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Thursday, July 29, 2010

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. Van was by then an old man (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 as we are likely to come across.


Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

If there's one "movie star" whose mystique continues to elude me, it's Van Johnson. I've just never cared for him, and I'll be doggoned if I can explain why. He's obviously not without talent--as films like State of the Union, Brigadoon and The Caine Mutiny will attest--but as to why women went gaga over him...well, I guess it's just one of life's little mysteries.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Your post goes a long way toward explaining his manufactured "mystique", which evaporated in the post-war years. When Marlon Brando and James Dean appeared on screen just a few years later I wonder if he understood what was happening.

Somewhere I read when Van Johnson finally realized what a big star he actually was all over. So maybe he did, but it was too bad, because he was a fine performer - his cameo performing "I Won't Dance" in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BYE is terrific, and a good example of how MGM built him up. The gimmick is he appears first from behind as a conductor, but the audience does not know it is him. Suddenly he turns to face the camera and gives a long, bemused look to the audience. I would think that modern viewers who randomly click on TCM during that scene must be like who is that?

12:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson has some observations about the later career of Van Johnson ...

Back in the 70's Van Johnson appeared in The Music Man and Damn Yankees for a local group. It was a semi-pro outfit, offering big productions with a few Equity stars leading a cast of amateurs (usually possessed of professional-level talent, I should add). At the time this was a fairly common setup, and there was a regular circuit for pros who had mastered starring roles in the warhorses everybody did. Knowing the part already, they'd arrive a few weeks before opening and quickly step into the role with the local cast. It was a nice little gig, especially for old "names" whose most recent credit was inevitably The Love Boat.

The audiences skewed older and still regarded Johnson as a cuddly star, and he seemed to enjoy obliging them. Don't know what he was like offstage, but onstage he was just a bit too cute, mugging to the audience and milking comic bits. IYears later, I recognized a lot of the same in William Shatner's deliberate self-parodies.

John Carradine came to town and got star billing for Brigadoon -- he played the old schoolmaster and had no business wearing a kilt. But that's a story for another day.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

I'll add to Mr Benson's comment. My cousin appeared in "A Man For All Seasons" with Mr Carradine playing the lead which I saw in Minot ND. The idea of the local theater company was to bring professional actors in to play with the local talent. This was finally abandoned because of cost considerations. Mr. Carradine was no Paul Scofield that night. I also have a story about meeting Mike Mazurki appearing in "Guys and Dolls" in Minneapolis, but that's also for another day as well.

I remember an interview with Jeff Daniels where he reminisced about working with Van Johnson on the set of "The Purple Rose of Cairo." Apparently Johnson kept the cast and Woody Allen very entertained between scenes with dirty stories about the acting talent at MGM in the 1940's. I would have loved to have been present.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I, too, never saw the appeal of Mr. Johnson.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Van Johnson did summer stock here in Sacramento, too, several times. While I was living elsewhere in the summer of 1983, my father saw him as Harold Hill in The Music Man and noticed the same phenomenon described by Mr. Benson: he played the whole show with the same dazzling Van Johnson smile, whether individual scenes called for it or not.

And a side note: John Carradine came here in the summer of 1970 and played the same theater as Fagin in Oliver! He was brilliant.

3:21 AM  
Blogger normadesmond said...

i suppose that when you're gay, but your forbidden to act upon it, yet do and get caught and are forced to marry your friend's wife and father a child and work in a other-worldly kind of profession, in an other-worldly kind o' place, you powder your cheeks and smile...a lot.

3:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

These accounts of John Carradine's stock tours are really interesting! Thanks to Donald, Dugan, and Jim for providing them.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Samantha Kelley said...

I absolutely adore Van Johnson, and I really hope he knew he still had fans when he passed away.

His appeal seems obvious to me. He is light and charming and fluffy as cotton candy. He was a talented actor for sure, but the movies I most love him in are his frivolous roles that draw us in with his mischievousness and childlike sense of fun. He was innocent, or when he was world weary, he was inspiring. Look at movies such as Battleground. Some of the most memorable scenes for me are his bits with the eggs, and there are lots of really moving scenes in that film.

I have to say, Van ranks among my favorite actors of all time.

9:32 PM  

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