Friday, December 19, 2008

Van Johnson "The Boy Next Door"

Yet another actor from “The Golden Age of Hollywood” has

gone to that great studio in the sky.

I’m talking about Van Johnson. I had heard that he had passed

away at the grand old age of 92, so I decided to add yet another

tribute to my blog. One of the first films I saw Van in was

“Till The Clouds Roll By”. The film is a fictionalized biography of

composer Jerome Kern, and is best remembered for its large

cast of well-known musical stars of the day who appear in cameo

roles performing Kern's songs. Van Johnson played a bandleader

in the Elite Club, and I saw this when it was show on TV many

years after its 1946 release.

If you’ve never seen “The Caine Mutiny” I recommend you go

and rent this film as besides starring Humphrey Bogart, Jose

Ferrer and Fred MacMurray, Van almost “steals” the acting honors

from these three stars.

Another great movie is “A Guy Named Joe” and also not to be

missed is “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”.

Some of my favourite movies was when Van co-starred with

June Allyson. They always appeared to be the perfect couple.

Charles Van Dell Johnson was born in Newport, Rhode Island on

the August 25, 1916 and was an only child. He was of Swedish

stock. He endured a lonely and unhappy childhood as the sole

offspring of an extremely aloof father (who was both a plumber

and real estate agent by trade) and an absentee mother (who

abandoned the family when he was three, the victim of alcoholism).

He was the embodiment of the "boy next door," playing "the

red-haired, freckle-faced soldier, sailor or B-25 bomber pilot who

used to live down the street" in MGM movies during the war years.

At the time of his death in, he was one of the last surviving

matinee idols of Hollywood's "golden age." A heartthrob with

bobbysoxers — he was called "the non-singing Sinatra"

In 1939, director and playwright George Abbott cast Van in

Rodgers and Hart's “Too Many Girls” in the role of a college boy,

and as understudy for all three male leads. After an uncredited

role in the film adaptation of “Too Many Girls”, Abbott hired him

as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in Pal Joey, the last

Rodgers and Hart collaboration. That led to screen tests by

Hollywood studios. His test at Columbia Pictures was unsuccessful,

but Warner Brothers put him on contract at $300 a week.

His all-American good looks and easy demeanor were ill-suited to

the gritty movies Warner made at the time, and the studio

dropped him at the expiration of his six-month contract.

Van with Lucille Ball (on Van's left hand side)

His big break was in “A Guy Named Joe”, with Spencer Tracy

and Irene Dunne, in which he played a young pilot who acquires

a deceased pilot as his guardian angel. Midway through the

movie's production in 1943, he was involved in a car crash that

left him with a metal plate in his forehead. Dunne and Tracy

insisted that Johnson not be removed from the cast despite his

long absence.

..........Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracey and Van Johnson.

With many actors now serving in the military, the accident

proved to be a major career break for Johnson. MGM built up

his image as the all-American boy in war dramas and musicals,

with his most notable starring role as Ted Lawson in “Thirty Seconds

Over Tokyo” which told the story of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo

in April 1942.

On January 25, 1947, Johnson married former stage actress

Eve Abbott. One year later in 1948, they had a daughter,

Schuyler. The Johnsons separated in 1961 and their bitter

divorce was finalized until 1968 due to wrangling over the

financial settlement."She wiped me out in the ugliest divorce

in Hollywood history," Johnson said.

.........................Van with his wife, Eve at happier times.

As a musical comedy performer, Johnson appeared in five films

each with June Allyson and Esther Williams. His films with Allyson

included the musical “Two Girls and a Sailor”, and the mystery

farce “Remains to Be Seen”. June Allyson summed up the actor's

screen appeal this way: "He was very, very down-to-earth," she

told The Times in 2003. "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."

...................The beautiful June Allyson.

With Williams he made the comedy “Easy to Wed” and “Easy to

Love”. He also starred with Judy Garland in “In the Good Old

Summertime”, and teamed with Gene Kelly as the sardonic

second lead of “Brigadoon” (one of my all time favourite musicals).

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson from "Brigadoon"

Brigadoon was directed by Vincente Minelli (one of Judy

Garland’s husband and father of Liza).

Brigadoon is a appealing musical fantasy with that

special Kelly touch. Kelly plays a New Yorker named

Tommy Albright, on a hunting vacation in Scotland with

his hard-drinking pal Jeff (Van Johnson). When the

pair gets lost, they stumble into a village called Brigadoon

that seems to have been trapped in time. And in fact, it has

an enchantment causes the town to appear on the face of

the earth only once every century for a single day.

This presents a problem when Tommy falls for a local girl

named Fiona (Cyd Charisse), raising the prospect of the

ultimate long-distance romance.

Van also appeared with Audie Murphy (WWII Medal of Honor

winner, and the most decorated soldier in U.S. history) biopic,

"To Hell and Back." He played a soldier who's tag line, for

just about everything, was: "It's the dying truth."

Johnson was dropped by MGM in 1954, after appearing in

“The Last Time I Saw Paris” with Elizabeth Taylor. He enjoyed

critical acclaim for his performance as Lt. Steve Maryk in

“The Caine Mutiny”.

During the 1950s, Johnson continued to appear in films,

and he also appeared frequently in television guest

appearances. He also guest-starred on Batman as

"The Minstrel" in two episodes in 1966, Here's Lucy,

Quincy M.E., McMillan & Wife and The Love Boat and in

the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man for which he was

nominated for an Emmy Award for that role. He turned

down an opportunity to star as Eliot Ness in

“The Untouchables”, which went on to become a successful

TV series with Robert Stack as Elliot Ness.

In the late 50s and early 1960s Van again capitalized on

his musical talents by reinventing himself as a nightclub

performer and musical stage star. He made a wonderful

Harold Hill in several productions of "The Music Man" and

graced a number of musical and light comedy vehicles on

the regional and dinner theater circuits, including "Damn

Yankees," "Guys and Dolls," "Bells Are Ringing,"

"On a Clear Day...," "Forty Carats," "Bye Bye Birdie,"

"There's a Girl in My Soup" and "I Do! I Do!"

............A scene from "The Last Time I Saw Paris".

In the 1970s, after twice fighting bouts of skin cancer, he

began a second career in summer stock and dinner theater.

In 1985 he returned to Broadway for the first time since

Pal Joey, was cast in the starring role of the musical “La Cage

aux Folles”. In that same year he appeared in a supporting

role in Woody Allen's “The Purple Rose of Cairo”.

.......................Two photos taken of Van in the late 1980's.

Van Johnson lived in an apartment on Manhattan's east side

until 2001, when he moved to Tappan Zee Manor, an

assisted living facility in Nyack, New York. He died there of

natural causes on December 12th, 2008.

I don’t think that there are too many “old timers” both male

and female who are still with us from “The Golden Years”.

Van Johnson appeared in over 100 movie and TV shows and

fortunately like the other movie stars I have posted about,

his legacy will live on for future generations to watch and

appreciate his many talents, be it in dramas, musicals, war movies.

He was a versatile actor who can sing, dance and act with

the best of them.

Below is a film clip in which Van appeared with Lucille Ball from

the“I Love Lucy” TV show, where you will be able to see his

dancing and singing skills…….enjoy.


Gramma Ann said...

What a lovely tribute to Mr. Johnson. I was surprised to read that you like Musicals. Most men shy away from Musicals. But, they were part of my growing up years and I love them. I also just read your tribute to Mr. Newman. I think these are the best write ups of these two I have read yet. BTW, I like your header, it is lovely.

Puss-in-Boots said...

I had a crush on Van Johnson when I was about eight and it was the fault of my aunties. My father's sisters were teenagers and of course, all they talked about were film stars in front of their very impressionable niece.

I still love the movie, Brigadoon, it's my most favouritist movie in all the world!

Peter said...

Well Wazza you've done it again, another top tribute to send off a great actor.

Merle said...

Hi Warren ~~ Great post about Van Johnson. He was a great actor in so many movies. I hadn't heard of his passing. Good photos as always. Looking forward to hearing how
really wonderful we Victorians are in your next posts. I am so glad you enjoyed the trip and thanks again for the DVD ~ Very nice.
Take care and have a beaut Christmas with your family. Very best wishes

Jeanette said...

Gday Warren, A great tribute to a great actor..Seen most of those movies.In fact i have them all on dvd .“Brigadoon”my favorite.
Have a great Christmas with loved ones. best wishes Jan...

Jim said...

Hi Warren, nice to see another great worth your skills in writing him up. That was good and very interesting. Thank you.
And thanks for peeking in on me while you were blogging. I appreciate that a lot.

Happy New Year!

Hale McKay said...

I'm stunned. I don't how - but somehow I missed learning of Van Johnson's passing until I read this post.

As usual and like your previous tributes - an outstanding job, Warren.