An Overnight Star Is Manufactured
The larger percentage of Golden Age movies seem to have been designed for people whose leisure time was given over to theatre-going. These were the patrons who'd be there several times a week no matter what was playing. When Van Johnson died in 2008, I wondered if staff at the nursing home where he finished up had any idea what a big star they'd been housing. By then Van was an old man of course (92), and much of his fan base had preceded him out. Overnight fame is common enough today with reality shows and such, but recognition borne of these is shorter-lived than even teen idols of a previous generation. Anyone can be a celebrity now, but only momentarily it seems. Sudden fame like Van's was more remarkable in the forties where media was slower to get out word and image for idols-to-be. All the more impressive then, that Van Fever so rapidly swept a moviegoer nation in Spring of 1945. His ascension blurred customary lines between A and B product out of employer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The anticipated B was Between Two Women, another Blair Hospital chapter remade from a same named feature of eight years before. Dr. Kildare had gone off his shift as result of Lew Ayres' WWII induction troubles and beginner Van donned scrubs to play continuing Dr. Randall "Red" Adams. The Kildare, then Blairs, supplied useful training for beginners like Johnson, what with lower budgets, supporting program placement, and little at risk. What no one figured was Between Two Women crashing through to place among most profitable films MGM had in 1945.
It would have been neat being around for Van Johnson's build-up, what with fan clubs organized in theatre lobbies (as here) and "fan fotos" handed out by thousands to ticket-buyers. The mechanics of star construction is something we're the poorer for losing. Between Two Women plays today as pleasant disposal of 83 minutes. You can watch it on TCM and imagine teen girls stampeding boxoffices sixty-five years ago for the same privilege. Van Johnson caught fire like Frank Sinatra, and around the same time, but his was talent less rarified than Frank's, so he's locked forever in that era that discovered him. Patrons didn't like to feel manipulated into star worship, so Metro reassured its public that they and no one else were responsible for Van Johnson's ascent. He has a fan following with a fervor found only in fans who have the feeling that they discovered a favorite themselves and that he is their own protégé for stellar honors, said Metro scribes to exhibitor subscribers of The Lion's Roar. With a war having sapped established leading men, 1945's accent would be upon youth ... And they're getting material that's attuned to the dreams and imagination of youth, added the Roar. Reward for fulfilling those dreams was considerable. Between Two Women spent about even with previous entries in the series ($436,483 negative cost), but this time, thanks to recently released Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Van Johnson's bounce to exaltation, there were domestic rentals ($1.896 million) three times what MGM's last visit to Blair Hospital realized. This was phenomenal money for a B picture, Metro's or anyone else's.
Between Two Women was the fourth and last time Van Johnson played his Kildare variant. Not again would this personality be spent at humble fare. Van enters Between Two Women with a flying tackle to bring down a gun-wielding intruder in Blair's lobby, that opener typical of never-never hospital life envisioned by Metro. Authenticity as to medical settings would have to wait for television, it seemed. There's no sight of blood during Blair procedures and discussion of ailments stay at elementary level with cures quickly arrived at. Lionel Barrymore as Gillespie was crusty thread that ran through the series and pivot around which youngsters spun, his character a font of wisdom overlaid with irascible shtick long since an expectation with Barrymore's audience. Doctor rituals are lovingly observed. Washing of hands and placement of operating gowns and headgear play like coronations, all spotless white linens with crisp pleating. I wonder how many viewers pursued careers in medicine as result of movie stays at Blair. The series surely boosted nursing applications at the least, what with plethora of eligible males on Blair's treating staff, routinely hosting after-duty parties at night clubs where song-and-dance Metro contractees perform specialty numbers to relieve stress of the OR. Between Two Women breaks throughout for musical inserts with Gloria DeHaven and chorines, Keenan Wynn pattering, and war bond appeals following each number. The film is silly and dated and probably a waste of 2010 time, but it's a valuable sampling of something for everyone entertainment circa 1945, as accurate a mirror of patron appetites then as we are likely to come across.