Van Johnson (1916-2008)
- Donald Curtis, Salute to the Marines, 1942. Johnson, Marjorie Maine, future director Richard Quine and Lewis Stone were first announced by MGM as Wallace Beery’s co-stars for the flag-waving patriotism. When driving to a screening of Tracy-Hepburn’s Keeper of the Flame that year, Johnson was in a road smash requiring urgent surgery - a scarred forehead (only sometimes hidden by make-up) and a metal plate in his forehead.
- Tom Drake, Meet Me In St Louis, 1943. Drake, Johnson, Peter Lawford, Robert Walker… Most of MGM’s young blades were in the frame for The Boy Next Door to Judy Garland - livid at 21 to be playing a teenager again until falling for the story and the director. Vincente Minnelli. (Liza arrived in 1946). Spencer Tracy was said to have developed a major crush - unrequited love - for Johnson.
- Gil Stratton, Girl Crazy, 1943. As the August 1939 plan of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell churned into the final MGM teaming of Rooney and Judy Garland, other choices were recast. And so Johnson’s touted singing debut was handed to Broadway’s Stratton.
- Paul Langton, Gentle Annie, 1944. All change when director Woody Van Duke fell ill after a month’s shooting in 1942. Johnson (as Violet Goss!) Susan Peters, Marjorie Main and Charley Grapewin became Langton, Donna Reed, Spring Byington and John Philliber for new helmer Andrew Marton in ’44. Only James Craig and Morris Ankrum remained aboard - but in new roles. Indeed, Craig took over the lead from Robert Taylor.
- Wallace Beery, Big Jack, 1948. Like the movie (his last), Beery was not well. At one point, Johnson had been nominated to take over the rough, tough, but golden-hearted Big Jack Horner - despite being 31 years younger than Beery… who died on April 15, 1949.
- James Stewart, The Stratton Story, 1949. A rare example of a biopic subject insisting on casting changes. MGM chose Van to be the Texan baseball star Monty Stratton. "I just couldn't pitch the ball in a way to please him,” recalled Johnson. "He said he hoped I wouldn't be offended but he was going to ask Mr Mayer if Jimmy Stewart could play the part. I wasn't offended because I didn't want to look ridiculous on the screen. But I asked: How do you know Jimmy Stewart can pitch? He said: I don't but [director] Sam Wood told me that Jim would practice time and again until he can."
- Howard Keel, Pagan Love Song, 1950. Van and Cyd were the leads. Then, Charisse proved pregnant. The script was re-spun for Esther Williams - although she was also pregnant. Van was not and invited to stay as he had been in Esther's previous frolic, Duchess of Idaho, 1950.
- Montgomery Clift, I Confess, 1952. Alfred Hitchcock had first been intrigued by Paul Anthelme’s 1902 play, Nos deux consciences/Our Two Conscience) in the 30s. Mrs Hitch, Alma Reville, got him interested in the project again in 1948. They worked on the script and offered Johnson(!) the lead - a Roman Catholic priest suspected of murder. Next? The Master’s future regulars: Cary Grant and James Stewart. Which is, perhaps, why Clift drank too much; Hitch got co-star Karl Malden to warn him off the bottle.
- Farley Granger, Small Town Girl, 1952. Johnson, Peter Lawford, Dean Miller and Ricardo Montalban were seen for the young playboy falling for a small town judge’s daughter (Jane Powell) in the MGMusical - supplying not one but two numbers for That’s Entertainment in 1973. Miller, alone made the cut - but as Mac, not rich Rick. (Title apart, no connection with Metro’s 1935 rom-com).
- Gene Kelly, Crest of the Wave, 1954. He was Kelly's sidekick in his previous film, Brigadoon, but now Johnson's MGMoment was over. Particularly after CA Lejeune's reviews like: “Van Johnson does his best: appears.”
- Tom Ewell, The Seven Year Itch, 1954. Johnson opposite Little Miss Allyson… in a Marilyn role !! Ah, but this was when MGM was trying to secure the rights to the Broadway hit comedy. Although the Production Code said it could not be filmed. “Adultery must never be the subject of comedy or laughter.” Nobody told the French…
- Jack Lemmon, You Can’t Run Away From It, 1955. For his third gig as director, ex-song-and-dance man Dick Powell chose a musical version of It Happened One Night. Couples suggested for the 1933 Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert roles, were Johnson-June Allyson (Mrs Powell), Robert Mitchum-Constance Towers and, ultimately, Jack Lemmon-Allyson (still sleeping with the director!). Prophetic title as Powell’s previous assignment, The Conqueror, 1955, led to terminal cancer for 90 of the 220 cast and crew (including John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Powell. himself) - after shooting at an obviously still radiaoctive 1953 atomic bomb test site in Yucca Flat, Nevada.
- John Rait, The Pajama Game, 1956. Frederick Brisson, Robert E Griffith and Hal Prince bought the 7 Cents novel for a stage musical about a pajama factory strike. They immediately started courting Johnson, Cary Grant and Gene Kelly - surely one would agree to Broadway and Hollywood! No ? OK, they’ll discover a new star and star. And did. Hardly A-calibre.
- Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur, 1958. For the MGMighty $5m epic re-make, the favourite for the hero was the disinterested Brando. Director William Wyler (of the original’s 1924 crew) also studied Italians Cesare Danova and Vittorio Gassman. Plus Johnson (no, really!), Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster - and Edmund Purdom, who had picked up another epic dropped by Brando, The Egyptian, 1953. Judah Ben-Heston won his Oscar on April 4 1960.
- Dean Martin, Rio Bravo, 1958.
- Jules Dassin, Pote tin Kyriaki (Never On Sunday), Greece-US, 1959. For their little film that conquered the globe, the blacklisted and exiled US director Jules Dassin wanted Johnson as the US scholar falling for a prostitute played by Mrs Dassin, the mercurial Melina Mercouri (co-best actress at Cannes, 1960). But Dassin couldn’t afford him. (Imagine not being able to afford Van Johnson! Now that is really a low-budget operation). “So,” she recalled in ber autiobio, I Was Born Greek, “he flew to Rome which was supposed to be a tank of good actors. Didn’t find any.” That is when she told him she knew someone. “Who?” “You!” He said: “Have you seen my face?” And so he became Homer Thrace, of Middletown, Connecticut – Dassin’s birthplace.
- Robert Stack, The Untouchables, TV. 1959-1963. After Van Heflin passed on being Elliott Ness, so did Van Johnson. There being no other suitable Vans available, the role went to a bicycle - the robotic Stack.
- Tony Curtis, Boeing-Boeing, 1965. Chosen to start his five-year deal with producer Hal Wallis at Paramount. He turned to TV instead - for nothing of any value.
- Tyrone Power, The Edddy Duchin Story, 1956. Tried to land the title role but Power was adjudged perfect by Duchin's son, more so than Kim Novak - “the girl of my wet dreams” - as his socialite mother.