If you live in the Los Angeles area, you may be wondering why the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre will devote the evening of Feb. 26 to screen two movies as a tribute to someone called Van Johnson, an old-time actor who died at 92 in Nyack, NY, last Dec. 13.
Well, though hardly remembered nowadays, the tall, red-headed, freckle-faced Van Johnson was a major box office attraction in the United States in the second half of the 1940s. In mid-decade, while MGM’s Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, James Stewart, Robert Montgomery, and others were embroiled in the war overseas, Johnson rose from the ranks of MGM’s B-unit to (briefly) become the studio’s biggest male attraction.
His meteoric rise almost didn’t happen. A serious car accident as he and best friends Keenan and Evie (Abbott) Wynn were on their way to a screening at MGM was to leave the former Broadway chorus boy away from the studio for months (and out of World War II for good). Among other injuries, Johnson suffered a fractured skull and had bone fragments piercing his brain. He was left with a severely scarred forehead and a metal plate several inches long on the left side of his head.
Once healed, however, nothing could keep him away from romantic entanglements with June Allyson, Esther Williams, Lana Turner, and other MGM leading ladies – much to the delight of the bobby-soxers of the period. (Johnson’s scar was carefully hidden by the make-up department; however, it’s clearly visible in the 1954 court-martial drama The Caine Mutiny, in which Johnson plays a somewhat unsympathetic character.)
Johnson’s first big hit was the syrupy A Guy Named Joe (above, 1943), in which he gets the girl at the end (Irene Dunne, 18 years his senior), while leaving to heaven the film’s nominal male star, Spencer Tracy’s ghost. (Dunne and Tracy reportedly demanded a halt to filming until their young co-star fully recovered from his injuries.) The following year, Johnson became a major box office attraction after the release of Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), playing opposite June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven.
Among Johnson’s biggest hits of the war and post-war years were Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), also starring Tracy; the Grand Hotel remake Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), opposite Lana Turner; Easy to Wed (1946) and No Leave No Love (also 1946), with Esther Williams; the military drama Command Decision (1948), opposite Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon; and William A. Wellman’s highly conventional – but highly praised and highly successful – war melodrama Battleground (1949).
With the possible exceptions of Robert Pirosh’s Go for Broke! (1951), about a Japanese-American unit fighting in World War II; Richard Brooks’ romantic melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), with Elizabeth Taylor; and Edward Dmytryk’s Oscar-nominated The Caine Mutiny, made at Columbia, Johnson’s films of the 1950s were lesser efforts.
Among those were The Big Hangover (1950), also with Taylor; Grounds for Marriage (1951), with Kathryn Grayson; the musical Brigadoon (1954), supporting Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse; the melodrama The End of the Affair (above, 1956), with Deborah Kerr; and less successful rematches with June Allyson (Too Young to Kiss, Remains to Be Seen) and Esther Williams (Duchess of Idaho, Easy to Love).
By the end of the 1950s, Johnson was no longer at MGM and no longer a star, appearing in minor fare such as Kelly and Me (1957) at Universal and The Last Blitzkrieg (1959), distributed by Columbia.
Television (e.g., Fantasy Island, The Love Boat; the TV movies Man in the Middle and Call Her Mom; the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, which earned him a best supporting actor Emmy nomination), low-budget European productions (e.g., Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery, Killer Crocodile), sporadic supporting roles in Hollywood films (e.g., Divorce American Style, Yours, Mine and Ours, The Purple Rose of Cairo), a few Broadway shows (e.g., Come on Strong, opposite Carroll Baker; La Cage aux Folles, as the drag queen’s husband), and lots of dinner- and regional-theater appearances kept Van Johnson busy until his retirement following a minor role in the 1992 Australian production Clowning Around.
Van Johnson, Esther Williams
Van Johnson: The Boy Next Door
In a 2003 Los Angeles Times interview, June Allyson remembered Johnson as being “very, very down-to-earth. I think he was the man every girl would like to marry. I just loved working with him. He was delightful, he was funny, and he was always prepared.” Indeed, Johnson’s popularity rested on his appeal to young women who bought into his image as the Boy Next Door.
Though not known as an actor of great depth and despite the appalling phoniness of apple-pie wholesomeness emblematic of his big-screen persona, Van Johnson was actually a charming and capable light comedian. In fact, I’d much rather watch Van Johnson – I’ve seen about 20 of his 70 or so film appearances – than, say, Van Heflin or Vin Diesel.
Johnson is fun (in a stiff kinda way) singing and dancing in a guest spot in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); he is a good match for June Allyson (another personable, charming, and much underrated performer) in Two Girls and a Sailor; and he’s perfectly fine as the (light-heartedly) cynical reporter “Spike” McManus in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle State of the Union (1948, above, with Adolphe Menjou and Angela Lansbury).
That said, what’s more than a tad revolting is the “Boy Next Door” inanity, in which the purveyors of the lie shove it down the throat of a willing public, ever eager to gulp it down so as to perpetuate their delusional sense of both ethical behavior and reality. (Consider the recent Michael Phelps scandal, the latest All-American Poster Boy, because the guy dared to smoke a joint at a party.)
Johnson himself seemed to have believed his studio’s propaganda machine – or at least he felt obliged to keep the machine going while in public. “It was one big happy family and a little kingdom,” he said in 1985, recalling his years at MGM. “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.” Well, no wonder, considering what Johnson’s “real world” was like.
He was born Charles Van Dell Johnson on Aug. 25, 1916, in Newport, Rhode Island, to a Swedish-born father – variously described as a cold-hearted and/or aloof plumber – and his wife, an alcoholic who abandoned the family when her son was 3.
Things get even more apple-pie wholesome in 1947, when Johnson married the “ambitious and assertive” former actress Evie Wynn, the ex-wife of his best friend, Keenan Wynn (right), four hours after Evie had obtained a Mexican divorce. (The year before, Ed Wynn, Keenan’s father, had commented, “I can’t keep them straight. Evie loves Keenan. Keenan loves Evie. Van loves Evie. Evie loves Van. Van loves Keenan. Keenan loves Van.” Paramount’s actor-comedian Eddie Bracken, however, recalled “ferocious” arguments when the trio got together at the Wynns’ home across the street from him.)
Johnson and Evie became parents in 1948, but the marriage was hardly a match made in Hollywood heaven. In 1960, Evie sued for divorce, citing cruelty and blaming him for “grievous mental suffering.” A few weeks later she filed another suit, this time for “fraud and breach of contract” in their property settlement and for failing to pay child support. (Johnson would refer to her as “The Dragon Lady.”) The couple briefly reconciled, but separated again in 1962. They were officially divorced in 1968 – ironically, the year after Johnson appeared in a supporting role, looking as jovial and light-hearted as ever, in the comedy Divorce American Style.
And if Johnson looked perennially affable in his MGM films, or while remembering the good old days, or in recollections such as those of June Allyson (the All-American Girl Next-Door who had an affair with Dick Powell while he was still married to Joan Blondell, and who later developed a serious alcohol problem), Johnson’s stepson, Ned Wynn, remembered things rather differently in his book of memoirs, We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood.
“His tolerance of unpleasantness was minuscule,” Wynn wrote. “If there was the slightest hint of trouble with one of the children, or with the house, the car, the servants, the delivery of the newspaper, the lack of ice in the silver ice bucket, the color of the candles on the dining room table, Van immediately left the couch, the dinner table, the pool, the tennis court, the party, the restaurant, the vacation, and strode off to his bedroom.”
More cracks in Johnson’s Boy Next Door image came about in 2005, when his estranged daughter, Schuyler Johnson, wrote an unflattering first-person account of him, “My Life as a Hollywood Princess,” which was published in the London tabloid Sunday Mail.