Hello Everybody. This is Mister Joe Morella and Mister Frank Segers here again at ClassicMoviechat. MRS. Norman Maine is out, wandering about.
We thought we’d reprise an old column for some of our newer readers.
In the 1940’s, MGM supremo Louis B. Mayer pondered the question posed above, and he wasn’t sure he liked the answer. At stake, after all, was the future of one of MGM’s biggest studio-groomed stars.
The blunt fact of the matter is that being gay back then was a career killer for a Hollywood leading man on the rise. In the case of Van Johnson, subterfuge if not tight secrecy could well be called for.
Born Charles Van Dell Johnson in 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island, raised as an only child in a grim, motherless household (an alcoholic, she left early; Van was raised by his dour Swedish-American father, a tight-lipped plumber), Johnson fled to New York after high school, undertaking countless chorus boy jobs in Broadway shows and touring musicals.
On Oct. 18, 1939, he found himself in the Broadway opening of the Rogers and Hart musical Too Many Girls, directed by George Abbott. Van was cast in one of the many “student” roles in the production; more important, he was the understudy to the show’s stars: Eddie Bracken and a handsome new Cuban sensation by the name of Desiderio Alberto Arnaz ye de Acha the Third, billed as Desi Arnaz.
Johnson not only became friends with the future Ricky Ricardo, but accompanied the show’s stars to Hollywood when RKO bought the rights to the musical as a big screen vehicle for Richard Carlson, Bracken, Arnaz, Ann Miller – and its rising star, Lucille Ball. (Van has an un-credited part in the 1940 movie as a chorus boy.)
If for nothing else, the Too Many Girls movie version is notable today as the first onscreen evidence of the obvious romantic sparks set off by what became perhaps the most powerful married couple in entertainment history.
Although Lucy’s love interest in the movie was Carlson, off screen the 29-year-old actress actually fell head over heels for the 23-year-old Desi. The couple quickly became an item, with Van cheering on their incipient romance (the trio’s friendship lasted for years, long after Lucy-Desi’s ensuing marriage).
To a considerable extent, it was Lucille Ball who set Johnson’s movie career in motion. After being dropped by Warner Brothers after an abortive six-month stint, Johnson was prepared to return to the East Coast to attempt his luck again in New York.
Arnaz and Ball took Johnson to Chasen’s restaurant for a farewell dinner. Sitting at a nearby table on that night was Billy Grady, MGM’s talent chief, who had recently signed Ball to a studio contract. Lucille got up from the table, and took Johnson over to see Grady. Ball persuasively pleaded Johnson’s case with the MGM official.
The result was an invite to Johnson from Grady for a screen test at the studio. The boyishly personable Van passed the test, and was signed to a contract paying him $350 per week. Johnson’s 12-year, 50-film career at MGM had begun.
His breakthrough at the studio 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).
By this time, Johnson began drawing noticeable piles of fan mail – always an unfailingly accurate measure at MGM of an actor’s growing (or waning) popularity.
Fan magazines of the period were pressing for interviews. A bobby-sox idol in the making, the blue-eyed, freckle-faced, carrot topped actor had a promising future
Mayer was nonetheless troubled. He had been hearing things about Johnson’s chorus-boy escapades. The girls on the lot were curious too. And when the rumors reached a certain level, MGM’s reigning sex symbol, Lana Turner decided she’d be the one to find out the truth.
Lana had co-starred with Clark Gable in 1942’s Somewhere I’ll find You. In which Van had a supporting role. By the early-Forties, the vamp from Wallace, Idaho, herself a hot property at MGM, was one of the most popular of the World War II pinups. She also was notoriously promiscuous, quite the sexual athlete.
Supposedly, Lana had sexually engaged mogul Howard Hughes on the cockpit floor of his huge plane while cruising on autopilot over the California coast. Who better to “test” Johnson by taking him to bed?
Turner did, and returned to the studio the next morning with this memorable assessment — “He did it, but he didn’t like it.”