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The Second Van Johnson Blogathon: The Partnership of Van Johnson & June Allyson

In late 1940, an aspiring young actor named Van Johnson was hired by director-playwright George Abbott as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in the Broadway musical Pal Joey. The show opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, a few months after Cole Porter's Panama Hattie premiered at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre). In the cast of Panama Hattie was another young hopeful, June Allyson, who was understudying Betty Hutton. One day, Van happened to meet June at the apartment of a mutual friend and, by all accounts, the two instantly became «soulmates.»

Van Johnson and June Allyson were lifelong friends and appeared in six films together.
 
Van and June were both avid movie fans and they both had dreams of someday becoming actors. Whereas Van idolized Spencer Tracy — with whom he would later co-star in A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) — June thought Margaret Sullavan was the screen's greatest actress and tried to emulate her. Sometimes in private the two of them would act out scenes they had seen. Then they would critique each other's performances and try the scene again. «We kidded and talked about what we would do when we were motion picture celebrities,» June recalled, «how perhaps we'd even play in a picture together

Before being cast in Pal Joey, Van had already experienced Hollywood life. He had been hired by RKO to reprise his role as a chorus boy in the film adaptation of George Marion Jr.'s Broadway musical Too Many Girls. Directed by George Abbott, the film starred Lucille Ball, who became Van's lifelong friend. Back in New York, an enthusiastic Van told June about the time he had spent in Hollywood making Too Many Girls (1940), but confessed that he worried he did not photograph well. «I reminded him that not all actors looked like Robert Taylor,» June said.
 
Van in A Guy Named Joe and June in a publicity still for Best Foot Forward.
 
After his stint in Too Many Girls, Van was signed to a six-month contract by Warner Bros. and cast in the crime drama Murder in the Big House (1942). Although his performance was well-received, the film was widely dismissed by critics. Van soon learned that his contract would not be renewed, which led him to believe that he was «finished» in Hollywood. However, just as he was about to move back to New York for good, he was signed by MGM. In less than a year, Van became one of the most popular young actors in America, playing important roles in such films as The Human Comedy (1943) and the aforementioned A Guy Named Joe.

With Van rapidly becoming the nation's sweetheart, MGM executives decided to cast him in the musical Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) opposite their newest acquisition, June Allyson. She had arrived in Hollywood the previous year and put under contract at the urging of Metro's musical supervisor, Arthur Freed. Given small roles in Best Foot Forward (1943) and Thousands Cheer (1943), June was presented as an «overnight sensation,» often portrayed as an ingenue.
 
Van Johnson and June Allyson in publicity stills for Two Girls and a Sailor.
 
Directed by Richard Thorpe, Two Girls and a Sailor tells the story of two singing sisters (June Allyson and Gloria De Haven) who are helped by a anonymous wealthy admirer (Van Johnson) to open a canteen to entertain members of the armed forces. It featured a host of celebrity performers, including band leaders Harry James and Xavier Cugat, pianist José Iturbi, singers Lena Horne and Helen Forrest, and comedians Jimmy Durante and Gracie Allen. Designed as «pure escapism,» Two Girls and a Sailor proved a great success among wartime audiences, turning Van Johnson and June Allyson into the quintessential boy and girl-next-door.

Given the popularity of their first screen pairing, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer decided that Van and June should date and even tried to stir up an off-screen romance between them. But there was a much bigger reason behind Mayer's sudden interest in Van's love life. At the time, rumors about the actor's homosexuality were circulating around Hollywood, which Mayer found worrying. Just like many people of his era, the MGM boss believed that homosexuality was a «psychological aberration» that could be successfully treated, especially by a «good woman.» As such, he threw every single beautiful woman on the lot (June included) at Van, in an effort to establish his «heterosexual bona fides.» Van did take June to a series of movie premieres and other official studio functions, but no romance ever developed between them.
 
Van Johnson and June Allyson in High Barbaree.
 
Following separate appearances in the star-studded musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Van and June were cast in High Barbaree (1947), based on the eponymous novel by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall. In the picture, Van plays a U.S. Navy pilot lying adrift somewhere in the South Pacific after being shot down by the Japanese during a bombing mission. June appears as his childhood sweetheart, a Navy nurse serving aboard a ship in the Pacific theater of war.

The initial script of High Barbaree retained the novel's original ending, in which the two lovers die in a Romeo and Juliet-like conclusion. However, after a preview screening audience reacted negatively to seeing Van's character in heaven, a new ending was shot, showing both lovers surviving and being happily reunited. Unlike its predecessor, High Barbaree was not a success, with critics lamenting its contrived storyline and sentimental clichés.
 
LEFT: June and Van in a photoshoot for Screen Hits Annual, promoting The Bride Goes Wild. RIGHT: Van and June during a break from filming.
 
After High Barbaree, Van and June were paired in The Bride Goes Wild (1948), directed by Norman Taurog. Van stars as a beloved children's author who actually dislikes kids, while June plays a «prim and proper» illustrator who ends up falling in love with him. The two friends had great fun making this picture. Apparently, they clowned around so much that Taurog once had to call off filming for the day. The Bride Goes Wild was a great hit, although some reviewers objected to the film's heavy-handed slapstick, reminiscent of the farcical Mack Sennett.

Van and June's next project was Too Young to Kiss (1951), written by the Academy Award-nominated duo Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. In her first movie since the birth of her son, Richard Powell Jr., June starred as a struggling concert pianist who disguises herself as a thirteen-year-old, in order to get an audition with a prodigy-minded impresario, played by Van (in a role originally intended for Robert Taylor). Too Young to Kiss was a solid success upon release, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction. For her performance in the film, June received a Golden Globe for Best Actress — Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.
 
June Allyson and Van Johnson in Too Young to Kiss.
 
Hoping to recoup the financial losses of his «message» films, Dore Schary, the new head of production at MGM, cast Van and June in their sixth movie together, the crime musical comedy Remains to Be Seen (1953). Based on the eponymous Broadway play by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, it told the story of a singer (Allyson) and her apartment manager (Johnson) as they get mixed up in a creepy Park Avenue murder. Remains to Be Seen was a critical and commercial failure and marked the end of Van and June's big screen partnership.

June Allyson and Van Johnson in Remains to Be Seen.
   
The two old friends did reunite on the small screen on three different occasions. In 1968, they appeared in a episode of NBC's The Name of the Game (1968-1971), titled «High on a Rainbow». Ten years later, they were featured as a married couple in a segment of ABC's hit comedy The Love Boat (1977-1986) called «On Her Own Two Feet». Finally, Van and June guest starred in an episode of CBS's Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), starring Angela Lanbsury, who had appeared in Remains to Be Seen. Van played an eccentric inventor embroiled in the murder of his former employer, while June played his former co-worker, for whom he feels a great deal of affection. Although this was the final joint appearance of «America's sweethearts» on screen, they remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
 

This post is my contribution to The Second Van Johnson Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.


_____________________________________________ 
SOURCES:
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Una Merkel: The Actress with Sassy Wit and Southern Charm by Larry Sean Kinder (BearManor Media, 2016)
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
High Barbaree at the American Film Institute Catalog

Comments

  1. Lovely post! I just adore these two together, and it warms my heart to know that they loved each other and were great friends. I'm not going to lie -- the first time I saw their "Murder, She Wrote" episode, I actually teared up. It was just so sweet seeing them together again later in their careers and their characters' little romance was too darn cute.

    Thanks so much for contributing to my blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
  2. It is lovely to know that their friendship began long before their MGM days and lasted long after. I've seen all of their show business teamings and can only wish there were more.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I first came to discover Van Johnson in his war movies, so I'm discovering a lot of things I didn't know. That why I enjoy these blog-a-thons so much.

    If you were going to suggest one of these movies for my "need to see" list, which would it be?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would probably suggest "The Bride Goes Wild". It's a really fun film, and it sort of reminds me of one of those wonderful screwball comedies of the 1930s.

      Delete

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