The Van Johnson Story. Starring . . . Van Johnson.
Davis (History/Southern Methodist Univ.; The Glamour Factory, 1993, etc.) writes books about “movie people,” an enterprise now institutionalized in the Legends of Hollywood Series, of which this is the first installment—and a successful one. Davis tells Johnson’s life story in the breezy, amusing, strangely addictive style of the old MGM musicals in which Johnson used to star. Like Johnson’s films, there’s not much in the way of plot development: East Coast boy dreams of being an actor, becomes a bobby-soxer heartthrob when a car accident knocks him out of WWII (and into countless WWII movies), then spends the next 40 years doing dinner theater. And the protagonist is so fundamentally boring that he made red socks his trademark just to ensure he’d always have something to talk about at cocktail parties. Davis tries to milk what drama he can out of Johnson’s highly debatable sexuality and his disastrous, quasi-arranged marriage, but the star comes off as too obviously closeted for any of it to be terribly titillating. Instead, many of the best moments come from Johnson’s post-Hollywood days, when, between national tours and guest appearances on Batman and The Love Boat, he lounged around his New York apartment in a pair of silk pajamas Rosalind Russell gave him, doing needlepoint and occasionally lunching with Garbo. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Johnson’s life story, though, is the realization that the same studio system that produced the cosseted, thoroughly average, somewhat oblivious Johnson also produced his direct contemporary, a man who went on to serve two terms as president of the country. Davis includes, in lieu of footnotes, a chapter-by-chapter bibliographic essay that lays out the sources for all of his material. One hopes the practice catches on; it works like a dream.
A perfectly pleasant double feature.