Dec 12, 2008

Van Johnson, 1916-2008

Oh Vanny. Not you. Not the tousle-haired sailor, the baby-faced boy in battle, the relish-ably rogue redhead intent on weakening the prudish underpinnings of June Allyson with a wry smile and a soft-spoken sweet nothing. You were the redoubtable romance of so many black-and-white blockbusters, the genial gentleman in MGM's most dazzling musicals. You were boyish onscreen - boyish yet broad-shouldered, disarmingly darling yet deftly deceitful, a wooer of women with a shy sincerity submerged in a charming casanova front (do you remember getting June drunk in that grotto? I can never forget it). And now you're gone.


Charles Van Johnson, 92, passed away Friday, December 12, 2008. The Rhode Island-born only child made his Broadway debut at just 18, understudied Gene Kelly in the latter's hit stage hit Pal Joey, and coasted into cinema in 1940's Too Many Girls, having been brought to Hollywood as a member of the film's Broadway cast. He played bit parts in MGM B-movies after the studio picked up his three-year contract from RKO, but when serious injuries from a near-fatal 1942 car crash left him ineligible for military service, Van was one of the few young actors stranded stateside during WWII, and so gained a valuable foray into leading roles by virtue of his youth, appeal, and circumstance. His affability and humility after the gruesome accident earned him the acceptance and affection of millions of moviegoers, and, paired with some of the most beautiful and bankable actresses of his day - June Allyson, Judy Garland, and Esther Williams - Van proved to be a hugely popular star and top box-office draw for MGM.
After a string of successful dramas and romantic comedies in the postwar 1940's and 1950's, Van scaled back his film career, appearing onscreen only infrequently, focusing more on stage and television work, often collaborating with former fellow film stars like June Allyson and Angela Lansbury in the latter medium. He maintained a low profile in his final years, though he reportedly loved to reminisce about his golden days at MGM.
Van is survived by his estranged daughter, Schuyler, by his late former wife, Eve Wynn.


There is a scene from Two Girls and A Sailor that has been with me today. June Allyson's character has been dreaming, and in her sleep-heavy state she is led through her dream to a wispy, glorious, cloud-covered place that could only be Heaven in a Pasternak production, vivid and bright even in black-and-white. The film's hero meets her here - Van Johnson, of course - and he is everything a film hero should be: winningly adorable yet non-threatening, endearingly tender, a touch shy, brave, lovable...the essence of Van Johnson, really. The dialogue doesn't matter, but the image of Van and June in heaven...I would like to savor that today.

"Van Johnson is one of the nicest boys who ever lived, and Hollywood hasn't spoiled him. Nothing ever will. He's just as honest and sunny-dispositioned as he looks." - Lucille Ball

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