August 25, 1916 to December 11, 2008

by Katharine Blossom Lowrie

The perennial “guy next door”

Despite his lightweight reputation as the perennial “guy next door” in musicals and comedies of the ’40s and ’50s, Van Johnson (above with Esther Williams in an MGM publicity still ) accrued first-rate reviews for sturdier roles: the values-burdened naval lieutenant who relieves Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) of his command in Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 adaptation of the Herman Wouk novel, “The Caine Mutiny”; Deborah Kerr’s illicit lover in Dmytryk’s 1955 adaptation of Graham Green’s “The End of the Affair,” and a bomber pilot in two WWII films, “A Guy Named Joe” (1943) and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944), in which the one-time chorus boy proved he could hold his own against the formidable Spencer Tracy.

An MGM musical junkie

5365550.jpgAs for me, alas, I’ll take his silly old romantic-comedy roles any day, mainly because I’m an MGM musical junkie and adore even the bombs. Johnson starred in a number of the, uh, let’s say lesser MGM attempts during his contract years (1942-55): “In the Good Old Summertime” (with Judy Garland above); “Easy to Wed,” “Thrill of a Romance” and “Duchess of Idaho” (all with Esther Williams), and five that shall remain nameless with June Allyson.

Popcorn cost 25 cents

Blame it on my nostalgia for a time when life seemed capable of offering love on a trolley car and happy endings at a fair in St. Louis. In Van Johnson’s case, the happy ending usually came (very predictably) after chasing Esther Williams from one splashy production number to another, or wooing Gloria DeHaven, only to find he was really in love with June Allyson – all in glorious Technicolor.

5365553.jpgPopcorn cost 25 cents in those days, and theatres offered double features, Tom & Jerry cartoons and Superman serials on Saturdays. Movie magazines like Photoplay, Modern Screen and Movie Mirror elevated to royalty stars such as Mickey Rooney, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner (right with Johnson in “Weekend at the Waldorf”) – this as studio moguls like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer groomed contract players in everything from tap to table manners and channeled every whit of their biographies through the rose-colored lens of the studio publicity department.

His signature red socks

Johnson’s family history wasn’t the picture-perfect stuff of MGM press releases. The boyish, freckle-faced leading man with strawberry-blond hair and a sunny smile didn’t seem to fit the image of an unwanted child born in Newport, RI to an alcoholic mother, who abandoned him, and a penurious, Swedish-American plumber who never ceased resenting his son. MGM preferred to show Van Johnson escorting Elizabeth Taylor on a date, attending a Hollywood premiere in his signature red socks, or doing embroidery, a hobby he took up along with painting after Spencer Tracy advised him to expand his life beyond acting.

In 1947, at the height of his career, Johnson almost erased his good-guy image for good when he eloped to Mexico to marry Eve Wynn, who had divorced Johnson’s best friend, Keenan Wynn, only four hours before. The marriage produced a daughter, Schuyler, and ended bitterly 13 years later. In 2005, Johnson became estranged from his daughter after she wrote a scathing first-person account of him for a London newspaper.

Zero tolerance for any sort of unpleasantness

Due to emotional deprivations suffered as a child, Johnson had zero tolerance for any sort of unpleasantness, according to stepson Ned Wynn, who described his stepfather as “moody and morose” in his memoir, “We Have Always Lived in Beverly Hills.” The slightest sign of upheaval, whether it concerned the children, the house, the servants or lack of ice in the ice bucket, Wynn wrote, would propel the actor out of the room.

a-guy-named-joe.jpgWhere Johnson got lucky was in films, one of his biggest breaks the result of a near fatal automobile crash. It happened in the midst of filming his first important movie, “A Guy Named Joe”, in which he played a young fighter pilot who acquires an older pilot (Spencer Tracy) as his guardian angel after the older man is killed in a crash. In a very real way, Tracy served as Johnson’s guardian angel, when he and co-star Irene Dunne (shown above with Tracy and Johnson in a still from Joe) refused to allow the studio to recast the promising young actor’s part during his lengthy hospitalization and recovery.

Launched into immediate stardom

Fitted with a steel plate in his head, Johnson finished the film and was launched into immediate stardom when his injuries kept him from being drafted at a time when major MGM stars like Robert Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable were joining the armed services. His rivals off fighting in the war, Johnson’s way was paved with leading roles for the next decade. In 1985, he said of his years under contract to Louis B. Mayer: “It 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.”

Johnson, who appeared in over 100 films, not to mention countless stage roles and TV guest shots, died this December at the age of 92 in an assisted living center in Nyack, New York. In his last movie, a small part in Woody Allen’s 1985 film “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Johnson portrayed a 1930s film actor who has trouble improvising when one of the cast members (Mia Farrow) jumps off-screen into reality. Not his favorite place.

[Photos courtesy MGM archives.]