Appreciation: Van Heflin


It is now mid-December, and Turner Classic Movies is showing its annual “TCM Remembers” video, which commemorates all of the Hollywood people who have died over the past year.  I always find myself going “Oh!”, remembering that Farley Granger, and Dana Wynter, and Len Lesser, and Betty Garrett, and Kenneth Mars, all died this year – and then seeing the long procession of other people of whose passing I was unaware.  TCM always does a lovely job of finding brief evocative clips of the actors and actresses looking beautiful, and the behind-the-scenes people looking dignified and busy and intense.  It invariably makes me sad, and I love it.



It makes me realize, too, that Hollywood was full of wonderful performers, many of whom even I – the viewer of ten thousand movies, the “Trivial Pursuit: Silver Screen” champion – am unfamiliar with.



For example:



It was Van Heflin’s birthday on December 13.  (He would have been 101.)  I had the day off, and I ran errands and was very productive, but for much of the day I had the TV on, and they were running a solid string of Van Heflin movies. 



Well, I tell you, I had myself a good time.



I read up on Mister Heflin a bit along the way.  Born in Oklahoma; went to sea; tried acting, wasn’t successful; Katherine Hepburn gave him a little push, and he finally made it; won an Oscar in 1942 for a supporting role in gangster movie called “Johnny Eager”; never really made it as a leading man, but always delivered a solid performance.  Nice face: plain at first, but interesting, and he definitely grows on you.  I can see what Miss Hepburn saw.



First was “Tennessee Johnson.”  Yes, they actually made a movie biography of President Andrew Johnson!  I only saw the last twenty minutes, which was – of course – the impeachment.  Lionel Barrymore is the snarling senator who wants Heflin/Johnson out of office.  But, of course, as soon as you see Heflin – dignified, courtly, handsome – you realize what’s going to happen.  (Hint: it’s not quite what happened in real life, but it makes for good viewing.)



Next came “Green Dolphin Street,” and I yelped with joy, as I’d read the novel in my teens: it’s about a 19th-century goofball in New Zealand who proposes by letter to the wrong sister halfway around the world.  (It’s not his fault entirely; he was drunk, and the sisters both had names beginning with “M.”) Anyway, the movie has a great cast – Lana Turner, Donna Reed, Frank Morgan – and Heflin shows up as a tough Englishman in New Zealand, wearing a sort of Maori-styled cowboy outfit.  I could just eat him up.



I went out to run some errands, but when I came home, one of the most peculiar movies I’ve ever seen had just begun: “East Side, West Side.”  It’s a weepie about virtuous millionairess Barbara Stanwyck and her husband James Mason, a spineless cad who cheats on Barbara with a very kinky Ava Gardner.  (I’ll admit it: Ava Gardner terrifies me.  She always looks as if she’s just eaten a human baby.)  Heflin is a bouncy energetic ex-cop who now works as a mysterious government operative in wartime Europe; he enters the movie as Cyd Charisse’s boyfriend (don’t ask), but falls for Barbara immediately.  There is the sweetest and most unrealistic dumping scene I’ve ever seen, in which Cyd tells Van that he can go do what he likes, and summons another man to the table as if by magic to take his place.  Then follows – what? – a murder mystery!  Ava is found dead, and the murderer is – oh hell, I’ll just tell you – a gigantic blonde bimbo who’s jealous of her.  Apparently she strangled Ava with her huge powerful hands (breaking a nail in the process, which of course is a part of the evidence against her).  When Van goes to collect her, she tries to beat him up.  It is one of the most truly peculiar scenes in moviedom.



I am now a big Van Heflin fan.



You there: go find me a copy of “Johnny Eager.”



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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