Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy

Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy

Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy

Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy


Van Johnson's dazzling smile, shock of red hair, and suntanned freckled cheeks made him a movie-star icon. Among teenaged girls in the 1940s he was popularized as the bobbysoxer's heartthrob.

He won the nation's heart, too, by appearing in a series of blockbuster war films-- A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Weekend at the Waldorf, and Battleground. Perennially a leading man opposite June Allyson, Esther Williams, Judy Garland, and Janet Leigh, he rose to fame radiating the sunshine image Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chose for him, that of an affable, wholesome boy-next-door. Legions of adoring moviegoers were captivated by this idealized persona that generated huge box-office profits for the studio.

However, Johnson's off-screen life was not so sunny. His mother had rejected him in childhood, and he lived his adult life dealing with sexual ambivalence. A marriage was arranged with the ex-wife of his best friend, the actor Keenan Wynn. During the waning years of Hollywood's Golden Age she and Johnson lived amid the glow of Hollywood's A-crowd. Yet their private life was charged with tension and conflict.

Although morose and reclusive by nature, Johnson maintained a happy-go-lucky façade even among co-workers, who knew him as a congenial, dedicated professional. Once free of the golden-boy stereotype, he became a respected actor assigned stellar roles in such acclaimed films as State of the Union, Command Decision, The Last Time I Saw Paris, and The Caine Mutiny.

With the demise of the big studios, Johnson returned to the stage, where he had begun his career as a song-and-dance man. After this he appeared frequently in television shows, performed in nightclubs, and became the legendary darling of older audiences on the dinner playhouse circuit. Johnson (1916 - 2008) spent his post-Hollywood years living in solitude in New York City.

This solid, thoroughly researched biography traces the career and influence of a favorite star and narrates a fascinating, sometimes troubled life story.

Ronald L. Davis is the author of Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master, and Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. He is a professor of history at Southern Methodist University and the general editor of University Press of Mississippi's Hollywood Legends Series.


A product of his time, Van Johnson illustrates the fantasy world that Hollywood projected during the 1940s and 1950s. Johnson came into movies unencumbered by the methods of acting and the claptrap taught in professional drama schools; he succeeded by letting the pure personality show through in the parts he played. Any dishonesty in his life was part of a desire, dominant during the heyday of Hollywood’s big studios, to produce pristine likenesses of an idealized society in which all but the most indolent sought the glories and riches of the American dream fulfilled. That Van Johnson tried to internalize deceit in his own life and make the mask his reality became a principal factor in his personal difficulties. Few people truly knew Van Johnson; it is unlikely that the man ever came to know himself deeply. The visage of the freckled boy next door that so enchanted movie audiences in the 1940s was advantageous and comfortable to hide behind; it won the young actor fame, approval, and wealth in record time. The hurt in Johnson’s private life was offset by the adulation of his adoring public. He did his crying in seclusion, and the walls around his solitary person were seldom broken.

Johnson was lucky in his career, soaring to popularity during World War II on the crest of a boy-next-door image that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer created for him. He remains fortunate in having loyal friends who wish to do nothing to displease him. Although their devotion speaks well of Johnson and his relationships with colleagues, their reticence does not help a biographer whose aim is to write a truthful book about the man who once was the bobby-soxers’ heartthrob. Time and again I found potential sources unwilling to talk to me or reluctant to reveal information that . . .

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