Remembering Van Johnson: A classic Hollywood heartthrob, raised in 'Caine'

Vanjohnson_l Van Johnson, who died today at age 92 in Nyack, N.Y., was a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be. Like most 1950s heartthrobs — Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson, Troy Donahue — his career is pigeonholed with B-grade romances, cornball WWII fighter pilot adventures, and beneath-his-dignity television guest appearances (indeed, he may have pioneered the cheesy sitcom walk-on by playing himself in a famous Hollywood episode of I Love Lucy). His corn-field reddish-blond hair, sky-blue eyes, and blandly earnest charm won him loads of parts as the all-American boy, usually opposite all-American girls like June Allyson (Two Girls and a Sailor, Too Young to Kiss) and Esther Williams (Easy to Love, The Duchess of Idaho), although he also shared screen time with the likes of  Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris and, in his most memorable romance, Deborah Kerr in The End of the Affair.

But there is at least one performance in which Johnson’s true talent is impossible to overlook — in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny. Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer chomp up all the scenery in this maritime courtroom drama, but it’s Johnson’s character, the painfully ambivalent, not-too-bright Lieutenant Steve Maryk, who binds the whole movie together. For the scene in which he relieves Captain Queeg from command during a typhoon, Johnson manages to convey both panic and determination in his eyes. And when he takes the stand at his court-martial for mutiny, you can read his character’s racing mind from the symphony of expressions on his face. Everybody remembers Bogart playing with his ball bearings in The Caine Mutiny — including the Academy, which nominated him for an Oscar — but it’s Van Johnson who gave the film its most nuanced, impressive turn.

Johnson never won an Oscar. Never even got nominated. But he did prove he was capable of an Oscar-worthy performance, and that’s more than most movie stars can claim.

addCredit(“Hulton Archive/Getty Images”)

Comments (102 total) Add your comment
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  • Alan of Montreal

    Well, there goes the tribute to Brigadoon that I thought might be part of the Oscars. They should have put him in more comedies–he had excellent comic timing.

  • palais

    No mention of The Caine Mutiny? Shame, as that was always my favorite Van Hohnson performance. He held his own against Humphrey Bogart and Fred MacMurray. That’s one everyone should see,

  • palais

    And I need to spell check-that’s Johnson, not Hohnson.

  • ncmacasl

    He was also the Best friend who sets up Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda in the original Classic Family Rom-Com “Yours, Mine & Ours”

  • Uberman

    “The Caine Mutiny” was a fantastic film. I also loved him in the supporting roles of “Brigadoon” and “Yours, Mine and Ours”. Another great one is gone. :(

  • jeff george

    No mention of Battleground, one of THE best war movies ever made. I loved him in everything he was ever in.

  • Peter

    Thanks for the nice writeup of Mr. Johnson.

  • Steamboater

    And Johnson was Gay too. Why not say it? It’s the truth. He was a well-liked man and a good actor. The reason he became a star to begin with (and that happened in the early 40’s) was because most of the well known leading male actors were in the army during the war, and Johnson was with the studio at the right time. His performance in (ahhh..I’m so bad at film titles)…the film where he crash lands a plane in China and has to hide from the Japanese was also a very solid performance. He lived to good old age, having survived cancer years ago and that’s nice. RIP.

  • kathie

    One of my favorite all time movie actors,could watch his movies all day
    long. Hollywood will certainly miss him.

  • Bill

    Thats “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo”. About the Doolittle raid.

  • boj

    First show I remember him in is 30 Seconds over Tokyo. Him and the Ruptured Duck

  • rockytony

    Thanks to TCM we can continue to watch this most believable of actors. He made bad movies better and good movies as they were intended. The Caine Mutiny, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Brigadoon, Best Years of Our Lives and on and on. Thank you Mr.Johnson. You will not be forgotten.

  • pat

    I love “Battleground.” Just love it!
    Hope some of these tv move channels will play it more in rememberance of him

  • Gordon

    I had the pleasure of meeting Van Johnson twice. Once here in Vancouver at a local club, and once in Los Angeles in the lobby of the Century Plaza hotel. In the second instance we chatted about his stage fright, as he was scheduled to give a talk at some event at the hotel, and said he was petrified at the thought of walking out in front of several hundred people and talking to them. I gave him a tip to overcome that, and I was told later that he did very well. He will be missed.

  • Film Buff

    Thanks Van, you’ll be remembered for the wonderful films you made. Caine Mutiny and Battleground were shinning moments. God Bless and farewell.

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