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Jewish World Review
Dec. 19, 2008
/ 22 Kislev 5769
I was never a big fan of Van Johnson. Oh, he was pleasant enough in most of the movies he did, but he never excited me as a performer in the same way that say, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, or Humphrey Bogart did. He did a fine job in most films and he was quite good in a few (A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, State of the Union, and The Caine Mutiny). But for me, he never had that extra special something that the really great ones seem to possess. Basically, he usually came off as just a nice guy. And I guess that was his strength. It was probably that nice guy, boy next door quality that made him a star.
When he first appeared in the movies, boy, did the teenage girls go for him! The bobbysoxers instantly fell in love with his boy next door freckles and red hair and he was soon being referred to as "the voiceless Sinatra." In 1945 he came in second right after Bing Crosby as the nation's top box office star. The movie fan magazines were filled with stories and pictures of Johnson. The bobbysoxers just couldn't get enough and MGM loved every minute of it. He made a gang of pictures in quick succession all through the forties.
In his motion pictures he was often paired with June Allison, MGM's perennial "girl next door" and indeed, they seemed to have a good on-screen chemistry.
Born on August 25th, 1916, Van Johnson appeared in over 100 films, not to mention countless stage roles and guest shots on TV shows. After making his Broadway debut in New Faces of 1936, he landed his first screen role was as a chorus boy (and understudy) in Too Many Girls (1940), famous for the fact that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz met during its filming.
In 1942 he signed a seven-year contract with MGM. He first got star billing in Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), after appearing in strong supporting roles in 1943 in Madame Curie, The Human Comedy and A Guy Named Joe. He was one of MGM's stars for the next 15 years. He had many lead roles, but some his best performances continued to be in supporting parts, including State of the Union (1948), Command Decision (1948), and Brigadoon (1954).
One of his most memorable starring roles was in The Caine Mutiny (1954). His film career peaked during the 40s and 50s, and he returned to the stage after that and appeared as a Las Vegas headliner and in many TV series and sitcoms in the 1970s and 80s. In 1985 he starred in the hit Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles. He toured with a one-man show as recently as 1997, but later retired and lived quietly until his death on December 12th of this year.
What many people may not know is that Van Johnson was in a serious auto accident in 1942 which resulted in the insertion of a metal plate in his head. The studio wanted to replace Johnson in the picture under production at the time of his accident (A Guy Named Joe), but Spenser Tracy wouldn't hear of it and production was held up until Johnson recovered. That injury kept Johnson out of war time service.
You could certainly call Van Johnson a survivor in the truest meaning of the word. Not only did he survive that auto accident, he survived as a star in Hollywood and continued to work well into a ripe old age. He also was a cancer survivor, being diagnosed with skin cancer in 1963. Yep, you might say that the boy next door did alright for himself overall.
But like so many stars who are fortunate enough to live a long life, they also outlive their celebrity. Kind of an ironic thing, isn't it? If a star dies young, he or she becomes immortal, if the star dies in his 90's the world has moved on and people will have forgotten him of her. That's the way it works and sad to say many young adults have never even heard of Van Johnson. Indeed, his obit didn't even take up an entire page in The Los Angeles Times.
The good news is that Van Johnson's work can be enjoyed on DVD and on classic movie stations for anyone who cares to see what all the hubbub was about in the 40's when those bobbysoxers were screaming for that freckled-face boy next door, Van Johnson.
Van Johnson - a nice guy who could dance a little, sing a little and hold his own as an actor when the part was right. The bottom line is, he was a movie star at a time when being a movie star really meant something. R.I.P.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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