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Van Johnson knew what it was like to be disabled. While shooting A Guy Named Joe (1943), he smashed up in a very serious car accident that disfigured his face and left him with a metal plate in his forehead. Johnson was hospitalized for months, and his role in the film was only saved because co-stars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne rallied the studio to wait until he recuperated. Even though he left his sickbed with prominent facial scars that had to be disguised with heavy makeup for most of his roles, that accident serendipitously fortified Johnson's career. Classified as 4-F because of his injuries, Johnson was left behind as other leading men like Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart went to war -- and the roles they were leaving behind went to him instead. That restless fear of being an invalid, combined with the knowledge that every "disability" also contains its own blessing, fueled his performance as the blind man who's anything but powerless in 23 Steps To Baker Street.
Based on the Phillip MacDonald novel Warrant For X (and previously made as the British film The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (1938)). Johnson plays Phil Hannon, a frustrated blind playwright who's retreated to London with his reel-to-reel tape recorder to dictate dialogue for his next play. But his sojourn is shattered when he overhears a sinister conversation at the pub. After recreating the conversation onto tape, he goes to the police with his suspicions. When they fail to take an interest, he solves the mystery, with the aid of his long-suffering girlfriend Jean (Vera Miles) and his butler (distinguished British actor Cecil Parker), by uncovering the significance of details like the scent of a certain woman's perfume. "You people with eyes," he chides his friends, "you're so busy looking you never notice anything."
A prickly blind recluse was an unusual dramatic role for Johnson that went against the grain of his cheerful boy-next-door public persona (not to mention his position of esteem among swooning bobbysoxers, a fan base that earned his nickname "The Voiceless Sinatra".) But Phil -- mistrustful, stubborn, difficult and independent -- was closer to Johnson's own personality. (His stepson Ned Wynn recounts in his own memoir how inconsequentials like "the [wrong] color of the candles on the dinner table" would result in the depressive and avoidant Johnson retreating to his bedroom for hours). Abandoned by an alcoholic mother and raised by an indifferent father, Johnson didn't find the love and stability he craved until he entered the all-powerful studio system at MGM, a machine he unironically described as "one big happy family . . . I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world.".
23 Steps to Baker Street was made at an uncertain period of Johnson's life, as his marriage to actress Eve Abbott -- a union she would later bitterly denounce as a sham to cover Johnson's long-rumored homosexuality -- was dissolving just as Johnson was cut loose from MGM and the shelter of its faltering studio system. In fact, Johnson only considered the role because the story's London location satisfied his legendary wanderlust ("What other way can you see the world so well?" he rationalized). As it turned out, to his great disappointment, he and the rest of the cast stayed in Hollywood on soundstage sets while the second unit crew went overseas.
Unlike the depiction of blind characters as dark-sunglassed, stick-tapping objects of fun ("Mr. Muckle" in W.C. Fields' It's a Gift (1934)) or of saintly pity (the blind flower seller in Chaplin's City Lights (1931)) , Phil's blindness does not define who he is -- in fact, the audience isn't made explicitly aware of his condition until well into the movie, when he confesses to the pub's barmaid (the irreplaceable Estelle Winwood) that he can't see. Sound technicians Bernard Freericks and Harry M. Leonard create an extraordinary auditory landscape inside that pub (the clanging of a pinball machine, a whispered conversation full of vague threats and muffled sobs) that allow the audience to experience the world as incompletely -- and as richly -- as Phil does.
Critical response to 23 Paces To Baker Street was mixed, with Mirror-News remarking that Johnson had a "high-strung, perceptive performance", while Bosley Crowther of the New York Times regretting the film's leisurely unfolding plot didn't do justice to its "clever idea". The film did not do well at box office, but making it during that trying portion of his life left an impression on Johnson. "Since playing this part of a blind man, I often think how often we take for granted the sunrise and sunset," he said. "We are so lucky."
Producer: Henry Ephron
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Nigel Balchin (screenplay); Philip MacDonald (novel)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Van Johnson (Phillip Hannon), Vera Miles (Jean Lennox), Cecil Parker (Bob Matthews), Patricia Laffan (Miss Alice MacDonald), Maurice Denham (Inspector Grovening), Estelle Winwood (Barmaid at The Eagle), Liam Redmond (Joe), Isobel Elsom (Lady Syrett), Martin Benson (Pillings), Natalie Norwick (Janet Murch).
C-103m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Violet LeVoit
Davis, Ronald L. Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy. University Press Of Mississippi, 2001
Harmetz, Aljean. "Van Johnson, Film Actor, Is Dead at 92". New York Times, December 12, 2008
Crowther, Bosley. "Johnson Takes '23 Paces to Baker Street'" New York Times, May 19, 1956