Two Girls and a Sailor (1944): Van Johnson, Dream Man
I'll be honest: this is a piece I've struggled to write for over a year. There is so much to say about Two Girls and a Sailor, not to mention the incredible amount of behind-the-scenes stories and facts that I would hate to leave out. But life has been so overwhelming -- professionally, personally, mentally, you name it -- and the idea of writing the kind of review I had been envisioning just makes me want to curl up in a ball. So, someday I'll finally do the full-fledged review that Two Girls and a Sailor deserves, but at this moment, all I want to do is focus on my favorite aspect of this film: Charles Van Dell Johnson.
When you think about it, Two Girls and a Sailor is really June Allyson's movie. As Patsy Deyo, the older half of the singing act the Deyo Sisters, Allyson helplessly watches as her more glamorous sister, Jean (Gloria DeHaven), flirts with an endless parade of admirers, including a wealthy benefactor known only as "Somebody" whose generosity allows the Deyos to open a canteen for servicemen. Patsy has always been overprotective of her sister, but things reach a breaking point when a certain strawberry blonde sailor enters the picture.
Van Johnson's Johnny, like so many men before him, begins the film enamored with Jean. He moons over her picture and adorably pouts when she pays more attention to a soldier named Frank (Tom Drake). But then he meets Patsy, sweet, down-to-earth, practical Patsy. The outcome may be predictable, but Van and his chemistry with best friend June Allyson make it a pleasure to get there.
Every time I see a film with Van, I basically just spend all of his scenes sighing and grinning like an idiot. Two Girls and a Sailor is no exception. When I started taking notes while watching the film, my feelings for Van were basically summed up in one sentence: "OH MY GOSH, SO MUCH ADORABLENESS." I mean, look at this man.
The part of Johnny isn't a very taxing one. But Van's magnetism and heart shine through, making Johnny romantic, funny, and beyond charming. One of my favorite sequences is when Patsy, worried that Jean is going to take Johnny away, dreams that he is calling for her at their window. She chases after him and encounters Jimmy Durante's character, Billy, in top hat and tails. He gives her a bell to ring, which makes Johnny appear in a glittering admiral's uniform. He apologizes for not choosing her over Jean sooner and they kiss. Suddenly, they're shopping for Patsy's trousseau and watching a fashion show accompanied by Harry James's orchestra. To Patsy's horror, Jean materializes wearing a wedding gown and walks into Johnny's waiting arms. Patsy finally stands up for herself and attacks her sister, causing her to wake up and, true to form, immediately apologize to a sleepy, confused Jean.
I'm not the only one who has gone weak in the knees when watching Van as Johnny. When the film was first released, Van was still considered a fresh face in Hollywood who had only gotten his big break the year before in A Guy Named Joe. Audiences, especially bobbysoxers, went crazy for the young actor. June wrote that during production of Two Girls and a Sailor, "I had my first taste of mass hysteria. Some nights were so bad we didn't dare leave the studio. There was that kind of unruly crowd outside the gates at Culver City. Every bobbysoxer in America was swooning over Van Johnson."
The Van Hysteria only intensified after the film came out. Women would wait outside his house; some even broke in! His car often needed repainted because of the damage caused by fans consistently writing on it in lipstick and soap. Unable to enlist in WWII after his life-threatening car accident in 1943, Van played a myriad of servicemen on the silver screen, representing the morally upright, fun-loving, all-American boy that people could imagine as their son, friend, or significant other.
As John "Johnny" Dyckman Brown III, Van is the epitome of boyish wholesomeness and sincere romance. When his character finally confesses to Patsy at film's end how he feels, the lines are so simple and yet he makes it sound like the most intimate thing in the world: "I'd like to be your straight man. I don't sing or dance, but I do love you." "Me?" she asks incredulously. "Yeah, you," he replies with a smile. None of that should melt my heart, and yet it does. Every single time, it does.
There is so much that is magical about Van Johnson. He put his entire soul into performing, a fact that is so clear to me whenever he is on the screen. It is just one of the many, many reasons why I'm head over heels for this man, and if you have any doubt that Van could take something thankless and turn it into a star-making part, just watch Two Girls and a Sailor sometime.
This is my entry to my fourth annual Van Johnson Blogathon, a birthday tribute to one of classic Hollywood's most underrated leading men. Check out the other contributions here!