The Van Johnson Blogathon: Easy to Wed (1946)

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Hi, everyone! I couldn’t be happier to keep trucking along with continuous blog posts through the end of the month by participating in incredible blogathons like this one! I’d like to start out, as always, by thanking our gracious host, Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I’m still in the process of becoming a major Van Johnson fan, so this gave me the perfect chance to check out another film of his that I hadn’t seen before. I couldn’t think of many stars more deserving of some extra attention in a tribute like this one, I hope the blogathon is a great success, and I hope that I can keep discovering more films starring this iconic actor to enjoy! I’d also like to wish Van Johnson himself the happiest of birthdays today, and I can’t wait to read everyone else’s entries about such a wonderful person!

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Theatrical poster for Easy to Wed (1946).

I have to admit that I was fairly hesitant to watch Easy to Wed (1946), as I had a very disappointing experience back in June watching a different remake of one of my favorite films that also starred Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime (1949). However, I knew that I wanted to pay tribute to Van by reviewing something new to me, and the fact that this film also stars Esther Williams (one of my favorite actresses of all time) sweetened the pot and made this opportunity too enticing to pass up. As you might imagine, the film is a line for line remake of the classic 1930s screwball comedy Libeled Lady (1936). In Easy to Wed (1946), and essentially in the original film as well, the newspaper The Morning Star publishes a false story in which heiress Connie Allenbury (Esther Williams) steals another woman’s husband. With the assistance of father JP Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway), Connie sues for libel, hoping to earn $2 million and sink the paper in the process. The Star’s business manager Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), who seems to often ditch his personal life for the sake of the newspaper that he works for, leaves his bride Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball) at the altar in order to fix the situation. Of course Gladys is none too happy about this, but somehow gets tangled up in Warren’s scheme to put womanizer and former employee of the paper Bill Chandler (Van Johnson) on the case, marry him to Gladys, and have Bill romance Connie at their hotel in Mexico City in order to turn the artificial story calling Connie a husband-stealer into the real McCoy. But will the underhanded plot work, or will complications arise and lead to the gang finding another way to get the Star out of the jam that it’s in?

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Van Johnson, Ethel Smith, and Esther Williams performing “Boneca de Pixe” in a scene from Easy to Wed (1946).

This is a change of pace in many respects for our man of the hour, Van Johnson. Easy to Wed (1946) attempted to force the star into two things that he definitely wasn’t: a philanderer and anything but all-American. When William Powell took on the role of Bill Chandler in the original film Libeled Lady (1936), he was a debonair man of the world whom the audience could easily believe as a ladies’ man. I’m sure that audiences were stunned by this personality change in Van Johnson just as I was, but he makes the part his own in ways that I would never have thought possible. While the four stars of Libeled Lady (1936) fight it out for screen time, it’s clear that Johnson earned top billing in Easy to Wed (1946) for a reason, and he dominates the film without seeming like he’s stealing the spotlight from any of his costars. Even more impressive were his Latin singing and dancing numbers with Esther Williams, which was out of both stars’ comfort zones, especially Williams as it was her first time singing at all in a film. The Spanish reprise of “Acérate Más” was by far the more critically acclaimed of their two compositions, but the one that delighted me and caught my attention the most was the Portuguese song “Boneca de Pixe” (also known as “Boneca de Piche”). The tune was based on a Portuguese fable and was originally performed by Carmen Miranda with different Latin male singers in recordings as early as 1938. Miranda herself taught Johnson and Williams how to sing the song, and her teaching certainly paid off with a performance that was absolutely marvelous despite how much it derailed the plot. Nowadays, the number would likely receive a scathing review and perhaps even be accused of whitewashing or cultural appropriation, but I feel that I have to give credit to both actors where it’s due, as the song seems incredibly difficult to master and I understand that Portuguese is one of the harder languages to learn.

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Esther Williams, Van Johnson, and Lucille Ball in a publicity still for Easy to Wed (1946).

Easy to Wed (1946) was Johnson and Williams’ second film together after Thrill of a Romance (1943), and the two were looking forward to working together again, but not all was well between the members of the cast. According to Williams’ autobiography Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), an offscreen rivalry began between Esther Williams and Lucille Ball while the two actresses were getting their hair styled on set. Lucy accused Esther of stealing her husband of six years, Desi Arnaz, and Esther claims that the redhead did this often to other leading ladies that she knew, as she was “wildly jealous” and considered every woman a “natural enemy to her”. To quote Esther further, “Desi called several times asking me for a date, even though he was already married. I told him that I was in love with Ben Gage [her husband of fourteen years] and had no interest in anyone else. I told that to Lucy, too, and added that even if I had not been in love, I wasn’t interested in her silly Latin singer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the right thing to say either. The fact that I didn’t find Desi attractive made her cry.” Regardless of how the actresses clashed, Lucy gave a standout performance in the film as well as Van and Esther. Jean Harlow’s shoes were in my opinion the most challenging to fill in the remake, and Lucy recreates Harlow’s brashiness in the part of Gladys without disrespecting her and making the dialogue that she originally spoke seem trashy. Even Van Johnson himself added in his own autobiography that her portrayal “reveals the embryo of her Lucy Ricardo role in the later I Love Lucy television series”. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Keenan Wynn, who rounded out the leading cast. With the exception of Esther, I was most excited to see him in the film as I’m a great fan of his work, and Keenan doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. As a man who was often corraled into supporting or even throwaway parts, I was overjoyed to see the actor battle it out with the best of them in a leading role, and I only wish that he could have snagged more screen time in this type of movie more often. I mentioned last month when I reviewed In the Good Old Summertime (1949) that there were a lot of components to it that should have made me enjoy that film, but somehow I ended up not enjoying it at all. Surprisingly this time around, the opposite turned out to be the case. There are so many reasons why this picture should not work, but everything comes together seamlessly, and while it’s not the pinnacle of filmmaking, I’m incredibly pleased to say that I loved Easy to Wed (1946) and would highly recommend it to any Van Johnson fan looking for a fun film of his to watch on what would have been his 101st birthday!

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