A Van Johnson Tribute featuring two of his most successful films, The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), will be held on Thursday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 pm at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica (1328 Montana Avenue). Johnson died last December 13 at the age of 92.
Of the two Van Johnson films screening at the Aero, I've only seen The Caine Mutiny (top photo, with Johnson, Robert Francis, and Fred MacMurray), directed by Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten and the only one in that group who was able to resume his career after performing a radical turnabout and denouncing his colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Dmytryk was an interesting director in the 1940s (check out his films noirs Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire), but his work in the 1950s and 1960s – e.g., The Left Hand of God, Raintree County, The Young Lions, Where Love Has Gone – tended to be way subpar. The Oscar-nominated The Caine Mutiny, however, is among the director's most accomplished efforts of that latter period even though it's hardly what I'd call a great – or even a good – film.
The good (actually great) thing about this cinematic adaptation of Herman Wouk's Pulitzer-winning 1951 novel is Humphrey Bogart's surprisingly effective performance as the paranoid Captain Queeg, whose men decide to rebel against his tyranny and incompetence in the last days of World War II.
The bad thing is that in those super-nationalistic days – only a handful of years after the end of WWII and around the time of the Korean War, when just about everyone was supposed to wave the flag at all hours (perhaps so as not to be subpoenaed in front of some Patriotic Committee or other as Dmytryk himself had experienced first hand) – The Caine Mutiny twists things around in such a way that the deranged captain ends up portrayed as a sympathetic victim while the mutineers ultimately come across as either misguided or cowardly assholes. In other words, never challenge military leaders. Talk about a profound moral lesson.
Also in the Caine Mutiny cast: Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, best supporting actor Oscar nominee Tom Tully, and E.G. Marshall.
I haven't mustered enough courage to sit through Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo stretched into 138 Hollywood Minutes. That said, in addition to winning an Oscar for best special effects this Mervyn LeRoy-directed wartime drama, based on Robert Considine and Ted W. Lawson's fact-based book, was adapted by none other than Dalton Trumbo, another of the Hollywood Ten. Look for insidious Red propaganda in it … not that you will necessarily find any. In the cast: in addition to Johnson (as Lawson), you'll find Spencer Tracy (as aviator James Doolittle), Robert Walker, Robert Mitchum, Bill Williams, and Phyllis Thaxter.