“How’d you get to be so cute”: Remembering Phyllis Thaxter

The heavens gained several stars this year as classic film stars passed away in 2012.

Since Comet Over Hollywood did not give several of them the full attention they deserved, the first few days of 2013 will be dedicated to some of the notable celebrities who left us.

Eyes twinkling and bright smile.

The first time I was introduced to MGM actress Phyllis Thaxter was as she played Van Johnson’s wife in the World War II film “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944).

“How did you get to be so cute?” Van Johnson asked in the film.

“I had to be if I was going to get such a good-looking fella,” she said.

Spencer Tracy, Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."

Spencer Tracy, Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” the story of Doolittle’s raid on Japan, was Thaxter’s first and probably best role.

Thaxter’s acting career started on Broadway, and she was signed to MGM in 1944. The actress was the daughter of a Shakespearean actress and Supreme Court justice, according to a Hollywood Reporter article.

Many of the sweet and petite actress’s roles were as wives and mothers, such as Ronald Reagan wife in “She’s Working Her Way Through College,” Margaret O’Brien’s pregnant mother in “Tenth Avenue Angel” and a single mother who becomes Gene Kelly’s love interest in “Living in a Big Way.”

In the early 1950s, Thaxter left MGM and signed with Warner Brothers, but her contract was terminated in 1952.

The stumble in her career wasn’t her choice.

Thaxter in 1945

Thaxter in 1945

In 1952, Thaxter was swimming in Portland, Maine while visiting family. She found she lost strength in her legs, and her brother rescued her. Thaxter had polio, according to a New York Times article.

She was put in an iron lung while pregnant, because the lung needed for breathing was weakened, according to the article.

But Thaxter overcame the disease, only suffering from pain in her feet due to nerve problems that her daughter said she never complained about.

Thaxter’s career continued with television work until 1978, when she played the role of Ma Kent in “Superman,” the role most remember her for today.

“I worked harder on that film than anything I’d done; I couldn’t be bad,” Thaxter said.

Though she wasn’t a glamour girl, Thaxter’s daughter Skye, said her mother discussed some of her romances with leading men, saying she had a “hell of a good time.”

“ Mother and Montgomery Clift were very much in love,” Skye Aubrey said in a New York Times article. “They talked about getting married. They were planning on it. Then he found out he was gay.”

Phyllis Thaxter passed away on Aug. 14, 2012, at the age of 92.

Though she isn’t as well known today, she has always left an inexplicable impression on me, and I will go out of my way to see her films.

Maybe it’s because she was “so cute.”

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The Van Johnson War

In honor of Memorial Day, I wanted to share some of my favorite war movies.

But there’s a catch…they all star Van Johnson.

It’s no denying that Van Johnson was one of the most sought after actors on the MGM lot during World War II. Big names like James Stewart, Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney were overseas fighting the war.

Van Johnson trying to make scrambled eggs in his helmet in "Battleground" (1949)

But Van Johnson wasn’t able to get in on the action. A car accident during the filming of “A Guy Named Joe” left him with a metal plate in his head which omitted him from going overseas to fight.

 I do like other war movies besides ones that star Van Johnson. My undying love for Van isn’t the reason I’m dedicating this post to him, but because the films that Van made give a wide variety of the different aspects of war.

 War Abroad:

A Guy Named Joe (1943): The infamous movie that made Mr. Johnson a star and oddly paired him as Irene Dunne’s love interest.  Bomber Pilot Pete, Spencer Tracey, dies on a mission and becomes the guardian angel for a young pilot named Ted.  Pete helps Ted fly difficult missions and gives him his blessing as Ted starts to romance Pete’s old girlfriend Dorinda-played by Irene Dunne. Not one character is named Joe in this movie. The title comes from American soldiers nicknamed “Joe.” Filming was halted when Van had his car accident. It took three months until he could return but Spencer Tracey insisted that they keep him in the film. To Review: It’s a good movie and you get a glimpse of Esther Williams in one of her first roles (not swimming). I will say, Spencer Tracey does ALOT of talking. Not a bad thing, it can just get tiring.

Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson as Ellen and Ted Lawson in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): The true story about Dolittle’s raid on Tokyo after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The story follows Van Johnson playing real life soldier Ted Lawson. Lawson and the rest of the men, including actors Robert Walker, Don DeFore and young Robert Mitchum, train for the mission and then drop bombs on Tokyo.  There are several scenes in the movie of Lawson marrying his wife Ellen, played by Phyllis Thaxter, their last times together and him remembering her. This may seem cheesy sometimes with lines like Him: “How did you get to be so cute?” Her: “I had to be if I was going to get such a good lookin’ fella.” But you have to consider the context. In Lawson’s book he said the only way he got through the war was thinking about his wife. To review: This is one of my favorite World War II movies. Very patriotic, interesting, exciting and Van Johnson. Dolittle’s troops also trained at Lake Murray which is about an hour and a half from my house.

Battleground (1949): What can I say about my favorite war movie of all time? Van Johnson is a bit older and not just the fresh faced innocent soldier. This time he’s a bit more cynical and has seen a lot more life as his character Holley. The innocent kid in this movie is played by Marshall Thompson. This is a star studded film with actors like George Murphy, Ricardo Montalbon, John Hodiak and James Whitmore. The soldiers are fighting the Battle of the Bulge and dealing with heavy fog and lack of supplies. Since this film wasn’t made during the war, it isn’t as glitteringly patriotic. The soldiers are cynical, mockingly saying, “I found a home in the Army” and you watch the new recruits change from wide-eyed babes to hardened non-believers. To review: I’ve heard that this is one of the films that veterans consider the most accurate when it comes to World War 2 movies. It’s my favorite war movie as well as one of my favorite films. I don’t just like it for the lineup of attractive male stars but also the realism. The soldiers get downtrodden and tired. It’s exciting and nail biting at times while other times make you want to cry. I think my favorite part is Leon Ames’ Christmas sermon about the “$64 question” if the men felt that the war was necessary or not.

War on the Homefront:

War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942): Van Johnson has a very small role, but never the less the film is great. The wealthy Mrs. Stella Hadley (Fay Bainter) thinks she is above the war and that everyone is making a fuss about nothing.  The attack on Pearl Harbor ruined her birthday and her family has the nerve to volunteer to help with the war effort. The widow thinks her husband’s status as newspaper publisher will keep her son away from the fighting and keep her daughter away from canteens. She thinks she can work her way out of black outs and rationing with the help of her government friends in Washington. However, Mrs. Hadley finds that even money can’t get you a break in the war. Van Johnson plays a young service man that Mrs. Hadley’s daughter, Pat (Jean Rogers), meets while volunteering at a canteen. They marry and mother disapproves. To review: I love this movie. Fay Bainter does a terrific job. Though Van has a small role, I think it illustrates how everyone wasn’t for the war when it started. I think it delivers a great message, even today. A country isn’t solely going to serve its people. You have to pitch in too.

The Human Comedy (1943): This is another early Van Johnson film. Mickey Rooney is really the star here. Fay Bainter (nice in this one) plays the mother of Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Butch Jenkins and Donna Reed. Her husband has recently died and Van is leaving to go fight in the war. The movie really shows how small town life functioned during the war. Young Mickey Rooney helps old Frank Morgan run the telegraph office. Donna Reed and her friends go to the movies with soldiers that may never come home from overseas. To review: It’s a really poignant view of small town American life during the war. Sometimes it’s beautiful and other times tragic. War movies don’t just have to be about the Pacific and European theaters. Wars also affect people at home. This paints an excellent, innocent portrait of this.

Who should Van choose? Gloria or June?

Two Girls and a Sailor (1944): The plot is very simple. June Allyson and Gloria De Haven are the Deyo Sisters, daughters of vaudeville parents. When they grow up they start their own night club act and entertain soldiers in their home after the show. A mysterious stranger donates an old warehouse to the girls so they can start a top notch canteen. Performers like Jose Iturbi, Xavier Cugat, Lena Horne and Harry James all come and perform at this club. Van Johnson is the sailor torn between the two girls with soldier Tom Drake as his competition. The whole time the girls are trying to figure out who their mysterious donor is. To review: No one ever said every movie had to be as serious as “War and Peace.” This movie’s plot may be as light as a feather but it is so much fun. It’s actually one of my favorite movies. Lots of great musical performances and sweet moments.  The movie shows how people wanted to entertain and help soldiers on leave and unselfishly let them into their homes.

By no means are these the only great war movies out there, but it’s interesting to see how one actor’s films can span so many different aspects of the war.

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Memorial Day and remember the real reason of the holiday, not just a free Monday off from work or school. Have fun and be safe.

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