August 25, 1916– Charles Van Dell Johnson:
“I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
Van Johnson was a boyishly handsome leading man of the Golden Age of Hollywood and one of the Top 10 Hollywood Stars of the 1940s.
It was an era when MGM could claim “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens” and leading men came in very distinct types. Johnson’s type was the redheaded, freckle-faced boy-next-door. He would joke that he got paid by the freckle. Teenage girls called “bobby-soxers” screamed for him. Off-screen, he always wore his trademark red socks.
Even though he was a great dancer and could sing well, he was called “The Voiceless Sinatra” by the fan mags.
He also was included in another significant category, the MGM leading man who always got the girl. Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson and Esther Williams were those co-stars; so was Judy Garland.
Near the end of The Caine Mutiny (1954) there’s a startling close-up shot of Johnson where you can see the pronounced facial scars from a 1943 automobile accident, so carefully hidden by studio makeup artists for so many years. In the film they revealed more fully than they’d ever been on screen. Johnson’s role in The Caine Mutiny is small, but it was one the most prestigious projects he landed after WW II.
By the time of The Caine Mutiny, when his star had fallen, getting out from underneath his scar-concealing makeup may have been a relief. When Johnson passed away a decade ago, at 92 years old, the obituaries ignored the part of his life spent largely behind another kind of facade. Some alluded to a “difficult” marriage.
Like Rock Hudson, Johnson was pressured by studio bosses into a marriage so that his image would not be sullied by rumors of his gayness. In 1947, just hours after divorcing the great character actor Keenan Wynn, an old friend and fellow MGM contract player of Johnson’s, Evie Wynn married Johnson. Keenan and Evie Wynn divorced solely to allow Johnson to marry. They separated in 1961, around the time Johnson attracted stories in the press that he had an affair with a male dancer in the London company of The Music Man which starred Johnson as Professor Harold Hill. The Johnsons finally divorced in 1968.
In 1999, Johnson’s ex-wife wrote:
“MGM needed their ‘big star’ to be married to quell rumors about his sexual preferences.”
She characterized MGM boss Louis B. Mayer as someone with “the ethics and morals of a cockroach. I was young and stupid enough to let Mayer manipulate me”.
She wrote that Mayer put it to her plainly:
“Unless you marry Van Johnson, I won’t renew Keenan’s contract.”
When Mayer ordered Johnson to get married, Johnson replied that the only woman he would marry was Evie Wynn.
In 1943, the Wynns were in a car with two other friends when they were hit by a car which ran a red light. Johnson, who was driving, was nearly killed and Evie Wynn suffered a back injury. Johnson spent his long recovery period at the Wynns’ home.
Many of his fans were alienated when Johnson married her the day of her divorce from Wynn. Most of Hollywood knew Johnson was into guys and wondered how the marriage could be genuine. Nevertheless, they remained married for two decades and had a daughter. Johnson helped raise her two children from her marriage to Wynn. It was Johnson’s stepson Ned Wynn who outed him, with his memoir We Will Always Live In Beverly Hills (1990) which tells the salacious details of his mother’s divorce from Johnson. She sued Johnson for divorce, citing cruelty and grievous mental suffering and she sued Wynn for fraud and breach of contract. Johnson called it: “…the ugliest divorce in Hollywood history”.
Johnson said later:
“I make out checks every week to the Dragon Lady and carry them through the snow at 4am, if necessary, to get them in the mail on time.”
In 1999, she wrote:
“I have been reduced to near poverty and went bankrupt some years ago thanks to Van’s lack of appreciation for what I did for him by being pressured to marry him by MGM.”
From the early 1940s until the mid-1950s Johnson appeared in nearly 50 films, out of the total of 130 he made during his career. In addition to film roles, he starred in television dramas and miniseries, and guested on everything from Batman to Murder, She Wrote. He frequently worked on stage, doing tours and summer stock.
Johnson was born in Newport, Rhode Island. He moved to New York City after finishing high school in 1935, and took dancing and singing lessons. He began to get work in the chorus of Broadway shows. In 1939, he landed a small part in Pal Joey while understudying the star, Gene Kelly. 15 years later, he shared top billing with Kelly in the film version of Brigadoon.
He was offered a contract with MGM, joining the illustrious group who made up the largest and most famous group of entertainers ever controlled by one organization. Johnson:
“It was one big happy family and a little kingdom. 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.”
Johnson got a lucky break with Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant (1942) where he played the role vacated by Lew Ayres, whose objection to the war made him unemployable in Hollywood for many years. So popular was Johnson that by his appearance in the third sequel, he had taken over as the star.
Because that 1943 car crash that made him unfit for military service, he had very little competition; Robert Taylor, James Stewart and Clark Gable had all joined the armed services. By the war’s end he was a big star.
Johnson was cast as the young pilot in A Guy Named Joe (1943), playing opposite Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. Midway through production Johnson was involved in that near fatal car accident that left him with a metal plate in his forehead. MGM had planned to replace Johnson, but Dunne and Tracy insisted the production wait for Johnson’s return. If not for those two stars intervening, Johnson might never have become a big movie star, because the film was a huge box-office hit.
The next year Johnson was given the lead in the the war film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), another smash hit. By 1945, Johnson was on the cover of every fan magazine and was tied with Bing Crosby as the Top Box-Office Star. He was cast in a series of popular, frothy musicals and comedies. By the time his contract was up with MGM in 1954, he had appeared in In the Good Old Summertime (1949) with Garland and The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) with Taylor. He joined his pal Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Frank Capra‘s political satire State Of The Union(1948). This sharp film gave him one of his best roles.
He moved gracefully into characterful roles as he got older. The best of these was in The Caine Mutiny, playing the officer who takes command when Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) loses his marbles. The director, Edward Dmytryk, thought so highly of him that he miscast him in an adaptation of Graham Greene‘s The End Of The Affair (1955), with criticism over the Americanization of his character.
In the 1960s he worked in some silly, but fun comedies Wives And Lovers (1963) with Janet Leigh and the witty Divorce American Style (1967) with Debbie Reynolds, and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, but his star was losing its luster. Like other actors of his generation, Johnson found it easier to work in Europe and in television. He did have a nice bit in one of my favorite films, Woody Allen‘s poignant The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985).
Johnson began his stage career on Broadway in New Faces Of 1936 and finished in the original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles in 1985, playing gay at last. When he was 69 years old, he was back on Broadway replacing Gene Barry as Georges in La Cage Aux Folles, playing the role for a year. But, after that, he mostly stayed in his Manhattan apartment with his two cats, painting small pictures.
Hs screen image was sunny generally, yet Wynn writes that he was moody and morose:
“His tolerance of unpleasantness was minuscule. If there were the slightest hint of trouble with one of the children, or with the house, the car, the servants, the delivery of the newspaper, the lack of ice in the silver ice bucket, the color of the candles on the dining-room table, Van immediately left the couch, the dinner table, the pool, the tennis court, the party, the restaurant, the vacation, and strode off to his bedroom.”
Johnson’s longtime boyfriend was Allen Foshko (1934- 2007), a writer, artist and producer who was also Johnson’s business manager.
Evie Wynn Johnson, who gave up a Broadway career for the two men, stayed in Beverly Hills for a time, then moved to Florida. She left this world in 2004.
Johnson’s final bow was in December 2008. He was one of the last surviving matinee idols of Hollywood’s Golden Age.