“I am the luckiest guy in the world. All my dreams came true. I was in a wonderful business, and I met great people all over the world.” –Van Johnson
In the days of Technicolor, Hollywood had its fair share of famous redheads–including Van Johnson. Johnson starred as a wholesome heartthrob in many films, where he executed dramatic, comedic, and even musical and dancing abilities with ease. As his career gained momentum, Johnson always remained loyal to fans and never turned down an autograph.
It is fun to note that one of the biggest Hollywood stars originated from the smallest state in the United States. Charles Van Dell Johnson was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on August 25th, 1916. His father was born in Sweden and came to the United States as a child, where he worked in plumbing and real estate. Johnson’s mother was a housewife but suffered from alcoholism and left the family when Johnson was a child.
Johnson was raised by his father, though many accounts discuss their relationship as difficult. Various accounts hold that his father was cold and strict with him, while others note that he maintained scrapbooks documenting his son’s success. Additional accounts detail his maternal grandmother assisting in raising him, often taking care of household chores like cooking and sewing as well as baking him birthday cakes. Though tabloid magazines must not be viewed as fact, an issue of Modern Screen Magazine holds that Johnson’s father emphasized good health, not allowing his son to eat mounds of candy, while also holding honesty, respect, and neatness of appearance in high regard.
In terms of his education, Johnson was an average student and dutifully shared his report cards with his father. However, Johnson also became interested in athletics, joining the Boy Scouts, and also took up drawing. In fact, he would sketch movie star portraits of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich, to name a few.
While attending Rogers High School, Johnson performed at various social clubs throughout the Newport area. Upon graduation, he moved to New York City and worked as a substitute dancer in different theatrical productions. During this period, Johnson gained work as an understudy to Desi Arnaz and Eddie Bracken in the musical Too Many Girls. This led to a small role for Johnson in Pal Joey. Johnson also worked in Hollywood when he played an uncredited role in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls (1940).
Johnson was ready to move back to New York after his stay in Hollywood when Lucille Ball introduced him to MGM’s casting director at Chasen’s Restaurant. Upon their introduction, Johnson completed several screen tests at various Hollywood studios, leading to a contract with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, Johnson’s image did not suit Warner Brothers’ tougher style of movies, so the studio dropped him after six months. Afterwards, Johnson worked for MGM, and studied acting, speech, and diction through the studio.
After carrying out several small roles for MGM, Johnson’s first major success was in A Guy Named Joe. However, halfway through the film’s production, Johnson survived a major car accident. The accident seriously damaged his scalp and left him with a metal plate in his forehead, along with several scars on his face that were difficult to conceal. MGM wanted to replace him, but Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne insisted that Johnson complete the film. This injury exempted him from serving in World War II, and the film was profitable to both the studio and Johnson.
MGM capitalized on Johnson’s all-American boy-next-door image and easygoing style, starring him in a string of war dramas and musicals, including Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and Thrill of Romance (1945). Additionally, Johnson starred in Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), which was a musical remake of Grand Hotel (1932). Johnson also appeared in several more musicals, such as No Leave, No Love (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), and Easy To Wed (1946), a musical remake of Libeled Lady (1936).
After World War II, some of Johnson’s films were not as successful. Johnson starred with June Allyson for the third time in High Barbaree (1947), which lost money for the studio. He also starred in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1948), which was also a box office failure but did introduce actress Janet Leigh. Johnson worked with Allyson yet again in The Bride Goes Wild (1948), which was received better.
When MGM was led by Dore Schary, Johnson continued to excel in musicals. He appeared in the musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949) with Judy Garland, Easy to Love (1953) with Esther Williams, and Brigadoon (1954) with Gene Kelly. He also carried out the lead role in the drama The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), which was a hit film. Johnson also made a wide range of television appearances, which included Johnson playing himself on an episode of I Love Lucy. Johnson and Ball sang and danced together during one of the Hollywood-themed episodes. He passed away on December 12th, 2008.
Today, one key aspect of Johnson’s early life remains in his hometown–his childhood home. Johnson grew up at 16 Ayrault Street in Newport. When Johnson became famous, the home gained attention from fans curious to see where Johnson lived. In the May 1945 Modern Screen interview, Johnson’s father reportedly said: “You ought to see the way kids touch his chair and his books, as if they were solid gold. And when they ask me about him, their eyes are so big, and their voices so low.”
The home exists to this day, albeit with some changes, and is now privately owned.
The town of Newport remembers Johnson long after his passing. On the day of what would have been his 94th birthday, the town held a party in his honor at the Jane Pickens Theater. The theater hosted a free screening of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and offered slices of cake to guests. August 25th, Johnson’s birthday, was also declared Van Johnson Day by Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. Additionally, husband and wife songwriting team Henry and Bobbie Shaffner have been working on a campaign to have Johnson recognized as a postage stamp, auctioning off a pair of his trademark red socks along the way.
If you are ever in the Newport area, a stroll down Ayrault Street–possibly in a favorite pair of red socks–is a fun way to remember Van Johnson.