, a girl once scraped the gum he stuck to the bottom of his seat in a theater and kept it as a souvenir. Gross? Absolutely. But I mean, who among us…
Van was nicknamed the “Voiceless Sinatra” and one young woman remarked, “He’s my boy. He can’t sing, but aside from that he’s got everything.”
And it wasn’t just bobby soxers. Adela Rogers St. John described one scene of mass hysteria following a radio broadcast. “I saw about 5,000 people waiting in a crowd to get a glimpse of him. Fathers were holding up little children, old ladies were shoving for a better view, service men were grinning.” Mothers were fond of Van because he reminded them of their sons in the war. And young girls gravitated towards him for the same reason. They wanted to be the ones waiting for him when he returned home.
People were also fond of leaving love notes on his car in either lipstick or soap. He had to deal with fans on his doorstep, fans throwing pebbles at his windows, and offers to be his housekeeper. Although Van enjoyed being a beloved star, he did grow weary of the attention and even worried that it was all fleeting.
In my shameful past, I thought Van was bland and dull. I couldn’t understand how he was such a huge star. Consider this photo and the blurb that appeared alongside it in a 1942 edition of Photoplay:
Beige is about the most underwhelming color in existence. The writer at Photoplay didn’t mean it negatively, they were just observing Van’s color (or lack thereof). Of course, once MGM began to promote Van as the athletic, outdoorsy type, his complexion looked a lot rosier and robust.
Would you just look at him and those glorious freckles?!
I began to change my opinion about Van when I watched Grounds for Marriage (1951). I paid more attention to Kathryn Grayson but I found him cute and charming. The same thing happened with Too Young to Kiss, from the same year, with his frequent costar and best friend, June Allyson. But it wasn’t until In the Good Old Summertime (1949), when he flustered Judy Garland so thoroughly that my opinion shifted completely. And now I understand more than ever the tendency to shriek and lose one’s head when he appeared onscreen.
In short, I’m a proud bobby soxer too!
This is my second entry for Michaela’s Van Johnson blogathon. Click the banner for more posts.