Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Memoriam: Van Johnson

Whenever I think of Van Johnson, his performance in The Caine Mutiny comes to mind. It was his part as the lieutenant who leads the crew against Humphrey Bogart's neurotic Captain Queeg that caught my attention. Johnson came off as so heroic and embodied the "regular Joe" role he did so well. That performance alone convinced me that Johnson was a fine actor, and I routinely came to his defense among those who would dismiss him as a mere MGM studio fabrication. Offscreen, Johnson endured a near-fatal accident which would have ended his career, to say nothing of his life. It's fascinating, gripping, and worthy of a film of its own.

In 1942, Johnson was driving to a screening of the Tracy-Hepburn film, Keeper of the Flame when another driver came from the opposite direction toward him and forced his car off the road. Johnson's convertible rolled over several times before crashing into a ditch. Johnson was still conscious, but realized that the convertible's top had sliced the top of his skull. His head was nearly severed across the skull, and was kept only in place by skin and hair. The rollover also put dirt and debris into his head cavity, right on Johnson's exposed brain. A passing motorist hailed an ambulance and police, and when they arrived, they informed Johnson that they could not help him because his accident had come a few feet outside of their jurisdictional boundary! The medics actually asked him to crawl across the boundary so they could take him to the hospital. Johnson proceeded to drag himself across the street and he was finally taken to the hospital. The film Johnson had been working on, A Guy Named Joe, had its production delayed on Louis B. Mayer's order while Johnson recuperated. Of course, Van Johnson subsequently emerged as a popular leading man throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and lived a very long life, dying yesterday at age 92.

Selected Filmography:

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