Van Johnson had, according to my mother's sarcastic remark whenever she saw him in an old movie, "a face like a bowl of corn flakes", meaning wholesome and familiar, if not necessarily something you'd want as daily fare.
Despite this early attempt to influence my taste for what Mom undoubtedly believed was "the better", I liked the guy. There was something about the man that struck me as sympathetic. He seemed, like many of us sometimes are, to be a bit awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin, sometimes irritable when he meant to be direct, uncertain when most of Hollywood's movies insisted on self-confidence in their leading men. In later roles, inarticulate restlessness was occasionally used to good effect by perceptive filmmakers, who tapped into an edgier side of the increasingly less boyish man.
MGM studio, ever on the lookout for a new boy-next-door, produced a flock of these seemingly harmless young men on their assembly line in the '40s. There was Tom Drake, James Craig, Don Taylor, and even a British version of the type in Peter Lawford, all on prominent display during and after the war in movies that emphasized their polite if bland niceness and their passing resemblance to other stars, (i.e. James Craig as "Clark Gable Lite").
Some went on to smaller roles once the studio system broke up, some moved into the production end of the business and some left acting entirely. One of the actors marketed most prominently as the "nicest" of all these boys was Van Johnson, who died last week at age 92.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
On the twenty-first day of our Holiday tour, we fly past Zero Mostel, a slightly off-kilter angelic talent, whose exceptional presence may have been too large for movies. Zero's angel, swathed in what looks like my grandmother's drapes, circa 1965, seems to be readying himself to help us celebrate all festivals of light at this darkest time of year, whether Christmas or, as is occurring at sundown this evening, the first night of Chanukah.
Brooklyn-born Samuel Joel Mostel was the son of a skilled vintner of sacred wines who struggled to make a living. Despite their economic straits, as a boy, Zero's mother dressed him in velvet suits and, taking advantage of New York City's artistic wealth, sent the artistically adept lad to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to copy the masters. Perhaps in self-defense, Mostel also developed a keen sense of the absurd laced with his occasionally ribald sense of humor as he grew up. One of his antics including enthralling amused gallery patrons by copying paintings upside down. Studying art at CCNY during the Depression, he eventually graduated and worked for a pittance from the Public Works of Art Project. Zero gave many art lectures for the PWAP, lacing his lectures with funny asides that made him extremely popular and encouraged his extroverted side.