The ABCs of Van Johnson


On August 25, Van Johnson would have been 103 years old. There are few people from classic Hollywood that I love more than Van. Last year for his birthday, I wrote about why I fell for him, but it feels like I still didn't even scratch the surface of what it is about Van that makes me swoon over him as much as I do. Because of this, I thought it'd be fun to share some of the facts and stories that contribute to what makes Van so special.

A is for A Guy Named Joe

A Guy Named Joe is one of the most important films of Van's career. When he was cast as the young pilot who wins over Irene Dunne with the ghostly guidance of Spencer Tracy, it was clearly a good step towards making Van the sensitive, romantic leading man he became. All of that was put in jeopardy, though, when two weeks into production, Van, his best friends Keenan and Evie Wynn, and two others were struck in Van's convertible by a car running a red light. While everyone else was relatively fine, Van was thrown from the car, almost scalped, and, thanks to a severed artery in his neck, lost a huge amount of blood while waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance.

Everyone thought that even if he survived, his career was over. When MGM talked about replacing him in A Guy Named Joe, both Tracy and Dunne threatened to walk. After many months and surgeries, Van returned to work, weak and with a noticeable scar on his forehead and a five-inch metal plate in his head. (When friend June Allyson told him he should get plastic surgery to remove his forehead scar, Van said, "This is now part of my character. Let people see reality.") A Guy Named Joe was a success, but more importantly, it made Van a sensation. "His determination and effervescent screen personality had laid the groundwork," biographer Ronald L. Davis said, "but the public embraced him as a fighter, a survivor, and a sex symbol only after reading detailed reports of his near-fatal car wreck."

B is for Bobbysoxers

When we think of the bobbysoxer, our mind probably goes to Frank Sinatra, the man who is most associated with that screaming young fangirl jumping up and down in bobby socks. At the same time Sinatra was getting mobbed by these female fans, however, Van Johnson was also creating a frenzy, so much so that he was nicknamed "the Voiceless Sinatra." It reached new heights in 1944 after the release of Two Girls and a Sailor. Co-star June Allyson recalled how difficult it was to leave the studio with Van after a day of shooting: "I had my first taste of mass hysteria. Some nights were so bad we didn't dare leave the studio. ... Every bobbysoxer in America was swooning over Van Johnson."

When he did a radio show, crowds made up of thousands waited for him outside. His car had to be repainted every month due to the messages written on it. At one point, he had to move into the Bel Air Hotel because of overeager fans who would camp outside his house, throw pebbles at his windows to get his attention, and, in one special case, barricade themselves in his bathroom. Even inside the studio, he wasn't completely safe as messenger girls delivered phony messages, just to see their idol up close.

While all of this attention could have been bothersome, Van enjoyed it and he knew it was his fans who made him into the star he was. "I never turned down anybody for an autograph," he said. "I think it's up to the fans; it's up to the public. No amount of Photoplay magazines or layouts puts you over the public unless the public buys you." Allyson, who frequently went to premieres and events with Van and had a front-row seat to the mania, wrote that when fans became too handsy, "Van simply went into hiding. It would cause people to call Van Johnson arrogant, but they could not be more mistaken about this man who always went to great lengths to be kind to the hordes of swooning, screeching fans who were invading his privacy and trying to turn his life into a farce."






C is for Charles Van Dell Johnson

Born in 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island to a Swedish father and a Pennsylvania Dutch mother, Van's real name was Charles Van Dell Johnson, Charles being his father's name. As far as I can tell, he was called Van at an early age and kept it as his stage name.


D is for Dr. Gillespie

Before A Guy Named Joe came along, Van was placed in the Dr. Gillespie series, a continuation of the popular Dr. Kildare films after its star Lew Ayres moved on. Van's character Dr. Randall "Red" Adams was similar to Kildare -- both were bright, idyllic doctors who were determined to do anything and everything for their patients, all while being mentored by Lionel Barrymore's Gillespie. While certainly not great pieces of art, Van's four entries are a nice way to pass the time and easily show what MGM saw in the young actor.

E is for Esther Williams

One of my favorite screen teams and one of MGM's most popular pairs was Esther and Van. They first appeared together in A Guy Named Joe with Esther in a small role, but for four more films, they delighted audiences with their sweet chemistry and undeniable charm. Describing Van as "part strong man, part eager boy," Esther loved working with him and he proved to be one of her absolute best screen partners. "There was no cuter human being in the world at the time," Esther admitted, but despite Louis B. Mayer's wish that they would date, they stayed good friends and collaborators. Even when looking at photographs, you can tell these two adored each other and Esther wrote that they became like family to one another, although they weren't as close off the set. (Fun fact: Van was crazy about Esther's cooking. He loved it when she would make lunch during filming.)






Visiting Judy Garland on the set of The Harvey Girls:






F is for Freckles

Back in old Hollywood, freckles were usually something to be covered up. To me, someone who has always had freckles, it's one of the stranger mandates that the studios promoted. However, part of what helped make Van so wholesome-looking was his immense amount of freckles, so you can still spot them in candid shots and other publicity photos. "They're my living," he once joked.




G is for Gene Kelly

One of Van's earliest successes was being Gene Kelly's understudy and in the chorus of the original Broadway production of Pal Joey. At that time, Van was intimidated by the brash, older Kelly, but over the years they became great friends. Van enjoyed going to Gene's house for volleyball games and parties where they'd eat hot dogs and play charades. They co-starred in two films, Pilot No. 5 and, one of my very favorites, Brigadoon. I just love these set photos from the latter, especially the one with Howard Keel in his Seven Brides for Seven Brothers costume!



Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene's widow, has said that Van "sent several letters to us over the years and you could always tell that the note was from Van because he wrote in an unmistakable script in red felt pen and always added his unique version of a smiley face." Because of the big age difference between her and Gene, Kelly wasn't always treated well by the press or people who knew Gene. Van, however, "was one of the first to send his congratulations when we were married and one of the first to express his deep sorrow when Gene died. What a lovely guy."


H is for Hollywood

Part of why I adore Van is that he remained a starstruck fan of Hollywood, which is probably why he was always so generous with his own fans. Ever since he was little, he idolized the movies. As he got older, he would do sketches of his favorite actors. When he saw Imitation of Life (1934), he sent fan letters to Claudette Colbert. Once he became part of Hollywood himself, he couldn't believe it when he would meet and, in some cases, actually befriend the stars he had loved for so many years. According to the magazines, one of his hobbies was collecting autographs, and he studied the likes of Garbo, Spencer Tracy, and Joan Crawford in the MGM projection room when his star was on the rise. During production of Weekend at the Waldorf, he had lunch with Ginger Rogers one day and geeked out the whole time.

(Side note: Ginger claimed in her autobiography that she first saw Van when he was in Pal Joey and, convinced that he'd be a star, she wanted to help him get into the movies but ultimately let her friend Leland Hayward talk her out of it. She would meet Van some months later at a party after he came to MGM and they became friends. Ginger relays this cute story of how Van always said hello to her: "One of my habits of dress at that time [the early '40s] was to wear large-brimmed hats with suits. Whenever Van saw me at a party or luncheon, he would lovingly yell, 'Hi, Pancho'... To this day, whenever we see each other across the room or across a theater or restaurant, he greets me with, 'Hi, Pancho! What's new?'")

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Van loved being part of the studio system: "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."





I is for "I Won't Dance"

One of the absolute best parts of the Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By is when Van performs "I Won't Dance" with Lucille Bremer. I pretty much smile until my face hurts watching it, it's that cute.


J is for June Allyson

In his entire career, Van had three consistent leading ladies, women who were both co-stars and close friends: Esther, Janet Leigh (more on her shortly), and June Allyson. While Van was cutting his teeth in Pal Joey as Gene's understudy, in the theater next door, Junie was in Panama Hattie understudying Betty Hutton. They met at a party and one of classic Hollywood's most underrated friendships was born. Van and June were, in many ways, soulmates. They would go to the Automat together for their meals and get hamburgers on matinee days. In her autobiography, she fondly recalls how Van once bought her a box of chocolates and "gallantly let me eat all the dark ones, my favorites, while he ate the light."

Both of them were crazy about movies and acting, so they'd see the same film over and over. They'd spend hours talking about it and would act out their favorite scenes. "We kidded and talked about what we would do when we were motion picture celebrities, how perhaps we'd even play in a picture together," June said. She confided in Van that her voice's raspy quality made people think there was something wrong with it and he told her that its uniqueness was precisely what would make her a star, calling it her "million-dollar laryngitis."

The pair collaborated on five films and a handful of TV episodes. Like Esther, June was encouraged to start a romance with Van and their fans ached for them to be a couple, too. Even when they married other people, some of their fans -- and even a few of their friends -- thought they were still together.

Just like in their New York days, Van and June would go out to eat together, roaring with laughter as they remembered their Automat dates and joked about who would pay the check. They would try their best to spend Christmases and birthdays with each other. When Van's daughter broke her collarbone riding a horse at June and husband Dick Powell's ranch, Powell was worried about how angry Van would be, but, June wrote, "Van had too much class for that, and this was when Richard saw he was not just a fair-weather friend." Until the day June died in 2006, they remained best friends, doing things like cruise-ship appearances together and supporting each other's stage performances.

 









K is for Keenan and Evie Wynn

A whole book could be written about the relationship between these three. I'll admit, it was an unorthodox one, and I don't want to speculate too much because it just feels icky to do so. Keenan Wynn and his wife Eve, or Evie, were Van's closest friends for many years. After his accident, he recuperated at their home and they all seemed to be joined at the hip (which caused a lot of malicious gossip). The Wynns' marriage was far from perfect, though, and the dissolution of it was... interesting, to say the least.

On January 25, 1947, they drove to Juarez, got their divorce, drove back across the border, and four hours later, Eve and Van were married. And yet Keenan and Van stayed friends. It's thought that Eve willingly went through with all of this in order to help Louis B. Mayer and Van hide Van's sexuality, but I don't think we'll ever know the true nature of what happened. In her book, June Allyson says that while it was a surprise that Van, a longtime bachelor, got married, she wasn't surprised "that he chose a woman with warmth and maturity. Van had been a guest at her home and had seen how caring Evie Wynn could be."

Van and Evie had a daughter, Schuyler, in 1948 and he became the stepfather to her and Keenan's two sons, but over time their marriage became strained and very contentious, leading to their divorce in 1968. Van vowed he would never marry again and he didn't.






L is for Janet Leigh

Aside from being co-stars and pals, Van was an instrumental figure in Janet Leigh's early career. Born Jeanette Morrison and discovered by Norma Shearer (incidentally one of Van's favorite actresses), the 18-year-old was given her new name by Van and he became an invaluable teacher as they worked together on her film debut, The Romance of Rosy Ridge. "Van Johnson became my favorite leading man," Leigh gushed. "He was always a joy -- no tantrums, no ego. A young girl starting out couldn't ask for any better than Van. Without his patience, I never would have gotten through my first picture."

After Rosy Ridge, they would make two more movies together and did a production of Love Letters in the 1980s. Like June Allyson, Janet would go support Van at his stage performances, and she never forgot how kind and gracious he was toward her when she was just starting out.





M is for Musicals

Although he excelled at practically any genre you threw at him, at heart Van was a song-and-dance man. His first acting jobs were in musicals and he always enjoyed singing and dancing, even if he modestly pointed out that he was no Kelly or Astaire. Some of my favorite Van films are musicals, like Two Girls and a Sailor and Duchess of Idaho, but he actually didn't star in as many as you'd think, and even if he was in one, there isn't a guarantee that he performs a number, such as in Thrill of a Romance. When his film career started winding down, Van went back to musical theatre and did various productions of The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls, Bells are Ringing, and more.

N is for Three Guys Named Mike

As I've mentioned before, this is a film that's incredibly important to me. It was my first Van film and I've been in love with him ever since. As Mike Lawrence, he is adorable and sweet and attentive, and his chemistry with Jane Wyman is utterly delightful. "He was marvelous," Wyman said. "Funny, dedicated to his profession, and a fast study. His memory was incredible; the lines just stuck. Van loved to work and was very popular with the production company." You can read more of my blubbering about the film here.





O is for Oscars

Two words: never nominated. What is this nonsense?!

P is for Publicity

Is this an excuse to post a bunch of sigh-inducing Van pictures? You betcha! First, we have this amazing Photoplay quiz he once filled out (courtesy of Nitrate Diva's Twitter):


I found this lovely image of Van and Frank Sinatra in a vintage movie magazine I recently bought and immediately put it in a frame and on my wall. Imagine my surprise when I discovered another photo of them with their positions reversed!



Van and Grace Kelly at Cannes in 1955:


Van, Ginger Rogers, and Donald O'Connor... why did we never get a movie with all three of them?



Van goofing around with Greer Garson:


Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and Van at a radio show:


Here's an interesting piece of news: Van briefly dated Sonja Henie! They met in 1945 and were often seen together. Mayer hated the pairing because Henie was a mere three years older than Van and still married (she would be divorced a year later). Some sources say that they were just good friends who dated for the publicity.




Yet another woman who was special to Van was Judy Garland. While making In the Good Old Summertime, Van was able to keep up Judy's spirits and made it one of her more joyful filmmaking experiences. He was in complete awe of her talent and he studied how she worked, later saying that Judy was "one of the unsung ladies in my life." Van also got to be part of Liza Minnelli's film debut when she appears at the end of Summertime as his and Judy's daughter.






Mugging with Gracie Allen:




Q is for Quiet

Although he seemed to be quite extroverted and gregarious, Van, more often than not, was very shy. He typically kept to himself, which ended up creating distance between him and his family. Thanks to his upbringing -- his alcoholic mother left him and his father when he was very little, resulting in his restrained father becoming even more closed off -- Van was an extremely private person. He liked to stay home and read, listen to records, and paint, all by himself. (He did, however, go to Claudette Colbert's frequently to paint with a group that included Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and Dinah Shore!)

R is for Redhead ... and Red Socks

Like his freckles, Van's red hair was his signature look. Bobbysoxers couldn't get enough of it and it helped make him stand out from other male stars. It also led Greer Garson to affectionately call him "a big and burly Shirley Temple." Incredibly enough, when he was first brought to Hollywood in 1942, he signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros., who dyed his hair and eyebrows black and put him in a film called Murder in the Big House. Thank goodness Van found his way to MGM!

Another iconic part of Van's appearance was his ever present red socks. "It was my first Hollywood party at Mary and Jack Benny's house," he explained. "The only clean pair of socks I had were red. Instead of laughing at me they thought I was clever. The socks were a great icebreaker and the color has been with me ever since." Being the introverted person he was, Van found that his red socks started conversations and helped him be social, so much so that he called them his "crutch."

It seemed like whenever someone new met Van, his socks were the first thing they noticed. William Shatner, for example, mentioned them when recalling his time working with Van in summer stock: "He would almost levitate, he was so full of energy! He would spring around the theater from room to room being boisterous and funny, always in the red socks! He was a hero of mine growing up and I had the absolute pleasure of experiencing his charming personality for about an hour every Sunday for a summer."






S is for Stage

As you can tell by now, acting in the theatre was a major part of Van's life. It's where he got his start and it's what he turned to when film and TV work wasn't as fulfilling as it used to be. He did touring companies, summer stock, dinner theatre, and even did La Cage aux Folles on Broadway for a bit in 1985.

With June Havoc in Pal Joey:


The Music Man:


At the stage door for La Cage aux Folles:


T is for Television

For over three decades, Van did his fair share of television. He guest-starred on episodes of McMillan and Wife, The Love Boat, Maude, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater, and more. He was offered the role of Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, but passed and the infamous character became Robert Stack's. He was wonderful as the villain the Minstrel on Batman and I love his appearances on Murder, She Wrote, especially his episode with June Allyson. My favorite, though, is his I Love Lucy episode "Dancing Star." It is pure joy to watch.




U is for Upbeat

An integral part of Van's film persona was his persistent optimism and cheerfulness. While he could be a morose and solitary person, time and time again, friends, co-workers, and fans would comment on how pleasant, funny, and hard-working he was.







V is for Vanjee

Remember how I said Van and June's fans really wanted them to be together? Well, some of their fan clubs were so obsessed that they would come up with names for their future children. The most ridiculous one? Vanjee. Just thinking about it cracks me up every time.

W is for War

Because of his car accident and the subsequent metal plate in his head, Van was exempted from serving in WWII, which proved to be a boon to his career. With so many of Hollywood's biggest actors away, fans found a new favorite in Van. They didn't resent him for not serving because of the widespread attention his horrific accident and slow convalescence received. Men felt like they could be friends with him and women wanted to mother him.

Despite not being an actual soldier, Van continually played one and later noted, "There were five of us. There was Jimmy Craig, Bob Young, Bobby Walker, Peter Lawford, and myself. All tested for the same part all the time. ... I remember finishing one Thursday morning with June Allyson and starting a new one Thursday afternoon with Esther Williams. I didn't know which branch of the service I was in!"

Although he did have a legitimate reason for not serving, it still made Van feel a little uncomfortable going out in public and being photographed having a good time during the war, so he tried to avoid nightclubs and even the Hollywood Canteen for fear that it would anger servicemen.




X is for Boy Next Door

During the 1940s, Van was the epitome of the boy-next-door type. He exuded a warmth and vulnerability that proved irresistible to women, especially during the war when their own men were fighting overseas. Van was like a safe harbor, an adorable, decent young man you could easily picture coming home to. This image was exactly what made him such a perfect leading man for actresses like Esther, June, and Janet.

Y is for Doris Day

I think we can all agree that Hollywood made a huge mistake in never bringing Van and Doris together for a film. Both of them were essentially the human form of sunshine and they were excellent romantic comedy performers. Ironically enough, Van actually called himself the male Doris Day!

While they didn't collaborate on the big screen, Van did appear as carefree, adventurous cousin Charlie on The Doris Day Show for a few episodes and the two did some work on the radio together. You can listen to their precious rendition of "You're Just in Love" here.






Z is for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball

Van first met Desi Arnaz when he was in the chorus of Too Many Girls on Broadway. He quickly became Desi's understudy and, even though he didn't have a speaking part, Van's star quality was evident to critics and audiences alike. When the show was made into a film, Van was hired to be in the background and became one of the witnesses to the electric beginning of Desi and Lucille Ball's romance, which caused him to kid the couple for many years, "It could've been me, Lucy!"

When Warner Bros. didn't pick up Van's option in 1942, he was convinced that his Hollywood dreams were over and he prepared to return to New York. Desi and Lucy invited him to Chasen's for a goodbye dinner and happened to be seated near Billy Grady, MGM's casting director. Lucy introduced the two men to each other and convinced Grady to give Van a chance.

In addition to his appearance on I Love Lucy and another one on Here's Lucy, Van starred with Ball in Easy to Wed and Yours, Mine, and Ours. When Van went through multiple health problems later in his life, including two bouts with cancer and a broken foot, he continued to perform without missing a beat, leading Lucy to dub him "the survivingest damned survivor of us all."

The trio at the opening of Desi's Ciro's show in 1947:



Still at Ciro's, with Red and Edna Skelton:




Van and Lucy with the Skeltons again:


BONUS!

I found this adorable Modern Screen story of a birthday party thrown for Van in the mid-1940s. I broke up the pages so you could read the print better -- except for the last one because of the way the photos are laid out -- but hopefully it's still cohesive.








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This is my contribution to my Third Van Johnson Blogathon. Please check out the other tributes to this terrific man here!

Comments

  1. VAN=Very Attractive Natural, meaning that he was a natural at acting. I liked WIVES AND LOVERS which starred Van with Janet Leigh. I liked the performances better than the actual story. The movie also had SHELLEY WINTERS, MARTHA HYER, RAY WALSTON and JEREMY SLATE. By the way, do you like any other male movie stars as much as Van? Classic TV Fan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very Attractive Natural -- I like that! I haven't seen Wives and Lovers yet, but I've heard a lot of people say that the cast is better than the material.

      My favorite actor is actually Cary Grant, but Van isn't far behind him. I'm also crazy about Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. I'd say that those guys are probably my top five favorites. Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart are high on my list as well.

      Delete
  2. Epic! I took a couple of days to absorb your wonderful article. It deserved that much attention and I felt rewarded.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a lovely thing to say! It was such a treat finding photos and stories that I'm having a hard time stopping. I even added a photo of Van and June and a story from Ginger after I published it.

      Delete
  3. I now know and appreciate Van much more! I loved learning that he would often get starstruck and collected autographs, that's so cute!
    Thanks for this great event agiain!
    By the way, feel free to participate in my new blogathon as a blogger or reader:
    https://criticaretro.blogspot.com/2019/08/announcing-luso-world-cinema-blogathon.html
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! He was just the best. I've been going through old magazines lately for my thesis work and every time I spot Van, I just have to stop and stare for a few seconds, haha. I have a feeling magazine clippings of him will be my entry for next year.

      I'm stepping back from doing a lot of blogathons since the new school year has started, but I'll check it out!

      Delete

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