Friday, February 28

Whatever You Say, L.B.

Here's a piece on Van Johnson, MGM's boy nextdoor, a sunny little confection of razzle-dazzle who for a number of  years brought many dollars into the cash registers that L. B. Mayer counted.  But before we can bring any truth to the red-headed actor's story, it is important to understand a thing or two about Mayer and the times in which their story unfolded.

L.B. Mayer ran MGM from 1926 to 1951 and like all studio heads, it was an autocratic sensibility he brought to the table.  L. B. liked to refer to his minions as family and was even known to cry when the scene demanded it, but he was still a tough old bird like the others.  No one was as hateful and hated as power-mad Harry Cohn at Columbia, although Warner Bros had Jack, a mean and vengeful s.o.b., who certainly gave Harry a run for his money.  Darryl F. Zanuck often had his riding crop on his person and he was generally regarded as a tough but fair boss.  He was quite well-known for his nearly daily 3 p.m. closed-door conferences, I think they were called.  It might be noted they were only with shapely actresses.  

L.B. appeared to take a keen interest in his large stable of stars, although he clearly preferred the women over the men.  He was no Zanuck.  He was more of a come-tell-Papa-your-problems kind of guy.  His studio, the largest and most prestigious in the Hollywood constellation, had an image to protect.  The image was wholesomeness.  The protection started with Mayer and two of his right-hand men.  

Mayer and one of his Knights of the Round Table, Howard Strickling, imperial head of publicity, would cook up the right souffle of an image for the star. Items may be lifted from the new star's true life, but usually the real story was highly-fictionalized if not outright bs.  All Hollywood honchos knew the public in the 1940s and 50s was pretty gullible.  If it was in a movie magazine, it must be true.  It could be handy if just a little something about the fiction could ring true.

When Van Johnson bounced (not a bad verb for him) into the new boss' office, the homophobic but savvy Mayer, whose ill-defined gaydar immediately kicked in, saw the gay boy nextdoor.  Gee, he was looking for a sunny boy-nextdoor type (soooo MGM), but Papa, of course, knew the gay had to go.  Van Johnson would get a makeover as intense and complete (and ultimately harmful) as the studios would ever manipulate.  Mayer likely put his arm around the young man as they walked out of the office.  He reminded the youngster what he needed to do, what he needed to become and once again assured him that his new father knew best.  Young Van knew the drill.   His real father talked to him the same way.

I don't think Van Johnson was ever really sunny, not off screen, that is.  While he was born in 1916 in snooty, yacht-infested Newport, Rhode Island, he was decidedly from the other side of the harbor.  His father was a plumber who gave young Van a love of music but was otherwise distant and stern.  His alcoholic mother buckled under the regimentation and fled the household when Van was still quite young.  Father and son took refuge in a boardinghouse where Van would live until he left to try his hand at adulthood.  By most accounts of the few who ever really knew him, he didn't do so well.

He had a great smile but he was not what one would call sunny.  Mayer would use the smile and instruct the newcomer to work on the sunny part.  Not to worry, others will help.  The moody loner would learn how to be gregarious and loquacious while learning how to throw a punch and fence and sing in a lower register.

By all accounts, he took to it all like an ambitious former Broadway chorus-boy-who-wanted-desperately-to-be-a-movie-star would.  He would learn his craft well.  He could sing a little, dance a bit and was not a bad dramatic actor at all.  It was while in his usual milieu, romantic comedy, that he was nauseatingly wholesome.  He may be responsible for single-handedly steering me on a life course in the opposite direction, as far as romcoms are concerned.  Nonetheless, he turned in ever-smiling, freckled-faced, cheerful performances, just perfectly in line with what his boss had instructed.  In those 15 years or so, his screen career seemed to work out for him and it  started with whatever you say, L.B

Oh yes, I mentioned there were two right-hand men.  There was also Whitey Hendry, the head of security.  Whitey, in turn, had quite a few law officials in his pocket and together they would handle things, let's say.   The recalcitrant (if that's the case and with Johnson it was) actor or actress would receive at first a gentle reminder that there was a morals clause in the contract.  Oh, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Johnson's acting began in earnest with training in a number of pictures, either in uncredited roles and/or in very small parts as the  incidental young man.  His major break came with a larger role in a popular wartime romance drama called A Guy Named Joe, costarring with Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy.  Tracy, for whatever reasons, took a shine to Johnson.  They would work together in a quartet of films.  Filming had only just begun when Johnson was in a horrific car accident.  He ended up with a scar on the side of his face (usually covered with makeup) and a steel plate in his head.  The latter would keep him out of the military.

While many of MGMs virile male stars were off fighting overseas, Johnson became the go-to boy at the studio.  For several of the war years he would be the second most popular male actor in the country, after Bing Crosby.  During his tenure at MGM he would star in such war films as Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, The White Cliffs of Dover, Battleground, Command Decision and Men of the Fighting Lady.  When his often-energetic personality was reigned in, such as in these butch war films, he was a pretty decent actor.  But right along with these films, he was a constant costar of Judy Garland, Janet Leigh, Esther Williams and especially June Allyson in that lightweight fare, where he often reminded me of a butterfly in heat with his flouncing about and hamming it up. 

He was buddy-buddy with character actor Keenan Wynn, also on the MGM payroll.  The two would make five films together. Despite Wynn being married to Evie Abbott, the rumors circulated constantly that Johnson and Wynn may have been a little closer than we were led to believe.  After the Wynns had a son, the actor publicly cooed a child is a useful commercial asset for an actor like me.  Curious.  Papa Mayer knew most everything and was none too happy with his sunny Sonny Boy.

Keenan Wynn

But when Johnson was nabbed for lingering a little too long again in a public men's room, Mayer hit the ceiling and orchestrated one of the greatest behind-the-scenes, hush-hush cover-ups ever pulled off by a studio head.  He demanded that Wynn's wife divorce him and marry Johnson, and that's exactly what happened.  The marriage took place four hours after the divorce.  The three of them palled around together for years pretty successfully, but when Evie became Mrs. Johnson, it became a battle royal.  She was ambitious, pushy, a little butch and she nailed Johnson to the wall every time she could.  He was mercurial and nasty-tempered with a penchant for pouting.  She became the Hollywood hostess par excellence but most in Tinseltown knew the truth.  He would sometimes get pissed at his parties and sulk off to his bedroom and shut the door.  One wonders how they ever had a daughter, who always had a volatile relationship with her father and who apparently didn't speak to him at all for most of her adult years.

Terrific in The Caine Mutiny

Some of his best work was in State of the Union (1948), Frank Capra's political comedy-drama with Johnson as Spencer Tracy's campaign manager in the latter's reluctant bid for the presidency.  When Humphrey Bogart, as a naval ship captain in The Caine Mutiny (1954), appears to have lost his marbles, Johnson gave one of his finest performances as the 1st officer who takes over command.  He also earned praise for his performance in 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) as a blind playwright in London who overhears a murder plot. 

By this time he parted company with MGM.  Even before so, his popularity had waned, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and the others had returned from the war and Johnson got shoved into more of those addlebrained comedies.  Mayer had been ousted as Big Daddy and Johnson's contract was not renewed.

One of his best films post-MGM was 1963's Wives and Lovers, a saucy little piece on adultery with Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters and Martha Hyer who couldn't keep their hands off him. 

He moved to New York and was one helluva lot less sunny.  The gene that was apparently deeply embedded in Johnson and made him morose, disagreeable, bitchy and reclusive took center stage for the rest of his life.  He did much television in his middle years.  I think it was a misstep for him to turn down the Elliot Ness role that Robert Stack eventually assumed in TV's The Untouchables.  He did some plays, theater-in-the-round and such.  He even did some song and dance routines in a few clubs, dressed in a sequined tuxedo jacket and the ever-present red socks.  He reminded one of Liberace without the piano.

I don't think his final dozen years or more were very good for him.  In many respects he was all but forgotten.  Old horses like me, of course, remembered him well, but he had not been seen or heard from in years and some newer generations don't know Van Johnson from Van & Storage.

When he gave in to L.B. Mayer to take on a personality that became as much acting as he did in films, he was hopelessly lost.  He was a young, damaged person who needed to work on his self worth and instead get lost in a haze of Hollywood hokum.  The problem is, too, that he never bought his new image.  He knew it was fraudulent with his deeply-hidden sexuality.  He was born too early.  Today all that silliness is long gone.  I can get why he didn't come out in the 1940s, at the start of his career, but he could have done something more positive later in life when his career was hardly an issue.  But the Liberace in him said no. 

Too bad.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye


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