Van Johnson was one of the heart throb matinee idols of the 1940’s, and few of his fans at the time suspected that he was gay. And Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boss Louis B. Mayer moved heaven and earth to make sure the movie going public never found out.
We have gotten so much feedback about our two previous blogs about Van that we’ve dug out another snapshot of the guy. (Isn’t he the idealization of your typical sunny, amiable suburban high school principal?) The photo comes from our collection of revealing Hollywood personality shots taken in the early Forties taken by our late pal, Donald Gordon.
Hello, everybody. Your classic movie guys, Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers, back again while Mrs. Norman Maine is downstairs listening to Judy Garland records.
It wasn’t until late in life that Johnson more or less came out of the closet. (He died in 2008, at age 92.)
Had Van declared himself much earlier, his movie career certainly would have lasted nowhere near as long as it did. On the other hand, had he been able to out himself in today’s more tolerant social climate, Johnson might have snared a perch as host of a nationally syndicated TV talk show.
The MGM slice of his live began in 1942 when Van played “Agent Pritchard” in one of those 22-minute crime-does-not-pay shorts the studio churned out. It ended in the late Fifties when Van set out as an independent and, incidentally, embarked on some of the best movies of his career.
At MGM, Johnson was part of the second big wave of “more stars than there are in heaven” responsible for the studio’s soaring success. Mayer biographer Scott Eyman notes that “for 1944-45 season, twenty-six of the studio’s twenty-nine releases were profitable.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer marked its 20th anniversary in 1944, celebrating the event nation-wide.
Hedy Lamarr biographer Stephen Michael Shearer writes that “between June 22 and June 28 (1944), Metro pictures, newsreals, and film shorts were played at all but eight of (parent company) Loew’s, Inc.’s 16,493 movie houses in America and 1,204 out of 1,285 movie houses in Canada — and unheard-of accomplishment. (MGM) was truly at its peak.”
Gone from the studio were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable — “all the great stars of the 1930s either released from contract or serving in the war (as was Gable; he returned to the studio after World War II),” writes Shearer, author of the recently published “Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr.” The next wave of big stars included Lamarr, Lana Turner, Garland, June Allyson — and Van Johnson.
His time at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (at the same time Donald Gordon took the photo you are seeing here) is concisely summed up by British-born author-critic David Thomson. “Inescapably baby-faced, Johnson was for many years under contract to MGM for musicals, romances and routine military parts.”
Projecting to a vast movie audience that boy-next-door charm was no mean feat. It helped that Johnson was a pretty nice guy off-screen, and actually had a sense of humor about himself.
Another MGM star of the time, Esther Williams, recalled that Johnson had “a unique quality, part strong man, part eager boy.” She first met the actor shortly after he had recovered from serious head injuries sustained in a car (or, say some, motorcyle) accident that required steel plates to be implanted in his head.
“That must have been some accident,” the actress commented. “I’ll say,” responded Johnson, as quoted in Williams’ autobiography “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”
Tapping the side of his head with a grin, Johnson added: “I’ve got service for twelve in here. And it’s sterling not silver plate. Only the best for MGM.”
A newly-published and lavishly illustrated coffee table book — “MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan — includes a delight photo (on page 267). It’s one of those “more stars than there are in heaven” ensemble shots, taken in 1948, showing 56 studio stalwarts including Gable, Mary Astor, Williams, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Spencer Tracy and on and on.
There in the third row from the bottom, four actors from the left, sits Johnson cross-legged and looking relaxed. He is smiling broadly.