Saturday, December 13, 2008

Van Johnson, 1916-2008


When the Siren read that Van Johnson, freckle-faced star of so many pleasant but lesser MGM movies, died this week aged 92, she thought of her friend Beth, who was a neighbor of Johnson's on the East Side of Manhattan in the early 1990s. Beth is a woman after the Siren's own heart, the sort of person who can recognize a star of the old days even as he passes 70. And recognize him Beth always did, reporting each time she saw Johnson and, just before she moved, the time that he stopped to coo over her adored baby daughter.

But is there any such thing as an actor touted as "the boy next door," who actually has an existence that MGM could have filmed in one of its backlot houses? Johnson's own private life was troubled and his one child, a daughter named Schuyler Van Johnson, grew up estranged from him. Still, of the crop of actors who populated musicals and light entertainments of the 1940s, Johnson stands out for having worked to become something more than catnip for the bobby-soxers, and for doing his best acting after age stole the adjective "boyish" from him for good.

The Siren went back to her David Shipman and was astonished to discover that Johnson was third in box-office popularity in 1946, and in the top ten even in Britain. In a poll of theater owners he was ranked ahead of Bette Davis, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, among others. But vehicles like that year's Easy to Wed and No Leave No Love (Shipman quotes C.A. Lejeune's priceless review: "No comment") can't support an actor forever, and just two years later Johnson's similar films weren't doing well. He began to doubt his own abilities, and Shipman also says Katharine Hepburn may have helped Johnson out during State of the Union. What did she do or say, one wonders? Because his best film roles were ahead of him, although from now on the good parts were, more often than not, supporting.

The Siren remembers Johnson fondly as a bright spot in the rather stagey Command Decision, as Clark Gable's wisecracking orderly; trying to eat the eggs he scrounged in Battleground; tormented by his conscience even as he brings down Bogart in The Caine Mutiny. And the Siren's favorite Van Johnson role will remain his nicely acerbic turn in Brigadoon, delivering such lines as, "If they want to disregard two hundred years of human bing-bang, that's their privilege" and, even better, when asked if there are women such as witches in his country: "Oh, we have 'em. We pronounce it differently." Once Johnson was able to show some shadows, and not just sunshine, he became somebody you could truly enjoy. And, if the Siren dares say so, somebody you would be far more interested in, should he ever show up next door.

42 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here he is with Lucille Bremer in Til the Clouds Roll By.

Tracy Keenan Wynn's memoir We Have Always Lived in Beverly Hills has all the poop on "Dad and Uncle Van."

Karen said...

The NYTimes gave him a nice obit, which is where I learned of his unhappy childhood. It lends some interesting depth to some of his sunnier performances.

It's also where I learned he was born and raised in Rhode Island, which also surprised me, since he always sounded and seemed to me like a consummate New Yorker.

He wasn't a great star, nor someone I've sought out, but I confess I've almost always enjoyed him (especially in Brigadoon, where that "witches" crack the Siren quotes is a line I cite often). I hadn't even realized he was still alive. I'm happy he was a good UES neighbor to your friend, Siren, and I hope he finally has some peace.

crumit said...

I have to admit it--Van Johnson is one of those guilty pleasures for me. He wasn't a great actor, but he was always appealing and sometimes very good. In addition to the movies the Siren mentioned, he made some wonderful rainy-afternoon melodramas, like A Guy Named Joe, The Romance of Rosy Ridge (Janet Leigh's first movie), Invitation, and Miracle in the Rain. He's one of the people I'm always glad to see pop up after the words "special guest star," or in smaller roles in movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo.

And one of the best things about Too Many Girls, besides Desi Arnaz looking hot, is spotting Van Johnson dancing in the chorus.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Van with Judy and Liza

(It doesn't get any gayer!)

NoirishCity.... said...

Hi! Self-Styled Siren,

I was very saddened upon hearing the news that actor Van Johnson died. My mother simply adored him and his films.(As well as other boy-next-door types...such as: actors Robert Walker,Joseph Cotton and Tom Drake(Wow! both Johnson and Drake appeared in a film with noir elements together! (Scene of the Crime)Personally, I liked his "turn" in The Caine Mutiny,with Bogart (with Bogie being the main attract for me, but of course!) Brigadoon, Week-end at the Waldorf, State of the Union,(with Tracy and Hepburn).
What a personality, he will be truly missed.
darkcitydame ;-)
aka the editor,now noirishcity.

Tony Dayoub said...

Sadly, and despite being in a fair amount of classic films, I haven't seen any of his films (partly due to being born in '72, and admittedly, due in larger part to just plain ignorance).

Even sadder still, my only recollection of him was as a villain on the Adam West Batman show. But even there he did the most with what was given to him.

He was obviously very talented, and it's very unfortunate that he led such a tumultuous personal - and no doubt professional - life due simply to his sexual preference. I look forward to the day when that is no longer an issue.

Vanwall said...

I really liked him in "Battleground", one of the great war films and in my opinion Johnson's best acting role, especially for his portrayal of Holley's momentary cowardice and redemption under the calm, trusting gaze of Marshall Thompson's newbie, Layton, who was thinking along the same lines a little. The communication of their fear overcome by their combined will into pretty much one temporary individual with guts, was a pretty amazing accomplishment for Johnson, whom I'd always considered a bit of a lightweight, but in this film he done good moving up into a heavier weight class.

He really was a classic pretty boy screen creation, and I always felt he was easily manipulated by the Studios upon reading about his private life - a train wreck in slow motion over a fairly long schedule, but at least he ran on time for the picture shows, and survived some pretty demeaning situations. I wonder if Schuyler ever had DNA testing done - the back-story in that whole mess would make an interesting film.

Brooksie wasn't too impressed with his acuity in John Kobal's "People Will Talk" interview, (a priceless book!) I seem to remember, citing his English accent affectation after one location filming in Europe, as if it would impress the hard-bitten thespians as much as the boys in the backrooms, and it seems to confirm my impression of a guy who took direction extremely well, but otherwise was rudderless, but seemingly nice. I thought he had the build and athleticism to be a great heavy, it's too bad he didn't play the bad guy very often. When I first started reading Lew Archer mysteries, I thought of Van Johnson as Archer, he had that kind of look about him.

Campaspe said...

David, thanks! He was in a lot of musicals but dancing was not his strong suit. I do love Lucille Bremer, though.

Karen, thanks for reminding me -- I had meant to link to the Times obit in the first graf, but somehow forgot to do it. I did not want his ex-wife's recriminations to be the only background link. Johnson always sounded rueful when he talked about his marriage but she sounds absolutely eaten alive with bitterness. Very sad.

Crumit, I also get a kick out of him in a lot of things, usually the ones where he was allowed to show some wit. But there's a few melos of his I enjoy. Anyone else know and like 23 Paces to Baker Street, directed by Henry Hathaway? And a true guilty pleasure, The Last Time I Saw Paris. I know that one's bad but it's so lusciously Technicolor beautiful and nonsensical that I can't resist it.

Noirish City, I also always mentally bracket Johnson with Dennis Morgan (different studio I know), one of those affable, handsome fellows who pops up in so many 1940s movies. Cotten was doing serious stuff from the beginning, I never thought of him as "boy next door" but Walker (poor guy) and Tom Drake for sure.

Tony, for an auteurist I think the Johnson parts to catch are certainly Brigadoon (an important film for Minnelli, his first in widescreen) and Battleground from William Wellman. You can't argue for him as a major creative force in film acting but neither can you deny the pleasure he gives in his best movies. And I agree with your thoughts about his life. As I was reading up on him I couldn't help thinking how different things might have been for him, if he'd been able to just pair off with Keenan Wynn and adopt or something, instead of having to engage in deceptions that hurt so many.

One classic Johnson was in that I never much cared for: A Guy Named Joe. Always creeped me out for some reason.

Any commenters seen Go For Broke, the movie Johnson made about Japanese soldiers in the American army in WW II?

DavidEhrenstein said...

He was a kind of "seat-warmer" for toer stas off fighting WWII. But he was far from untalented and acquitted himself professionally in his salad days. As for his "prvate lfie" he was no Neil Patrick Harris.

But then few are.

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, Battleground probably was the one part that really showed what he could do as an actor. Wellman had such a feel for the ways in which men deal with fear. After I watch a Wellman film, I always think I have just that much more insight into what makes men tick--the way his characters are always measuring themselves against concepts of masculine strength.

Johnson wouldn't be the first actor who was an oddly empty vessel offscreen. You know, I used to have that book but I think it exited my apartment along with a certain ex-boyfriend years ago. I love me some Louise Brooks but after reading Barry Paris's work unraveling her rather cavalier treatment of the facts in her writing, I don't always take her word for anything. I just enjoy the style with which she says it.

Vanwall said...

"23 Paces to Baker Street" is a nifty little thriller, I like that one. "Go For Broke" seems to be cited more as a ground-breaking film for busting H'wood's racial stereotyping of Japanese, but it's only marginal for me as war film. Meh. Johnson had quite the H'wood military career, with more ranks than an Patton's Third Army put together.

"The Last Time I Saw Paris", ah! Johnson seemed to be in some of the most stunning color films, and he actually contributed to the good-looking visuals, plus this one had lovely Liz as an added attraction - may require sun-glasses for viewing. Acting? Was there some there? I musta missed it, I was drooling a little too much. His films with Esther Williams, another fantastic Technicolor hue completely, are gorgeous and light as cotton candy. I'll watch 'em anyway.

Yeah, Louise was an opinionated little thing, but Kobal's book was under his excellent control, and he let things speak for themselves, sometimes in poignant or hard ways - his Evelyn Brent piece was adamantine, while his Marlene Dietrich sojourn was sublime. He didn't let Brooks get away with any shading, but left in the bright spots.

I seem to remember Johnson as a Nazi spy, of all things!, in a war thriller, but it was still good ol' Van Johnson half-a step away from "Brigadoon" for me. I had this same feeling whenever I saw him on TV, "Batman" included.

Yojimboen said...

Battleground is a very special film in my lexicon, it’s the first movie I remember seeing. Obviously, it made a huge impression: James Whitmore as the tobacco-spitting sergeant; Douglas Fowley rattling his false teeth in leitmotif commentary, and Van Johnson desperately trying to find a moment of safety to eat his eggs. I had nothing to compare it to, too young; but since then I’ve compared every other war movie to it, and the vast majority don’t even come close.

I used to live a couple of blocks from him on the upper East Side; occasionally see him in the nabe – buying the Sunday NY Times or whatever. He had bulked up a little, but his walk was unmistakably the same as during his years at Metro, and his head-held-high, chin-out profile was something to see. I liked him in virtually everything he ever did; he was close to great in State of the Union, Caine and Paris, did a decent job in 23 Paces, but was completely out of place in Brigadoon, (but then again, no native Scot likes much about Brigadoon). He wasn’t superb as a dancer, singer or actor, but was pretty good most of the time, and damn good some of it.

Sad to relate, I never spoke to him, now I wish I had.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

It's been many a year since I've seen it, but ... I remember enjoying Johnson in "Divorce, American Style." Although, of course, the people from that picture who stick in mind are people like Jean Simmons and Jason Robards and Eileen Brennan.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That still from Brigadoon reminds me: has there been an Elaine Stewart tribute in here yet?

She's my favoirte movie tough-guy ("Oh I saw the picture, Georgia. You were swell.")

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, maybe I should re-watch Last Time I Saw Paris since Yojimboen likes it too ... it is available online. I always remember the NY Times capsule review (what the hell happened to their TV section?)--something like "Fitzgerald in Paris, and very much this side of paradise." But I can forgive a lot in a movie if it's sufficiently beautiful. Nothing looks like Technicolor except Technicolor; that's at the root of why Far From Heaven didn't completely wow me.

Yojimboen, I am a stout defender of Brigadoon, which isn't authentically Scotland, but then very little in a Freed unit picture is authentically anything except MGM. To me, Johnson stands in a bit for the audience, biting off the kind of cynical remarks you may be tempted to make at the widescreen weirdness of it all.

MrsHWVale, I have not seen Divorce American Style but given Johnson's exceptionally nasty parting from his only wife I can well believe he might have brought something special to the table for that one.

David, I was hoping you'd notice Elaine hanging out there! I haven't done anything on her and I should. She's awesome, and one of the best things in Bad and the Beautiful. I love that scene in Brigadoon. In one of my books (Minnelli's?) someone describes the bar scene as the most crowded set ever in an MGM movie. I think of that scene whenever I am in a similarly crowded bar in NYC. It is, come to think of it, quite authentic. :)

Charles Noland said...

I've seen Go For Broke!, although it's been quite a few years now. I remember Van Johnson played a lieutenant who was a bit of a heel, he was put in charge of a group (platoon? company?) of Japanese-American soldiers and makes it clear through most of the movie that he'd rather be with his buddies from his home state of Texas. Not a bad movie from what I remember of it.

Last Time I Saw Paris is another one I haven't seen for years, maybe a bit of a melodrama (which I know you think is a good thing, I mostly do too), does have a Fitzgerald-like feel to it, I seem to remember thinking it wasn't quite successful but made a nice try at telling a serious story with some literary aspirations.

Campaspe said...

Charles, thanks for the Go For Broke! plug. It's an interesting premise and I will try to seek it out at some point. I don't know of many immediate post-war movies that dealt with the US treatment of the Japanese; Bad Day at Black Rock is the only other coming to mind.

Vanwall, some scouring turns up The Last Blitzkrieg, made in France for Columbia, where Johnson does indeed play a Nazi double agent. That must be ... interesting, since he was American to his toenails.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Elaine Stewart exemplifies the sort of women Minnelli was crazy about -- personally as well as professionally.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's a clip of Elaine in Don Weis' The Adventures of Haji Bba -- dubbed into French. This is approrpiate in a way as Don Weis was one of the Gods of the MacMahonists, and hailed as an explmar of "pue mise en scene." As you can see the title role is played by a young extremely fetchin Jon Derek.

Also of interest is the fact that this 20th Century-Fox release was art directed by Hoyneguene Huene (of all people.) Great fun, and Elaine is feistier than ever.

Belvoir said...

As a red-haired man myself, I enjoy movies (and comics) of the era when we weren't considered unnattractive freaks, like today. Even in black and white films you can always tell a redhead.

Uh, what is up with this prejudice today, I wonder?
It seems the last acceptable one. Women are allowed to be red-haired and considered attractive. Male redheads are considered laughable, the last minority you can mock for their physical characteristics over which they have no control.

I will tell you this though- I have never met another red-haired man who wasn't smart, gracious, and self-effacing. Ever.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

According to Quigley's poll of Box-Office stars, Johnson placed even higher in 1945 at #2, right behind Bing Crosby. It's interesting how after Johnson's reign as a top draw quickly passed, the quality of his films increased substantially.

I have to admit I can't remember much about Johnson's work in Battleground- guess I'll have to pop in the DVD in tribute to him. I did watch State of the Union again recently and thought Johnson was at his best- he seemed to really be enjoying himself, unfazed by the heighweight cast surrounding him.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

And Belvoir, not everyone views redheaded men as unattractive- they're woolf woolf, hubba hubba material, IMO.

DavidEhrenstein said...

My first glimpse of red public hair chainged my life.

Vanwall said...

Siren - Thanks, that's the one I was thinking of. Doesn't get much airplay, and haven't seen it in years, but the against-the-type wasn't half-bad, as I recollect, and that American to his toes is what I always see in Van Johnson roles, regardless. Another aspect to his success, I believe, was his voice - I can't recall another like it, and the Studios always liked a consistent sounding chap, regardless of how they wrote his part.

My one-year-old grandson is showing signs of redheaded-ness, so I'm jazzed - he's as smart as a whip already, might have something to do with the red.

gmoke said...

I was visiting someone in that Upper East Side building and saw Van Johnson there in the 1970s. He was very obviously gay and, if memory serves, wearing an ascot.

Marilyn said...

"the Siren's favorite Van Johnson role will remain his nicely acerbic turn in Brigadoon"

Mine, too.

RIP, Van.

Campaspe said...

Belvoir, for the record, the Siren is a redhead. And the handsomest man I ever laid eyes on was a redhead. He was my "girl in a white dress" a la Citizen Kane. Waited on him once in the downtown boutique I worked at, never forgot him. Luscious British accent, too. And I am a big David Hemmings fan--definite strawberry boy.

Vertigo's Psyche, isn't it interesting that Johnson was so good in State of the Union given the confidence crisis he was undergoing? I really do want to know what Hepburn said.

Gmoke, Beth lived in a building a couple of doors down, but she would often see Johnson running errands or bump into him in the grocery. They would sometimes exchange greetings and he was always very friendly. Her gaydar is legendary amongst our friends but I don't remember her ever mentioning anything about that. Nor an ascot, for that matter.

Marilyn, hooray for another Brigadoon vote!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Michael Musto weigns in

Marilyn said...

Siren - I have heard musicals fan pummel this film version of Brigadoon, but it has always been a favorite of mine. Yes, the sets aren't as good as location shooting would have been, but the cast is great, Kelly and Charisse are a magnetic couple, and as we agree, Van Johnson is great. I especially love his reaction to shooting Harry Beaton, the look on his face and his outburst "How am I supposed to feel in a looney set-up like this" or some such phrasing. There's so much anger and anguish in it; it provides just the right touch of dark this tale needs.

Also, this is a great bit of dialog:

Jeff Douglas: Can you think of one good reason why I, a strange man, should be interested in proposing to you, a mighty strange woman and at this hour of the day?

Meg Brockie: Because you're a lad and I'm a lass!

Jeff Douglas: Well, with that philosophy you must have had a provocative career!

Campaspe said...

David, I love Musto and he has a point. I don't know--as far as I know he was never truly out, so is it unkind to put his sexuality all over the obits? or is it more important to point out to the millions of older people out there who may be anti-gay that a heartthrob of their youth was gay? I think the latter, but you can make a case that an obituary focused on the life's work isn't the place for personal dirt. I guess that is the newspaper's position.

This came up a lot during the first horrible years of the AIDS epidemic. I personally knew a writer who rated a fairly big Times obit when he died. He died of AIDS but his mother, an old-fashioned Southern lady, refused to list that as the cause of death. Instead the cause was listed as the brain cancer that ravaged him, DUE to the AIDs. The Times printed the brain cancer, with the careful qualifier "said his mother." He would have hated the lie, he was definitely out. But he loved his mother very dearly too and wouldn't have wanted her hurt. Sigh.

Campaspe said...

Marilyn, most people think this is crazy talk (including Minnelli) but I think Brigadoon might have been really terrible shot on location. The sets give it that needed remove from reality. And Scotland's lugubrious weather would have given it an unwarranted gloominess too. I think of "Paint Your Wagon," where a rather fey story is just that much sillier with Clint having to wander through actual forests while singing "I Talk to the Trees."

(BTW, how come nobody has enough nerve to ask Clint about that one in interviews, huh?)

Marilyn said...

Siren - I have to disagree. The Quiet Man is a fable set in a rainy country, and it is a glorious location shoot. Whether Minnelli could have done it as well as Ford is another point, but it could have been wonderful on location.

Campaspe said...

Ah, but nobody had to sing and dance in The Quiet Man, not with a full orchestra anyway. There's a huge suspension of disbelief with a musical and the balance is so precarious. For example, with West Side Story, from what I read the Oliver Smith sets added a great deal to the stage production, but then they jettisoned that for the New York location shoot. It works beautifully for me but there are still a lot of people who find that glorious opening number just too weird, everybody Robbins-ing down the West 50s. With Brigadoon, it isn't a realistic story in any way, so why would you need real Scotland? I like that the one place where reality does seem to intrude is in the New York bar scene, and it seems quite logical that Gene Kelly wants to get back to MGM-world as soon as possible. Hell, I would love to live in MGM world too.

Marilyn said...

What about The Sound of Music? Full location, full singing and dancing. I really think it depends on how well the thing is executed. I thought the sets for Brigadoon looked cheap and dreary, not dreamy. If they had been better, then it wouldn't have mattered. Still, there's nothing quite like having real heather instead of 5-and-dime fakes put into holes to make a dream seem real. As Kelly says, near the end, he felt Brigadoon was more real than his own real life. I think it should have reflected that belief a little better.

DavidEhrenstein said...

MGM was on a "budget binge" when Brigadoon was made. Likewise Seven Brides For Seven Brothers which Stanley Donen would have much preferred being shot in the great outdoors. Personally I would have liked to see some actual heather on an actual hill in Brigadoon, but the Kelly/Charisse pas de deux is still as magical as it gets.

As for obits it's the old "Mainstream" editorial question: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?"
When it comes to non-famous citizens all manner mendacity can be put in play and no one (save the small handful of those immediately involved) is the wiser. With the Truly Famous it's another story. It only takes a few Google clicks to find out about Van. With others it's more obscure.

For example, Jacques Demy died of AIDS. Maybe Mathieu will tell that story one day. Agnes won't.

(Mathieu starred in the great Castel et Martineau AIDS musical Jeanne and the Perfect Guy specifically in order to pay tribute to his father.)

wwolfe said...

I'd mention Van's work in the TV adaptation of "Rich Man, Poor Man," made in the late 1970s. He played a rich American socialite, smooth but slightly seedy. I got the feeling Van really understood this type, and managed to show both its attractive and repellant qualities so well that the type became an individual. I haven't seen it in 30 years, but I still remember his work with pleasure.

The Rush Blog said...

I've always enjoyed Van Johnson in some of his darker roles . . . especially when he was portraying the more sardonic types like he did in "Brigadoon". Also, "The Caine Mutiny" was also another favorite of mine.


"It seems the last acceptable one. Women are allowed to be red-haired and considered attractive. Male redheads are considered laughable, the last minority you can mock for their physical characteristics over which they have no control.


Belvoir, think of British actor Damian Lewis and take heart that there is one red-haired male who is not considered a freak or a joke.

The Rush Blog said...

I just remembered. I also liked Van Johnson and Judy Garland in "In the Good Old Summertime". I thought they were just as good as James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in "The Shop Around the Corner".

Campaspe said...

Rush, thank you for the Brigadoon and Caine Mutiny backup. But In the Good Old Summertime as good as Shop Around the Corner? Minnelli or no, that's crazy talk. :D

It is a pretty movie, though.

NoirishCity.... said...

Hi! Self-Styled Siren,
TCM has changed their programming in honor of the late actor Van Johnson. Your readers, may have to check their local listing.
Btw, thanks, for adding my blog to your "Roll of Honor."

TCM to Pay Tribute to Van Johnson Tuesday, Dec. 23

All-Night Marathon Features In the Good Old Summertime, A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Last Time I Saw Paris and Thrill of a Romance

p.s. I agree with you actor Joseph Cotton, most definitely,was not the boy-next-door type!...My mother, placed him in that category only after she watched him in 1944 films [b]"I'll Be Seeing You"[/b] and [b]"Since You Went Away."[/b](Respectively,)

Campaspe said...

thanks, Noirish ... I may have to re-watch Last Time I Saw Paris.

Jan said...

I don't see comments on two of Van's films, among his best, for very different reasons than most might cite: First, "Men of the Fighting Lady" has Van in the narrow confines of a Korean-era fighter cockpit, embedded in flight gear, where facial expression and voice are everything ! This manly role (reproducing word-for-word a real event) may have been one he enjoyed because it was so different and part of the real world (he "talks down" a blinded pilot). Second, in a WWII documentary-style film reproducing the Doolittle Raid, a very young Van plays reveals his freshness, not yet crystallized by studio acting methods. If you can stand the contrived, talky dialogue of his girl (totally idealized and scoped to young off-to-war lovers), see Van in the patio/balcony scene and bed scene. The sparkle in his eyes and smile seem more part of him than later ones script. Sweet. Thank you Van, wherever you are. Jan