If you’re familiar with my blog, you may know that Esther Williams has certainly earned her place among the pantheon of who I consider the greatest (and most underrated) stars of all time. One might think that by association I would have given one of those spots to her frequent costar Van Johnson, but I have to admit that it wasn’t until very recently that I finally began to discover Van for the true standalone talent that he was. Over the last few years I’ve watched and discussed four of Van and Esther’s six films together on this blog, while giving a full review of two: Easy to Wed (1946) for last year’s amazing Van Johnson Blogathon, and more recently Duchess of Idaho (1950) for The MGM Musical Magic Blogathon. I believe the latter was the film that really made me consider Van Johnson in a new light, as it was the first that I had seen where multiple men were vying for Esther’s affections and I truly wanted her to end up with Van.
Of course I’ve rooted for the pair before in films where he has no competition for Esther’s heart like Thrill of a Romance (1945), but in Easy to Love (1953) for example, I was on Tony Martin’s team all the way. I think to see the adorable Van hold his own against John Lund, an onscreen persona that I loathe, really made me realize how much I appreciated Van all along. This became abundantly clear when I then decided to check out one of his films outside of his catalog with Esther a couple of weeks ago, Grounds for Marriage (1952) with Kathryn Grayson. Something about him in these two features really made him stand out and sparkle onscreen to me, and I can now say after years of appreciating his work that I’ve fully jumped onboard the Van Johnson wagon. This realization couldn’t have come at a better time either, as thankfully Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood has brought back The Van Johnson Blogathon for a second year in honor of what would have been his 102nd birthday yesterday. I couldn’t be gladder now that I appreciate Van in all of his lovable glory, and let’s hope that we can all pay tribute to him for many more years to come!
As soon as I found out that after watching what I thought was the full extent of Van Johnson and Esther Williams’ pairings I had somehow overlooked their first picture together, I knew that it would be the one that I had to review for this year’s blogathon. Going into this film, however, I didn’t expect much action to take place between what is now considered to be the legendary onscreen pair because Johnson receives third billing, while Williams manages to snag a meager eighth billing. Oh, the outrage! Still, I’m a completionist, and I wouldn’t consider myself to be a true fan of both of these lovely actors without watching and giving my thoughts on their first onscreen appearance. The real star of this picture is Spencer Tracy, who plays reckless yet talented fighter pilot Pete Sandidge. Pete is so sure of himself as a pilot that he often breaks free of his own squadron and does his own thing, putting his peers as well as himself in danger. As skilled as he is with his plane, it’s easy to see that Pete can never become a leader with this behavior and he needs a lesson in teamwork.
His girlfriend is Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne), a fellow pilot who fears for her boyfriend’s safety and has a premonition that his days are numbered. In order to save him from this dismal outcome, she makes it her goal to reassign Pete from his combat work and move him to the States, where he has the opportunity to teach novices how to fly. Pete couldn’t be less interested in the job, feeling that his skill as a flyer would be put to better use in the air fighting the enemy directly, but for Dorinda he reluctantly agrees to the change. Due to unforeseeable circumstances, however, Pete and his close friend Al Yackey (Ward Bond) are forced to complete one more mission: locating and destroying a German aircraft carrier. Of course as these types of films go, this mission proves to be his last and he ends up successfully bombing the carrier before going down in flames and combusting in the sea. Pete soon finds himself in the pilot’s version of heaven, and is given an assignment by the General (Lionel Barrymore) to do exactly what he had been trying to avoid doing in life: teach novice Ted Randall (Van Johnson) how to fly. Will he complete the task and learn a few things about himself in the process, or will he attempt to sabotage his student once he begins romancing Dorinda?
Looking back, A Guy Named Joe (1943) could not have been more vital to the war effort at the time, but a number of obstacles nearly kept it from being completed. For one thing, The War Department refused to approve the script at first, feeling understandably worried that its realistic view of the dangers of flying would dissuade new pilots and be psychologically damaging to those already in service. It took two full revisions of the script before they eventually promised full cooperation with the film. Spencer Tracy took an instant dislike to costar Irene Dunne during filming, and to make matters even worse, tragedy struck on March 31, 1943 when newcomer Van Johnson was critically injured in an automobile accident. At first, MGM made plans to recast his role in this film and replace him with either John Hodiak or Peter Lawford, but Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne refused and convinced the studio to allow Johnson to convalesce and complete the picture afterward. In return for their cooperation, Tracy promised to set aside his differences with Dunne and spent much of Johnson’s recuperation period reshooting some of their scenes together in which they appeared especially hostile (though I still detect quite a bit of animosity between the two even in the finished product). After four months Van Johnson finally returned to production and A Guy Named Joe (1943) was released as MGM’s titanic Christmas feature later that year, becoming the second largest box office moneymaker for the studio that year and the ninth largest overall.
I am completely astonished at myself when I say this as I’ve never been a fan of Spencer Tracy or Irene Dunne in particular, but after watching A Guy Named Joe (1943) I truly believe that it was one of the finest and most heartbreaking films to come out of World War II. It tackles a lot of lessons that were addressed in other wartime films, like cooperating with your peers and fighting for more than just yourself, but this picture digs deeper into the subject of loss and grief on the home front. Seeing the struggle that Dorinda goes through after Pete’s death and the insurmountable decision of whether to move on or cling to the past really hurts to watch, but it was an important aspect of the war that needed to be shown onscreen at the time. I feel that this is also one of the best displays of character growth that you can find in a film; comparing Pete as he acted and spoke in the beginning as opposed to the end is a difference between night and day, and I applaud this film for showing such a positive and linear development for him.
Of course, I would also be remiss if I didn’t talk about Van Johnson’s performance. In all honesty it wasn’t much different from his other roles at the time (except a little cockier, perhaps), but it’s easy to see why this picture was the stepping stone that hoisted him to bigger and better things, and his acting is just as fantastic here as it was ten or even twenty years afterward. To answer the question that I’m sure all of you are asking, “Where’s Esther Williams?” (or is it just me?), she appears alongside Van in only one scene as Ellen Bright, a hostess for the USO. I know I’m biased but I truly think that this is one of the best and most endearing parts of the picture as it not only shows both Esther and Van’s gentle side as they help a homesick pilot (played by the always memorable character actor Charles Smith), it also gives the audience a wonderful taste of what the two of them would be like onscreen in the future and shows the potential of what the pair could eventually become. If you’re looking for a movie that specifically has a lot of Van Johnson to watch while celebrating his birthday, this isn’t what I would choose, but if you want to see one of the most quality wartime films ever released that happens to have Van in it, this should be the one you watch.