...or so he seemed, both as an actor and as a goodwill ambassador for show business in general and Tinseltown in particular. Van Johnson, seen above in 1949's In The Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Baby Liza Minnelli, passed away today at a senior citizen's home in Nyack, New York, age 92.
Johnson took some credible stabs at toughening up his nice-guy screen image with such fare as Wellman's Battleground (also '49) and Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny ('54). The damn thing was, he was just so very good at being agreeable that once you warmed up to what he brought to the screen, you didn't necessarily need much else from him. You didn't want him to give you some idea of his range.
And now he's gone—another one of the last remaining flesh-and-blood links to another world, as it were. Bettie Page, whose world was a different one from Johnson's, and whose illness I wrote of last weekend, has also left the building. A friend remembers that earlier in the year, the artist Dave Stevens, the creator of the comic The Rocketeer, whose work did so much to revive contemporary interest in Page, died of leukemia; he was only 52. "Sort of taking the spirit out of the season," my pal notes of these passings. I know; death is sad, but still, as they say, inevitable, and until our own meeting with it, we will have to, as Van's co-star above famously sang, muddle through somehow. Might as well find some way to be cheerful about it. Maybe settling in with a nice old Van Johnson picture, some eggnog, and a cozy blanket could help...
UPDATE: My esteemed colleague Joseph Failla chimes in with three cheers for Johnson's more ambitious outings, and an appreciation of his later work:
Even though Van Johnson was a quintessential Mr. Nice Guy, I always liked him just as much in his tougher roles, in films such as the exciting Thirty Second Over Tokyo and the classic The Caine Mutiny. In Caine, he's very convincing as a diligent officer who's manipulated into bringing charges against the much maligned Capt. Queeg. The way he conveys the damage his conscience suffers during the course of the film is most believable.
But he was also a picture of elegance, as he managed to hold his own while performing song and dance with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon. He even had a notable dance number with Lucille Ball on an episode of her TV show in the '50s. They do a nice little duet that's not only one of the series' shining moments, but also nothing short of the kind of professionalism you'd expect from an MGM movie musical of the same period.
And of course, I'll never forget the role that introduced him to me as The Minstrel on the '60s Batman series. I admit not the most threatening of Bat-villians but there was something about the way he sang his lines to the Caped Crusaders that still strikes me as funny and worked preciously within the show's campy design.
The last role I recall seeing of his was in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, as one of the characters "trapped" on film. I thought he looked great in that tux and his presence was just what was needed to convey a bygone era through imeasurable charm and class.