I fell in love with Van Johnson on a summer day in 2008. It wasn’t a moment I was expecting, but as I watched an underrated romantic comedy called Three Guys Named Mike, I felt my eyes lighting up the moment a freckle-faced scientist named Mike Lawrence appeared on the screen. Lost in a book while on a flight, he barely notices that his stewardess is lovely Marcy, played by the even lovelier Jane Wyman. As time goes on, though, Mike and Marcy find their way to one another, despite the other two Mikes (Barry Sullivan and Howard Keel) in her life. There was a warmth and vulnerability to Mike Lawrence that, to me, made him the most obvious choice for Marcy. When he looked at her, he did it with a sweetness that made my knees weak, and when he spoke, there was a calming hush to his voice that felt so romantic.
As I delved deeper into classic Hollywood, the memory of Van Johnson’s performance in that one film was so imprinted on my brain that I began seeking the actor out… and realized that while Mike Lawrence was certainly a catch, the real dreamboat was Van himself, who would’ve turned 103 on August 25.
An adorable strawberry blonde with a happy-go-lucky attitude and a radiant smile, Van was the man every bobbysoxer wanted in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s easy to see why. He seemed kind, decent, fun-loving, and while those qualities come across as bland for a lot of teen idols from this period, Van had that something special that made him stand out from the others. He could be, and often was, the bright-eyed boy next door. Greer Garson affectionately called him “a big and burly Shirley Temple,” while Van himself said he was the male Doris Day. Like Ms. Day, Van had a depth to his performances that was not always appreciated. As someone who experienced the early abandonment of an alcoholic mother, the upbringing of a distant father, a horrific car accident that nearly killed him, and a complicated personal life, he was able to tap into a darker side when given a chance. I’ve always found him to be a bit more hard-edged than his home studio MGM wanted audiences to believe. I mean, didn’t they ever hear how snarky his one-liners could be or see how great his smirk was?
Take his role in Brigadoon (1954), for example. This charming fairy tale of a musical tells the story of a beautiful, mystical romance between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, with Van grounding the premise as Kelly’s cynical, sardonic best friend. While Kelly is enamored with Charisse and Brigadoon, a Scottish village that reappears every 100 years, Van finds the whole thing crazy, acting as the audience’s surrogate. Later, when tragedy unexpectedly strikes, Van completely sells the heartbreaking moment and saves the gruff character from becoming insufferable.
By 1954, audiences had started to see the cracks in the actor’s sunny, carefree persona. The Bride is Wild (1948) had him playing a boozing, womanizing children’s author who hates kids and spends the majority of the film deceiving June Allyson’s character. In 1949, Scene of the Crime gave him the opportunity to be a tough homicide detective in a film noir and the devastating war movie Battleground further challenged his dramatic chops. When Brigadoon came along, it became this interesting transitional film for Van. A self-proclaimed song-and-dance man at heart, the film allows him to be in the kind of polished MGM musical that had made his name. However, instead of representing the story’s virtue and yearning romance as he often did with such partners as Esther Williams, June Allyson, and Janet Leigh, Brigadoon relies on him to help illustrate the pessimism and anguish that the film has to ultimately triumph over in order to win its happy ending.
Discovering Van’s films over the years has been great fun. Even if I don’t like the film itself, his performances never fail to make me smile. He has become one of my constants, someone I know I can turn to to make me feel better in a matter of seconds. If that isn’t a tribute to his brilliance, I don’t know what is.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.