News Column

Comet Over Hollywood: The Van Johnson War

November 11, 2013


Nov. 11--During World War II, Hollywood made several films focusing on our boys fighting over seas.

It seems that one fresh faced, All-American red-headed actor starred in several of them: Van Johnson.

Johnson was one of the most sought after actors on the MGM lot during World War II. Top male stars such as James Stewart, Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney were all over seas fighting in the war, leaving Johnson to fill the military roles.

Why wasn't Johnson fighting? He wasn't able to. During the filming of "A Guy Named Joe" (1943), Johnson was in a car wreck and was in serious condition. MGM was going to replace him, but his co-star Spencer Tracey fought to keep him in the role.

The wreck left Johnson with a metal plate in his head, which omitted him from joining the military to fight in the war.

World War II films are some of my favorite to watch, so I have seen almost all of Johnson's war era films. He is one of my favorite actors and one of my actor heartthrobs, so I may have gone out of my way to see his films.

For Veteran's Day, here is a sampling of World War II films that Johnson stars in, each depicting different aspects of the war:

War Abroad:

A Guy Named Joe (1943): The infamous movie that made Mr. Johnson a star and oddly paired him as Irene Dunne's love interest. Bomber Pilot Pete, Spencer Tracey, dies on a mission and becomes the guardian angel for a young pilot named Ted. Pete helps Ted fly difficult missions and gives him his blessing as Ted starts to romance Pete's old girlfriend Dorinda-played by Irene Dunne. Not one character is named Joe in this movie. The title comes from American soldiers nicknamed "Joe." Filming was halted when Van had his car accident. It took three months until he could return but Spencer Tracey insisted that they keep him in the film. To Review: It's a good movie and you get a glimpse of Esther Williams in one of her first roles (not swimming). I will say, Spencer Tracey does a lot of talking. Not a bad thing, it can just get tiring.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): The true story about Dolittle's raid on Tokyo after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story follows Van Johnson playing real life soldier Ted Lawson. Lawson and the rest of the men, including actors Robert Walker, Don DeFore and young Robert Mitchum, train for the mission and then drop bombs on Tokyo. There are several scenes in the movie of Lawson marrying his wife Ellen, played by Phyllis Thaxter, their last times together and him remembering her. This may seem cheesy sometimes with lines like Him: "How did you get to be so cute?" Her: "I had to be if I was going to get such a good lookin' fella." But you have to consider the context. In Lawson's book he said the only way he got through the war was thinking about his wife. To review: This is one of my favorite World War II movies. Dolittle's troops also trained at Lake Murray which is about an hour and a half from my parent's house.

Battleground (1949): This is one of my favorite films of all time. The film follows the 101st Airborne Division in the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Van Johnson is a bit older and not just the fresh faced innocent soldier. This time he's a bit more cynical and has seen a lot more life as his character Holley. The innocent kid in this movie is played by Marshall Thompson. This is a star studded film with actors like George Murphy, Ricardo Montalbon, John Hodiak and James Whitmore. During the battle, soldiers are dealing with heavy fog and lack of supplies. Since this film wasn't made during the war, it isn't as glitteringly patriotic. The soldiers are cynical, mockingly saying, "I found a home in the Army" and you watch the new recruits change from wide-eyed babes to hardened non-believers. To review: I've heard that this is one of the films that veterans consider the most accurate when it comes to World War II movies. It's my favorite war movie as well as one of my favorite films. I don't just like it for the lineup of attractive male stars but also the realism. The soldiers get downtrodden and tired. It's exciting and nail biting at times while other times make you want to cry. I think my favorite part is Leon Ames' Christmas sermon about the "$64 question" if the men felt that the war was necessary or not.

War on the Homefront:

War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942): Van Johnson has a very small role, but never the less the film is great. The wealthy Mrs. Stella Hadley (Fay Bainter) thinks she is above the war and that everyone is making a fuss about nothing. Hadley feels the attack on Pearl Harbor ruined her birthday, and her family has the nerve to volunteer to help with the war effort. The widow thinks her husband's status as newspaper publisher will keep her son away from the fighting and keep her daughter away from canteens. She thinks she can work her way out of black outs and rationing with the help of her government friends in Washington. However, Mrs. Hadley finds that even money can't get you a break in the war. Van Johnson plays a young service man that Mrs. Hadley's daughter, Pat (Jean Rogers), meets while volunteering at a canteen. They marry and mother disapproves. To review: Fay Bainter does a terrific job in this film. Though Van has a small role, I think it illustrates how everyone wasn't for the war when it started.

The Human Comedy (1943): This is another early Van Johnson film. Mickey Rooney and Fay Bainter are the stars of the film. Bainter plays the mother of Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Butch Jenkins and Donna Reed. Her husband has recently died and Van is leaving to go fight in the war. The movie shows how small town life functioned during the war. Young Mickey Rooney helps old Frank Morgan run the telegraph office. Donna Reed and her friends go to the movies with soldiers that may never come home from overseas. To review: It's a poignant view of small town American life during the war. Sometimes it's beautiful and other times tragic. War movies don't just have to be about the Pacific and European theaters. Wars also affect people at home. This paints an excellent, innocent portrait of this.

Two Girls and a Sailor (1944): The plot is very simple. June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven are the Deyo Sisters, daughters of vaudeville parents. When they grow up they start their own night club act and entertain soldiers in their home after the show. A mysterious stranger donates an old warehouse to the girls so their canteen can house even more soldiers. Performers such as Jose Iturbi, Xavier Cugat, Lena Horne and Harry James all come and perform at this club. Van Johnson is the sailor torn between the two girls with soldier Tom Drake is his competition. The whole time the girls are trying to solve the mystery of the unknown donor. To review: No one ever said every movie had to be as serious as "War and Peace." This movie's plot may be as light as a feather but it is so much fun and it's one of my favorite movies. On top of the excellent musical performances, the movie shows how people wanted to entertain and help soldiers on leave and unselfishly let them into their homes.

Reach Jessica Pickens at 704-669-3332 Follow on Twitter at @StarJPickens and at her film blog, Comet Over Hollywood


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