Van Johnson: A Tribute

I fell in love with Van Johnson on a summer day in 2008. It wasn't a moment I was expecting, to be sure. But as I watched an underrated romantic comedy called Three Guys Named Mike, I felt my breath being taken away the moment a freckle-faced scientist named Mike Lawrence appeared on the screen. Lost in a book while on a flight, he barely notices that his stewardess is lovely Marcy, played by the even lovelier Jane Wyman. As time goes on, though, Mike and Marcy find their way to one another, despite the other two Mikes (Barry Sullivan and Howard Keel) in her life.

There was a warmth and vulnerability to Mike Lawrence that, to me, made him the most obvious choice for Marcy. When he looked at her, he did it with a sweetness that made my knees weak, and when he spoke, there was a calming hush to his voice that felt wildly romantic. As if all of that wasn't enough, at the end of the film, when Marcey finally has to choose which man she wants to be with and they all give their final pitch, Mike L. admits that his rivals' proposals would make any girl's head spin: "There's not much more I can say. All of this sounds pretty wonderful." "Then why are you here, Mike?" Marcy asks. "Because I love you," he replies. Swoon.

Months after I discovered Three Guys Named Mike, I felt devastated when I was watching the Oscars and saw my beloved Mike Lawrence appear during the "In Memoriam" segment. It was a sad moment, but as I delved deeper into classic Hollywood, the memory of Van Johnson's performance in that one film was so imprinted on my brain that I began seeking the actor out... and realized that while Mike Lawrence was certainly a catch, the real dreamboat was Van himself.


An adorable strawberry blonde with a happy-go-lucky attitude and a radiant smile, Van was the man every bobbysoxer wanted in the 1940s and '50s. It's easy to see why. He seemed kind, decent, fun-loving, and while those qualities come across as bland for a lot of teen idols from this period, Van had that something special that made him stand out from the others. He could be a total sweetheart, someone you knew you could depend on for anything, but he also had an edge to him. I know that probably sounds hilarious given how many bright-eyed, boy-next-door characters he played, but he was able to tap into his darker side when given a chance.

Take his role in Brigadoon, for example. This charming fairy tale of a musical tells the story of a beautiful, mystical romance between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, with Van grounding the premise as Kelly's cynical, hard-drinking best friend. While Kelly is enamored with Charisse and Brigadoon, a Scottish village that reappears every 100 years, Van finds the whole thing crazy, acting as the audience's surrogate. Later, when tragedy unexpectedly strikes, Van completely sells the heartbreaking moment and saves the gruff character from becoming insufferable.


 Another film where Van plays a less-than-perfect guy is The Bride Goes Wild, where he is an alcoholic, womanizing children's author who hates kids and spends the majority of the film deceiving June Allyson's character. From that description alone, you have to wonder "How will this man possibly win us over?" And then this happens:


With the simple act of playing with Allyson's curls, Van endears the character to us. Just look at his goofy grin and the funny way he tries to twist her hair without her noticing. Throughout the film, Van goes from pratfalls to silly faces to acidic one-liners, all while balancing his marvelous comedic performance with an equally nuanced dramatic one.


Other superb examples of Van's ability to make unlikable characters likable can be found in Easy to Wed and Easy to Love, both of which hinge on his charm in order for their romantic plots to fully work. They're also two of the five films the actor made with Esther Williams, who was undoubtedly one of his best leading ladies. In fact, it was because of Esther that I grew to appreciate Van even more. As I discovered the Million Dollar Mermaid and explored her filmography, I was able to see more of Van's work and what I saw I adored.

Many people will tell you that a romantic comedy is easy to make... except for the people who actually make them. It can't just be some slapdash thing -- you have to create something that is genuinely romantic, which requires that undependable thing called "chemistry" between the main actors, and you have to make it all funny, which is hard because comedy is subjective. For Esther's aqua musicals, that formula is complicated because now you also have to factor in intricate water ballets and lightweight musical numbers. The end result may look like a bit of fluff, but it is really the culmination of a lot of immensely difficult work. And at the heart of it all is Esther and Van.


One of the most overlooked screen teams, the twosome personified clean-cut, rosy-cheeked, all-American values. Onscreen, they were a devastatingly gorgeous couple who knew how to trade barbed witticisms, longing looks, and charming declarations of love. Offscreen, they were good friends who loved collaborating. Together, they created a small, forgotten legacy of feel-good films that I'm pretty sure doctors could actually recommend for whatever ails you.

While I genuinely love all of their movies, I will always treasure Thrill of a Romance the most. There are many reasons why -- it was my first Esther Williams film; the Technicolor is blindingly beautiful; the music is lovely (even if Lauritz Melchior sings way too much) -- but the main reason is this:











These moments stopped me in my tracks. Until I saw Thrill of a Romance, I thought the best cinema had to be the work of auteurs like Hawks or Hitchcock. After 105 minutes of watching Esther and Van slowly, tenderly fall in love, I realized I was wrong. Their characters' relationship and the way they played scenes together was so natural and so pure, and the camera's attention to them felt intimate. Their candy-colored world was dreamy, yet tinged with melancholy as profound feelings went unsaid and hearts broke. The ending's delightful absurdity is more than earned, as Van and Esther collapse in each other's arms, providing three shots that bring me unspeakable joy every time:



Discovering Van's films has been great fun. Even if I don't like the film itself, his performances never fail to make me smile. All it takes is one smirk, one wisecrack, or even one cocked eyebrow and I fall head over heels all over again. I know Van Johnson the Man wasn't exactly the easiest person to be around -- he was often morose at home and some felt that they never really knew who he truly was, perhaps a result of his difficult upbringing by an alcoholic mother and a distant father. Whatever his demons, Van Johnson the Actor has always been my constant. If I'm having a crummy day or if my anxiety is reaching a breaking point, I know who I can turn to to make everything better. If that isn't a tribute to his brilliance, I don't know what is.

Thank you, Van, and happy birthday.


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This is my (early) contribution to the Second Van Johnson Blogathon, an event hosted by yours truly to celebrate 102 years of the fantastic Mr. Johnson. You can check out the full roster here!

Comments

  1. A charming tribute. You defined the indefinable in your feelings for Van Johnson.

    PS: Whaddya mean Lauritz Melchior sings way too much? You got something against tenors?

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    1. Thank you!

      I have nothing against Melchior -- I love his character in Thrill of a Romance and his singing is beautiful. That being said, I think he is given a few too many songs in the film. Operatic singing has always been hard for me to get into, though, so it's nothing personal.

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  2. Perfect appetizer for the upcoming Van Johnson blog-a-thon. I'm looking forward to a weekend of serious reading!

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  3. What a lovely tribute, sigh. Thanks for introducing me to this actor. in your blogathon and now in such a wonderful and heartfelt way.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Gill! It's the least I could do for an actor who has brought me so much joy.

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  4. Every time I grow more fond of Van Johnson. He definetely must have been a great guy. Thrill of a Romance was actually the first film I've watched with him, and it was so visually beautiful, and his relationship with Esther's character was so true.
    You wrote a beautiful tribute, and it was great to get to know your journey with Van.
    Thanks for hosting this blogathon!
    Kisses!

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    Replies
    1. I'm still not sure I did Van justice with this post since he has such a special place in my heart, so thank you for your kind words! :)

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  5. Just lovely, Michaela <3

    I guess it's a good thing he did get to show off that edge, even if it was only in a few movies. Even if he had more sardonic roles, that would've been perfect.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Simoa! Snarky Van is one of my favorite things. It's a shame that side of him wasn't exploited more.

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