Six Underrated Van Johnson Films
As one of the most underrated stars of classic Hollywood, Van Johnson has a filmography that merits more attention than it has usually gotten. While he didn't often appear in so-called masterpieces, to me the significance of Van's work is the sheer joy he gave his audiences. Important Films aren't what he was about but rather entertainment; if it provided you with an escape, that is all that seemed to matter.
While I would argue that most of Van's films deserve a watch -- if only to see his remarkable talent -- I decided to choose six that I would recommend. These films are not perfect, but I love them and I wanted to give them a shoutout so maybe you can check them out and fall in love with them, too.
Murder in the Big House aka Born for Trouble (1942)
As Van's second film and his first starring role, it isn't likely you'd know about this murder mystery unless you're a Van obsessive. Which is a shame because it is a surprisingly good, zippy little film! When a death row inmate dies after getting struck by lightning in his cell during a storm, a fresh-faced reporter (Van) begins to suspect it was somehow murder once he learns that the inmate threatened to uncover a group of corrupt officials. It is a goofy idea for sure, but I have a soft spot for these kind of '40s B-movie plots -- there is just something about the way the filmmakers commit to it that I find really fun.
In addition to its interesting premise and shadowy atmosphere, Murder in the Big House was the only film Van made during his six-month contract at Warners before he moved to MGM. (If you ever need proof that Warners didn't know what to do with the actor, take note of how they darkened his beautiful strawberry blonde hair.) Supported by Faye Emerson as the quick-witted reporter who shows him the ropes -- making this film a touch reminiscent of His Girl Friday -- Van gives a very good performance here that hints at the solid work that was to come.
Mother is a Freshman (1949)
I adore Loretta Young, so when I discovered she had made a romantic comedy with Van, I was over the moon. Widowed and temporarily cut off from her husband's trust fund, Young devises a plan to attend college with her 18-year-old daughter (Betty Lynn) to exploit a loophole that would pay her an annual scholarship. Tensions arise, though, when Young falls for the dreamy English professor with whom her daughter is hopelessly infatuated -- and who could blame either of them since that professor is Van!
Mother is a Freshman is certainly flawed: Van's character makes some wildly misogynistic comments and the selfishness of the daughter drives me a little batty. But I'm willing to overlook that if it means I can swoon over Van and Loretta as they're photographed in sumptuous color.
Three Guys Named Mike (1951)
I've written about this film a lot, I know, but it still remains highly underseen. Jane Wyman is Marcy, a bright flight attendant who winds up dating three different men named Mike: a pilot (Howard Keel), an advertising executive (Barry Sullavan), and a graduate student (guess who). Each man represents an important part of Marcy, such as her love for adventure, her creativity, and her curious mind, but which man will she ultimately choose?
Surprisingly, the film is able to keep you guessing until the end, but the best thing about Three Guys Named Mike is what a lighthearted, sweet movie it is. Jane Wyman is a joy to watch, and I admire the fun depictions of female friendships and 1950s air travel. Howard Keel is terrific as the arrogant pilot who is softened by his feelings for Wyman and Van... well, let's just say it is no wonder why Van has had my heart ever since I first saw this film over a decade ago.
Read my full review here.
The premise is pure soap opera: Ellen, a married young woman with a serious heart condition, sees an embittered old friend who suggests that her beloved husband, Dan, only married her for her money. Ellen slowly pieces together the truth and is devastated to learn that her condition is fatal, which caused her father to convince Dan, a family friend, to marry his lonely daughter. Can Dan persuade Ellen that she doesn't have the full story? And does she really have only a few months left to live like she expects?
I'm a sucker for a good melodrama and Invitation is a melodrama with a capital M. Dorothy McGuire was perfect at playing heartbreaking women whose gentleness and sincerity masked their intense insecurity. Every time she sobs to her father that she wants to die after realizing that her marriage was built on a lie, I just want to curl up in a ball alongside her. Ruth Roman is also fantastic as the viciously jealous Maude, who was in love with Dan when her best friend Ellen married him.
And then there is Van. I absolutely love him in this film. He is so believable and sympathetic as the carefree bachelor who is struggling to commit to Maude and jumpstart his architecture career when he is presented with the opportunity to marry Ellen for her wealth. He knows how unethical it is, but he also seems to genuinely want to help make Ellen's last year a happy one. It isn't an easy role, but Van excels in it. Just like how Dorothy McGuire makes me tear up from the pureness of her fragility, Van melts me with his heartfelt vulnerability.
Remains to Be Seen (1953)
For many years, this was a film I was dying to see. Van, June Allyson, and Angela Lansbury in a comedic murder mystery? Yes, please! Sadly, Remains to Be Seen's title is more apt than I'd like it to be: it isn't on DVD and hasn't been shown on TCM in years, but I finally tracked it down (*cough* ok.ru *cough*) and was downright delighted.
This film definitely won't be for everyone: the plot becomes convoluted; there are a few shots that feel nonsensical; Angela Lansbury is wasted; Louis Calhern's character appears to be Van's rival for June until he just disappears; and the mystery is easily the weakest aspect of the script. However, if you're a fan of June and Van, you have to see this movie. They are electric together, with June playing a sexy singer with fabulous clothes (when did MGM ever let her play sexy?) and Van as an apartment manager who aspires to be a drummer and falls head over heels for June as soon as he sees her.
There are so many moments between them that make me grin like an idiot... Van serenading her with "Too Marvelous for Words," which she later croons in his ear. Their exuberant dance to "Toot, Toot, Tootsie." His sweet proposal. The smitten way he looks at her from the beginning of the film to the very end. It is just complete bliss.
This is my contribution to my Fifth Annual Van Johnson Blogathon. Read the other tributes to this beautiful man here!