Actor Van Johnson died today at the age of 92. A product of the Hollywood studio system of the 1940s and 50s, Mr. Johnson was often cast as the “All-American, boy-next-door type” in comedies, musicals and dramas during two decades as a contract player at MGM.

With his athletic build and freckled good looks, Johnson was a heart-throb with bobbysoxers–he was called the “non-singing Sinatra” after achieving screen stardom in the mid-1940s. While some critics dismissed him as an actor of limited depth, his career included everything from Broadway musicals (he began as an understudy to Gene Kelley) to a Woody Allen film. He was touring in La Cage aux Folles” during the 1980s, and made his last screen appearance in 1992, decades after most of his contemporaries had retired–or died.

But for many movie-goers, Johnson’s signature performances came in two of the better films about World War II, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Caine Mutiny. The former film, which appeared in 1944, was the factual account of the famous Doolittle Raid on the Japanese capital in April, 1942. Johnson played Army Air Corps Captain Ted Lawson, the pilot of one of the B-25s who launched from the carrier Hornet and carried out the surprise attack on Tokyo.

More than 60 years after its premiere, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is regarded as one of the finest World War II films, hailed for its historical accuracy and fine potrayals by Johnson, Robert Walker, Robert Mitchum and Don DeFore (who played other pilots in the squadron), and the incomparable Spencer Tracy as the raid leader, Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle. Produced with the full cooperation of the War Department, some of the film’s sequences were recorded at Eglin Field, Florida, where the real raiders trained.

A decade later, Johnson delivered perhaps in best performance in as Lieutenant Steve Maryk in the screen adaptation of The Caine Mutiny. Based on Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film details events surrounding a fictional mutiny on a U.S. Navy destroyer during the Second World War.

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While the central plot focuses on the mutiny (and the events that precipitated it), the Caine Mutiny also does a nice job in capturing the “culture clash” that occurred in Navy wardrooms during the war. An officer corps traditionally populated by Annapolis graduates was suddenly filled with thousands of “thirteen week wonders,” newly-commissioned ensigns who sometimes chafed at the dull, repetitive nature of their duties aboard ship.

Two of those officers are among the crew of the Caine; Ensign Willie Keith (played by Robert Francis), the wealthy Princeton grad whose world-view has been entire shaped by his college days and a more recent romance with a nightclub singer, May Wynn. Willie Keith’s disdain for the Navy is shared by the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray), a former magazine writer who is working on an epic novel about the Pacific War.

Van Johnson’s Maryk represents another faction in the wardroom, the less-educated officers who earned their commissions on merit, rather than their academic credentials. Maryk is a former commercial fisherman (and expert ship-handler) who sees opportunities in the post-war, regular Navy. Lieutenant Maryk also demonstrates loyalty to his commanders, qualities noticeably absent in Keefer, Keith and other junior officers on the Caine.

But, with Keefer’s prodding, Maryk begins to question the actions of the new skipper, Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg. The communications officer encourages the exec to keep a log on Queeg’s erratic behavior, suggesting that their commander is a paranoid.

Despite his initial reservations, Lieutenant Maryk is eventually convinced that Captain Queeg is mentally ill, and relieves him of command at the height of a deadly typhoon. Keith, as Officer of the Deck, supports Maryk, resulting in mutiny charges against the two officers.

At court-martial, Maryk and Keith are saved from prison by their skillful defense counsel, Lt Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer). Greenwald’s aggressive questioning of Queeg shifts the focus to the Caine’s skipper, leading a display of the same, bizzare behavior that characterized his command.

The acquittal sets the stage for the film’s climax, a showdown between Greenwald and the “real author of the Caine mutiny,” Lieutenant Keefer. Greenwald expresses shame over torpedoing Queeg on the stand, since the officer was in the service and defending the nation long before the war began–a task that Keefer and Keith viewed as beneath them. It’s a message that still resonates in the era of an all-volunteer military, when many Americans view the duty in the armed services as “someone else’s work.”

Fifty-four years after its release, The Caine Mutiny has lost none of its power. The film remains a fascinating study of leadership, loyalty and responsibility in combat, thanks largely to its source material, and the performances of its cast. Humphrey Bogart (a Navy veteran of World War I) won an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Queeg, as did character actor Tom Tully, who played the Caine’s original skipper. Fred MacMurray–playing brilliantly against his “good guy” image–deserved one for the duplicitous Keefer.

But it is Johnson’s Stephen Mayrk that embodies the film’s central conflict. Torn between supporting his commander or the accusations of his fellow officers, Mayrk chose the latter. While the decision saved in the typhoon, it (ultimately) cost him any chance at a naval career. In Van Johnson’s capable hands, the decency and leadership skills of Lieutenant Mayrk are apparent, but so is his susceptibility to the suggestions and manipulations of others. It’s a remarkable performance from an actor that never quite got his critical due.

R.I.P. Mr. Johnson.

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