Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, wondering today about a certain tradition of actor loyalty, especially big stars using their clout to protect younger actors. Does it still exist in Hollywood’s cutthroat culture of today?
We were able to come up with two indisputable instances of exemplary behavior in this regard from two very different movie personalities. Both stuck their necks out, and battled studio front offices on another’s behalf. Both won their loyalty battles. Ironically, the studios benefited from the movies that resulted.
We’ll cover the first of these good Samaritans today.
Van Johnson’s career breakthrough came in 1943 in Victor Fleming’s romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe. Johnson plays a young serviceman adopted by the ghost of a grizzled fighter pilot (Spencer Tracy), who was killed in a crash but returns to earth to advise the younger man in the wooing of Tracy’s former girlfriend (Irene Dunne). Thanks to this movie, Johnson, then 26, was about to be propelled from promising-MGM-talent status to stardom.
The movie almost didn’t get made with Johnson, however. In March 31, 1943, the actor was driving to a studio screening with friends – said to be fellow actor Keenan Wynn and his wife, Evie. At a Culver City intersection a car came barreling through a red light and slammed into the side of Johnson’s convertible. The force of the impact rolled the vehicle on its side.
Johnson was thrown from the car, sustaining a fractured skull, multiple facial cuts, a severed artery in his neck and bone fragments piercing his brain. At the hospital, Johnson overheard a doctor say, “He’ll never work in pictures again, even if he does live.”
Because Johnson was expected to perform in just about every scene in A Guy Named Joe, director Fleming shut down the picture indefinitely in late April. MGM brass then set about choosing the young actor’s replacement so that production could quickly crank back up.
That was when the 43-year-old Tracy stepped forward. The senior actor took a meeting with MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. Let’s wait for Van, urged Tracy.
Recalled veteran studio publicist Eddie Lawrence (as quoted in author James Curtis’ massive biography of Tracy): Now that was really something to do because that was a (matter) of time commitments…They stopped the picture because of Spence. For Van Johnson, they wouldn’t stop the picture. Spencer had to put his weight in there because they wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
Tracy visited the younger actor often at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, repeatedly assuring him that his A Guy Named Joe role was safe. “That gave me a goal, it gave me sunlight at the end of the tunnel,” Johnson later recalled.
Yes, there is a flip side of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Johnson recovered faster than anyone expected, and the movie resumed production in July 1943, wrapping the following September. When it A Guy Named Joe was theatrically released, it was an instant hit — the highest grossing movie Tracy had ever made to that point.
Tomorrow –our second tale of loyalty in tinseltown.