My Man Van

Van the man Heflin (1910 - 1971)

So last night I’m halfway through my second glass of Shiraz and I get THE ITCH. You know what I mean … that inexplicable, sudden, maddening craving that is generally fulfilled by processed sugars . Or complex carbohydrates.  Or MGM musicals.  Or all three, really, who am I kidding?  MGM musicals, after all, have much in common with my empty-calorie companions: there is little, if any, nutritional value but boy-oh-boy if they don’t make you feel good! So last night I satisfy the itch by tearing through my DVD library looking for something to hit the spot … hidden in the back is ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, from 1946.

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) - screen caps pulled from LikeTelevision

Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson, Angie Lansbury and Van Johnson in an MGM technicolor extravaganza?

That tingly sensation took hold. This was gonna be a great night.

Problem was, I purchased the DVD from a grocery store checkout line and the quality of the video transfer was shameful, and especially disappointing because I  really wanted the bright, popping, obnoxiously potent pigments of the original print.  (Kinda like getting animal crackers when what you really want is a big fat oreo.)

It’s not like I was expecting Ghandi, OK? And Hollywood biopics of  the 40s and 50s are particularly notorious for flouting fact in favor of fiction so I was ready to take the plot of ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, the supposed story of the life of Jerome Kern, with a grain of salt. All I wanted was musical delirium and was quite prepared to fast-forward through Robert Walker’s gosh-oh-gee-ain’t-life-swell scenes to get my fix.

But the fast-forward button was foiled by one Van Heflin.


Now I was gonna have to pay attention.  Absolutely no choice in the matter.

Original 1946 movie poster for TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. If you'll notice, Heflin's cartoon looks suspiciously similar to Beethoven. (What a role THAT would have been!)
Van Hefflin as James Hessler in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY.

Van Heflin may look like a “squat-faced kumquat” (<– © my Mother) but, hell, guess I’m just a sucker for squat-faced kumquats.  The bobby-soxers may have swooned for Van Johnson when he makes his toe-tapping cameo in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, but this gal’s sighing heart belongs to the other Van.

I never quite know what to expect when Heflin steps into a picture … is he gonna melt my heart or murder my grandmother? Heflin toes the line between kindness and cruelty, danger and delight, with ease and dexterity … for it is perfectly clear that he is  entirely capable of both. Suffice to say, Heflin is not a granny killer in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By (nor is he in any of his films, don’t know why I’m so gung-ho on the analogy) but his very likeable role as Kern’s mentor and friend still has a shadow of that Heflin ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ manner that absolutely forced my attention.  Was this effect augmented by the fact that Heflin is surrounded by nothing but flat, 1-dimensional, superficial character cut-outs?  Well … perhaps. But Heflin is an absolute powerhouse of an actor, a total scene-stealer, and more often than not simply ends up walking away with the picture.

Apparently Louis B Mayer once took one look at Heflin and said ‘You’ll never get the girl at the end.’ So, Heflin said, he worked on his acting.  Well, Mr. Mayer? Looking at The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Johnny Eager, Possessed, Madame Bovary , The Prowler, Black Widow, Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, I think what you’ll find staring you back in the face is a prominently raised middle finger.

With Robert Taylor in JOHNNY EAGER (1941)
Joan Crawford's lover in POSSESSED (1947)
With Jennifer Jones and Louis Jourdan in MADAME BOVARY (1949)
With Katharine Hepburn in A WOMAN REBELS (1936), Heflin's screen debut. I've never seen the film but will have to now after seeing this still ... there MUST be some logical explanation as to wtf is going on back there!

Heflin said, “I just didn’t have the looks and if I didn’t do a good acting job I looked terrible.”

Whatever Heflin may have lacked in conventional good looks  (who wants to be conventional, anyway?) was compensated tenfold with talent. Overlooked today as, sadly, he tends to be, Heflin was without doubt one of the finest actors to first emerge on the scene of postwar American cinema.

And Heflin’s work on screen is truly beautiful.

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

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