Posted by Moira Finnie on December 17, 2008
Van Johnson had, according to my mother’s sarcastic remark whenever she saw him in an old movie, “a face like a bowl of corn flakes”, meaning wholesome and familiar, if not necessarily something you’d want as daily fare.
Despite this early attempt to influence my taste for what Mom undoubtedly believed was “the better”, I liked the guy. There was something about the man that struck me as sympathetic. He seemed, like many of us sometimes are, to be a bit awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin, sometimes irritable when he meant to be direct, uncertain when most of Hollywood’s movies insisted on self-confidence in their leading men. In later roles, inarticulate restlessness was occasionally used to good advantage by perceptive filmmakers, who tapped into an edgier side of the increasingly less boyish man.
MGM studio, ever on the lookout for a new boy-next-door, produced a flock of these seemingly harmless young men on their assembly line in the ’40s. There was Tom Drake, James Craig, Don Taylor, and even a British version of the type in Peter Lawford, all on prominent display during and after the war in movies that emphasized their polite if bland niceness and their passing resemblance to other stars, (i.e. James Craig as “Clark Gable Lite”). Some went on to smaller roles once the studio system broke up, some moved into the production end of the business and some left acting entirely. One of the actors marketed most prominently as the “nicest” of all these boys was Van Johnson, who died last week at age 92.
Now, after a week of reading obits that claim that “he oozed charm”, or that dismiss the actor as a has-been following his skyrocketing popularity among the bobby-soxers in the 1940s, (he was second only to Bing Crosby in popularity in 1945), or choose to emphasize his complex private life, it occurred to me that some perspective on his career might be worthwhile. I don’t like all his work, but there are a few movies that might deserve to be remembered. Next week on December 23rd, TCM will be setting aside their previously scheduled programming to highlight several of his films for the evening, featuring A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, In the Good Old Summertime, The Last Time I Saw Paris and The Thrill of a Romance. You can see more detailed information about this schedule change here.
Long before Brad Pitt, or even Troy Donahue, Hollywood used to loathe fair-haired men. Alan Ladd struggled for years against the prejudice against the type. Van Johnson, who had been scrambling to get a foothold in the New York theater since 1934, was first noticed by Hollywood in the groundbreaking Broadway musical Pal Joey. Rodgers and Hart‘s sophisticated music and star Gene Kelly‘s charisma buoyed his presence there, where he was a rather large chorus boy who doubled as Kelly‘s understudy.
When Johnson first came to work in the movies at Warner Brothers studios, the home of tough guy players such as Cagney, Robinson and Garfield, that studio was very uncomfortable with the wholesomeness of the 6’2″ red head under a six month contract to them. Vague about what he might offer their largely urban audiences, they made him a freshly minted cub reporter, topping his newly dyed, now black hair, with a press hat in Murder in the Big House (1942), a dull programmer with few prospects for making cinematic history. Opening to yawns all around the country, Johnson‘s option was soon dropped.
He had not exactly set the world on fire with his debut role as Chorus Boy #41 in Too Many Girls (1940), and soon poured out his troubles to his friend, Lucille Ball. The actress, who had been one of the stars of that movie, was sympathetic to his situation, and introduced him to Billy Grady, a talent agent and mover and shaker at MGM for many years. Testing opposite contract player Donna Reed, he was hired, though, as Grady would recall, “at MGM his spots would have to be handpicked. It wasn’t going to be easy.” After a lonely childhood in Newport, RI as the son of a dour single father after his alcoholic mother left, Johnson later said of his new berth at the studio, “As soon as I walked through those gates, I knew I was home.”
To him, “[MGM] was one big happy family and a little kingdom. Everything was provided for us, from singing lessons to barbells. All we had to do was inhale, exhale and be charming. I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world.” In his observant memoir, It’s a Hell of a Life, But Not a Bad Living, director Edward Dmytryk also noted Johnson‘s tendency to immerse himself in his work, and the fantasy world of cinema. While making The End of the Affair in 1955 with the actor in London, Dmytryk wrote perceptively that “At that time Van was one of the most admired and least understood stars in the world…[h]e loved films, and when he wasn’t working in one he was usually watching one. When there was trouble at home–and often when there wasn’t–he’d head for a theater as soon as the doors opened and stay until they turned him out at closing time. This activity undoubtedly served to take his mind off the constant battle being waged within him.” Noting that he was truly painfully shy, but understood that he needed to mix with others for business reasons, he would allow himself to be “dragged to parties where he would spend a miserable evening hiding out in some secluded room. Yet in the hustle-bustle of a movie set, he felt completely at home.” No wonder Van Johnson‘s small role as the occupant of a movie screen seemed so attuned to the “Alice Through the Looking Glass” premise of Woody Allen‘s movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), (even if his upper crust character had some difficulty when he had to improvise).
The intrusion of reality in the form of a near fatal car crash in April, 1943 almost killed his dreams of acting for good. Johnson, and his married friends actor Keenan and his then wife Eve Wynn were in his DeSoto convertible when it was struck head-on by another car. “They tell me I was almost decapitated, but I never lost consciousness,” he remembered. “I spent four months in the hospital after they sewed the top of my head back on. I still have a disc of bone in my forehead five inches long.” The scar, which can be seen in the first photograph in this blog, is a visible reminder that, were it not for the intervention of stars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, who insisted that production wait for his recovery rather than replacing him in A Guy Named Joe (1943), his career might have been stillborn. Spencer Tracy, whose movies were among those that Johnson always sought out to study during his “movie marathons”, would remain a friend. The two actors would also appear in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), State of the Union (1948), and Plymouth Adventure (1952). I’ve always thought it a shame that the pair did not play actual father and son, since they bore a resemblance to one another.
Astute marketing of the boyish actor to a largely adolescent female audience, the star’s willingness to participate in his own transformation into a “safe”, natural-looking matinee idol and a dearth of young men on the screen helped to make him a powerful pop culture phenomenon, ’40s style.
Appearing in musicals and escapist fare, Johnson worked hard to please his employers at this stage of his career, endearing himself to his fellow studio players as well, including Greer Garson, then the queen of the lot, who said that she ” always thought of Van as a sort of big and burly Shirley Temple.” Though producer A.C. Lyles would assert that he “knew them all – Cagney, Bogart, Hope, Crosby. And of all the celebrities I knew, no one enjoyed being a movie star more than Van Johnson.” I suspect that was the impression that Mr. Johnson wanted to give the world. Often paired with performers such as June Allyson and even Judy Garland, his musical flair lightened several films, including this number by Jerome Kern, “I Won’t Dance”, from Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) with dancer Lucille Bremer:
In the end, however, after a lifetime in movies, theater, musicals and over 100 films and television appearances, Van Johnson, who may be best remembered by his public persona, told an interviewer a few years ago that “I’ve been there and done it all.” Since most of us have only had a chance to see a few of Johnson‘s films, and his fine work in films such as In the Good Old Summertime, Battleground, The Caine Mutiny, and Brigadoon is unlikely to be neglected in any larger overviews of his career, I thought that I’d mention a few movies that might normally be overlooked.
The Human Comedy (1943) was written by William Saroyan as a screenplay and he had hoped to direct this movie. L. B. Mayer, after seeing Saroyan’s work on a short subject, put the kibosh on that plan, but kept the story, assigning the movie to a contractee at MGM. With his freckled face, reddish hair, and affable manner, Van Johnson was made to order to play the draftee screen brother, Marcus to that talented if sometimes frenetic whirling dervish, Mickey Rooney, who plays Homer Macauley, a character who has the bad luck to find a part-time job as a delivery boy for the local telegraph company in wartime America.
The Human Comedy (1943) was directed by Clarence Brown, a sometimes overlooked old hand, who began in the silent era, and reportedly had retained the time’s practice of having live music played on the set to help the actors achieve the proper mood for a given scene. That technique and the otherworldly framing device having Ray Collins, as Johnson and Rooney’s deceased father narrate the action, may account for the dream-like atmosphere of much of this admittedly sentimental but still effective, even haunting movie. The best acting in the desultory film comes from Frank Morgan as an alcoholic telegrapher who matter-of-factly explains his needs to young Homer (Mickey Rooney). Showing events as they drift along in the episodic film, a homesick Marcus (Van Johnson) is occasionally seen dreaming of home while preparing for war and mulling over his own mortality. Johnson is a slightly removed part of a loose-limbed ensemble, which includes child actor Butch Jenkins as the youngest Macauley clan member.
Scene of the Crime (1949) was the first film that seemed to clearly bear the stamp of “SERIOUS STUFF” under the new studio regime of Dore Schary at MGM, though I tend to think there was some satire in mind on the part of the filmmakers, if not the boss. With a tough talking if rather too literary script by Charles Schnee, the movie focuses on the sometimes amusing travails of a Los Angeles detective Mike Conovan, (Johnson) who is, in now time honored fashion, trying to find out what happened to a fellow detective gone bad. Film noir was clearly an influence, with a dame described as “Lili, a sizzler at the Fol-de-Rol. A figure like champagne and a heart like the cork.” Another character, “Sleeper”, played by the great character actor Norman Lloyd, has the following exchange when he says “Naturally, I know you know I know somethin’.” and a witty Conovan (Johnson) replying that “I know you know I know you know somethin’.” There are also several scenes of much more realistic than usual fisticuffs, described by Variety as “hard-hitting action stuff”. The women in the film were as beautiful and spoiled as Van Johnson‘s whining wife, Arlene Dahl and a “moll” played by Gloria de Haven who, between seduction attempts, persists in calling Van Johnson “Mr. or Uncle Wiggily” as a term of mocking endearment. Off screen, the belt-tightening days at MGM had begun. Ms. Dahl, who felt that the new “realism” was a mistake, resented the atmosphere on the set, describing Schary as “the antithesis of Mayer, and the retrenchment at MGM during that period was quite noticeable. The limousine that used to pick me up and drive me from one stage to another was not there; bicycles were there instead.” Norman Lloyd, who was used to far less, has said that Johnson was a charming man, and it was lovely to play a scene with him.” Though “a major star and a good actor” Lloyd found it endearing that Johnson “carried a little lunch pail to work, much like a construction worker and always ate in his dressing room rather than going to the commissary.”
Can you check your critical faculty at the beginning of this movie? If the answer is yes, The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), based in part on F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s story “Babylon Revisited”, may win you over. The story was updated to the post-WWII period after Philip and Julius Epstein‘s original version was revised by screenwriter-director Richard Brooks. The film, co-starring an exquisitely beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, was the last movie made under Van Johnson‘s contract at MGM. It features one of his best and most sensitive performances, particularly in those scenes between Johnson‘s character, who is a failed novelist and his daughter, played by Sandy Descher. The child actress recalled years later that in working on a particularly difficult scene set on a park bench, Mr. Johnson took the time to explain to her the importance of restraint in their interplay, pointing out gently to the girl that “if we cry, the audience won’t…” Many who worked on the movie thought that it might have earned him an Academy Award nomination, though contemporary critics dismissed the film as too romantic to be believable, and relations between Johnson and his home studio were apparently too strained at the time for MGM to push for his nomination. The transition from Fitzgerald‘s evocative 1920s to the post war period doesn’t entirely work either, especially since the zeitgeist of post-war France after the First and Second World Wars was markedly different, as were Franco-American relations. The development of characters, which in Scott Fitzgerald‘s hands was tantalizingly hinted at rather than made explicit, was most evident in the the incomprehensible behavior of Taylor‘s childish character, the sporadically believable Parisian atmosphere and the underlying tension between Johnson and his resentful sister-in-law (Donna Reed, who’s quite good). The movie is quite good when concentrating on Johnson-Descher and allowing good character actors such as Walter Pidgeon to bring warmth into the movie.
With Battleground (1949), The Caine Mutiny (1954), The End of the Affair (1955) among the best of his post-war films, the actor had begun–thankfully–to let his formerly relentlessly sunny persona fade. 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) was directed by Henry Hathaway, an old time Hollywood jack of all genres. Hathaway‘s wonderfully varied work, from Peter Ibbetson (1935), to Johnny Apollo (1940) to Shepherd of the Hills (1941) to Kiss of Death (1948) has increasingly given me pleasure as I discovered its infinite variety and overall quality in recent years. In this film, Van Johnson plays an American playwright living in London after suffering blindness. The neatly plotted film, which outlines the bitterness and withdrawal of Van Johnson’s character without over-sentimentalizing the situation, was based on a Philip MacDonald novel with a tight screenplay by Nigel Balchin. It begins as the playwright overhears a conversation in a pub, which may indicate a crime is about to be committed. Van Johnson‘s interest in this possibility, soon involves his caring but cautious valet, well played by Cecil Parker, and his former fiancee, Vera Miles. More interestingly, this rebirth of his involvement with the human race propels him back to life by sparking an interest in the case as an intellectual puzzle, even though it is one that almost gets him killed. This film, which is beautifully photographed in widescreen color by Milton Krasner, allows the viewer to visit 1950s London locations, featuring an opening panning shot of the Thames and Waterloo Bridge that underscores the world’s beauty, while reminding the viewer very shortly that this is denied to the central character, so well played by Johnson.
Slander (1956), a low budget film directed by Roy Rowland and written by Jerome Weidman from a story by Henry Junkin (all of whom should have known that the title of this movie about written lies should have been called by the more accurate title of Libel, though I suppose that name was probably already taken by others). Centering on a “Confidential Magazine” type of publication run by the compellingly oily Steve Cochran, the movie shows the disastrous effect of journalism that thrived then and now by focusing on the small and large transgressions of public figures. In this film, one of those figures is a successful children’s television entertainer (Van Johnson), whose past criminal record is used to attempt to persuade him to turn in a bigger performer. Since Johnson‘s own real life had its share of intrusive reports in unsavory magazines, his anguished performance is quite moving, as Steve Cochran pressures him and his wife Ann Blyth to spill the beans with predictably tragic results. Character actress Marjorie Rambeau, who makes an appearance as Mama’s Boy Cochran‘s appalled yet caring mother adds greatly to the proceedings. This obscure film, which I’d never heard of until TCM broadcast it last year, while engaging, places the blame for this type of journalism firmly on the shoulders of the publishers. It is flawed by its failure to address the appetite of the general public for the dirt on celebrities, but gives Johnson a meaningful role despite the script’s failings. He manages to transcend many of the movie’s limitations with a depth of feeling and, at times, to convey his character’s desperate, palpable moral confusion on screen .
When news came of Van Johnson‘s passing, a friend wrote the following that I thought I might share with her permission. It seems to catch why people may still be fond of this actor, even though we didn’t really know him. He was a part of life for as long as most of us can remember:
“I have a dear friend who is now 87. Her brother-in law owned a carpet store in Hollywood during the 50′s and 60′s. My friend and her husband used to spend their vacations “helping out” at the store. One day, Van Johnson wandered into the store, sat down on some stacked rolls of carpet, and spent several hours just visiting with my star-struck friend. She said, “he talked about the right way to eat doughnuts and coffee…he said to dunk!”, which I think was used in one of his movies, perhaps before, maybe after his visit with her. She didn’t care, he was there, and very real, and very gracious. After that, Van Johnson was always “her” movie star. I don’t think I’ll tell her just yet about his passing. Thanks Mr. Johnson, for the memories, even second hand ones.”
Perhaps when Van Johnson wandered into that carpet store, he just wanted some company and a chance to make a friend in passing–something he tried to be to his audiences for seven decades.
Davis, Ronald, L., Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001.
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