Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

VAN JOHNSON MGM'S GOLDEN BOY

VAN JOHNSON: MGM'S GOLDEN BOY. Ronald L. Davis. University Press of Mississippi; 2001.

It's hard to figure out exactly where author Davis was coming from when he wrote this book on Johnson [seven years before Johnson's death at 92]. When you write a book on a Hollywood legend for a university press it usually means you admire that performer [even while not being blind to his or her flaws] but this book seems more borderline contemptuous of its subject than anything else. It's hard to say if Davis is chiding Johnson for spending most of his life in the closet, or if he simply has trouble with his subject's homosexuality. [Johnson's ex-wife told Davis that she was pressured to marry Johnson by studio head L. B. Mayer after her marriage to his buddy Keenan Wynn fell apart, because Mayer threatened to drop the latter's contract.] Davis' chief sources for his book seem to be this embittered ex-wife and a wannabee former stepson of Johnson's with drug problems and other issues who wrote his own book about his screwed up family (Davis quotes some fairly homophobic passages from that book). Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy does provide details of Johnson's life and career, and how important and famous he was during his heyday, but there always seems to be -- something -- between the lines. Johnson's marriage did produce a daughter whom -- according to this book -- he neglected after the divorce. Davis should be commended for not doing a white-wash, but his prissy disapproval seems to radiate from every page. Perhaps the tell-all tome would have been better-suited to a commercial press than a university publisher, although Johnson was undoubtedly not considered "B.0." enough for the former. Davis also wrote a much better biography entitled Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, which is recommended.

Verdict: Interesting and readable but just a little too odd. **1/2.

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