- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

Two recent books — Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, $28, 256 pages, illus. ) and Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button by Nick Hazelwood (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95, 320 pages, illus.) have nothing in common except that they remind us how difficult it is to apply current moral standards to events of the past.
During World War II, when most of the big-name male stars were in uniform, newcomer Van Johnson, a former Broadway dancer, played the boy-next-door in a series of mostly forgettable but highly successful Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) movies. With his red hair and freckles, his trademark red socks, and a boyish grin, Mr. Johnson was a "heartthrob." As the old stars returned from the war, and new stars emerged, he was no longer credible in the roles MGM assigned him, which in most cases was not his fault, because Laurence Olivier himself would not have been credible in such silly parts.
Mr. Johnson did excellent work in a few good movies, including "Battleground" and "The Caine Mutiny," and has spent the next 40 years playing supporting roles in movies, working in the theater, on television, and in night club acts. He has remained charming and believable, even as the grandpa next door. As a movie actor, he was never a threat to Spencer Tracy or Marlon Brando, but he had that indefinable but essential star quality called "presence." I recently saw him, on one of the old-movie channels, in one of his MGM clinkers, "The Washington Story." He was something more than merely competent, a hard-working pro who made it all look easy.
But much of Mr. Davis' book concerns not Mr. Johnson's acting ability, but his sexuality. Was he a homosexual or bisexual? During Mr. Johnson's reign as the boy-next-door, from the early 1940s and '50s, it was unthinkable for a movie star to be "outed." There were some stars, male and female, around whom rumors swirled, but the difference between gossip and public disclosure was the difference between a continuing career and an aborted one.
Today, most people will ask: Who cares what Mr. Johnson did or did not do in bed? Homosexuality, for a large percentage of Americans, is seen not as the love that dare not speak its name but a movement, supported and encouraged by main-stream media, demanding its name be shouted, with respect, tolerance and societal acceptance, in movies and on TV. Mr. Davis' book brings us back to a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans saw things differently.
Mr. Johnson, according to Mr. Davis, entered into "an arranged marriage" with Evie Wynn, former wife of his close friend, actor Keenan Wynn, "after a near-ruinous brush with scandal." But the evidence presented in the book suggests that the scandal concerned Mr. Johnson's affair with his best friend's former wife and had nothing to do with homosexuality. If this is so, why was the marriage "arranged"? Mr. Davis does not make this clear. The book is the first in a proposed "Hollywood Legends Series," of which the author, professor of history at Southern Methodist University, is general editor.

In the case of Jemmy Button (the name given by British sailors to Orundellico, a Yamana Indian boy from Tierra del Fuego), a different question arises: In light of our current understanding of human rights, what judgment should we render on the 19th-century British sailors, missionaries, and public officials who participated or acquiesced in the transportation of Button from his home at the bottom of the inhabitable world to the England of King William IV?
Mr. Hazelwood's book is less a biography than a detailed history of a tragedy motivated by the best of intentions. Decades of Jemmy Buttons's life are unknown and unknowable, since he spent them among his kinfolk who had no means, and apparently no desire, to make a record of daily events. So what we have in "Savage" are what amount to cameo appearances by Button, aboard ship, in England, and back in his native land, amidst a general history of the botched attempts, secular and religious, to transplant one culture onto another.
According to current standards, the British do-gooders were guilty of all kinds of sins, ranging from cultural imperialism to insensitivity to the needs of indigenous people. But it didn't look that way to them. Capt. Robert FitzRoy of HMS Beagle, a man of ability, whose life was marred by deep psychological problems (he eventually committed suicide), meant well when he took Jemmy and two companions back to England in 1830. He meant well in 1831 when he brought them back to their native land after they had spent a year learning how to be proper Englishmen.
Protestant missionaries meant well when they built a teaching mission in the Falkland Islands to which Fuegians could be transported in small numbers, educated, baptized, and then set back home to do good. Everyone meant well, although there were some critics who pointed out the hubris involved in the undertaking. The result of all these good intentions was for some death by starvation, for others death by bloody murder, and for the Fuegians cultural disorientation and, eventually, eradication as a distinct people.
When he appears in the book, Jemmy Button usually brings with him a kind of artless dignity and goodwill that make him attractive. But he was capable of bad behavior, and even he was not immune from the disease of good intentions. He tried to make his English hosts feel good by agreeing with their mistaken belief that his people were cannibals, although he knew this was not true. When I finished reading, I recalled the old warning (I think by Henry David Thoreau): If you learn that a man is coming to your home to do you good, flee as fast as you can. The poor Fuegians had nowhere to flee.
Note: Yes, it was on the 1831 voyage of HMS Beagle that a young English naturalist, Charles Darwin, sailed as a companion to Capt. FitzRoy. Darwin's notebooks, quoted by the author, contain many shrewd comments on the Fuegians, particularly on their difficulty in learning the English language. Years later, when he wrote "The Descent of Man," Darwin drew heavily on what he had learned, as a young man, on the historic voyage of the Beagle.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.


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