Monday, April 25, 2011

Slander (1957)

“For Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free”:
Corporate Motto, Real Truth Magazine

For decades Hollywood kept a tidy grip on the public reputations of its stars. When the talent got reckless, the studios moved quickly and discreetly to douse any brush fires - often with outside assistance, be it from cops or columnists.

But in the early 1950’s, the stars suddenly found themselves having to duck-and-cover as Confidential magazine began its public carpet bombing of celebrity gossip and innuendo, making good on a questionable promise to ‘tell the facts and name the names’.

Confidential was the newest and most ambitious enterprise of Robert Harrison, a small-time smut-monger from New York. Harrison already published a stable of sleazy flesh magazines including Whisper, Flirt, Wink and Titter which headlined racy titles such as Night School for Love and Queens of Strip Alley.

By the early ‘50’s, the post-war market for low-rent titillation had waned. Hugh Hefner, a young copywriter for Esquire thought he saw a market for a more mainstream and ‘sophisticated’ brand of girlie magazine - one he initially called Stag Party. Harrison on the other hand was happiest doing business in the back alley. He was convinced that the biggest money still was to be made in catering to a public appetite for the salacious and the sensational. And Hollywood was the mother lode.

Confidential at its launch declared, ‘The Lid is Off!’ and soon after began to litter the landscape with inflammatory tidbits such as ‘Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be ‘Mad About the Boy’, ‘Gary Cooper’s Lost Weekend with Anita Ekberg’ and ‘Wife Beating Champ: Curt Jurgens, World’s Number One Heel’.

Hollywood went into panic mode with stars suddenly seeing their careers in jeopardy and studios, their bottom line. Attempts at damage control included some dirty deal-making with the magazine. When it got around that Rock Hudson was to be outed, the studio heads and Hudson’s manager pre-empted publication of the story by handing over Rory Calhoun who as a teen had been jailed for armed robbery.

However, as Confidential’s circulation exploded, Hollywood realized that the situation couldn’t be stage managed. Individual stars began to fight back by suing for defamation and libel (not slander) and the studios launched film projects portraying the tawdry tabloid tell-alls as a plague endangering the moral life of America.

First released was Slander Incorporated (1956), a B-title directed by Elmer Mann and starring Robert Hutton as a smarmy New York smear- sheet owner who in the end gets put away for his crimes and misdemeanours. An incoherent, cautionary tale remindful of Reefer Madness (Do not buy these magazines! Just say no!), the film had little audience reach.

A bigger-budget and more sober attempt to dramatize the damage that the movie and entertainment industries wanted the public to believe was being done by this new-styled gutter press was Slander, which recently had a first screening on TCM. The film itself was released in 1957 by MGM and starred a name cast - Steve Cochran, Van Johnson, Ann Blythe, Marjorie Rambeau and child-actor Richard Eyre.

Slander features Cochran as H.R Manley, the self-made millionaire owner of Real Truth, a trashy scandal sheet. Manley lives in a Manhattan apartment (New York, again) along with his alcoholic mother (Rambeau) who deplores her son’s magazine and his hypocrisy. On the other hand, Manley loves his mother and is anxious for her approval (the film seems to suggest probably too much so). He insists to her that his crusade for the truth is both real and legitimate.

Meanwhile, the real truth is that Real Truth’s sales are in decline and Manley has a gun to his head. He owes $100, 000 to his printer and desperately needs a blockbuster story to boost revenues. And Manley thinks he has that in Mary Sawyer, a Broadway star with some history.

The key to the story appears to lay with a childhood friend of Sawyer’s, Scott Martin (Van Johnson), a children’s puppeteer who after too long on the professional margins, finally has hit it big with a television show. Unfortunately, Real Truth also knows that Martin once served four years for an armed theft (though he’d done so only to provide for his poor and ailing mother).

Manley through Martin’s wife offers him a deal. ‘Tell me about Mary Sawyer or the front page story in Real Truth is all about you’. Martin is furious, his wife (Ann Blythe) distraught. She believes that for the sake of their family and their future together, her husband has no choice but to give Sawyer up. Martin refuses and tells Manley, ‘no deal’. When the publisher threatens further, Martin slugs him and walks out.

From here on, things do not go well for the Martins - nor in fact much better for the movie, which is a flagrant and overwrought melodrama. The moral and ethical precipices on which the characters in Slander are brought to stand are real enough but the insistent direness of it all leaves the film feeling fusty and nearly quaint.

Slander’s director is Roy Rowland, a famously reliable MGM mid-liner most admired for a trio of brisk and expressive film noirs - The Scene of the Crime (1949), Rogue Cop (1954) and Witness to Murder (1954). While Rowland manages to keep the pace brisk enough, Slander’s mis en scene is flat and dated and without much real emotional resonance. It’s of a style that belongs more to the 1930’s than the 1950’s. On the other hand, the studio may not have given Rowland much option but to reach back to the ‘30’s for the film’s visual and narrative constructions, given the melodramatic and sanctimonious temper of the script.

Slander’s crude single-mindedness also weighs on its cast. Steve Cochran when left to his own primitive devices magnificently energizes nearly every film he’s in with his power, intelligence, and physical appeal as an actor. However, here he’s left hobbled. The character of Manley is rendered so fabricated, his speech so mannered, it’s as if Cochran had been directed to do an impression instead of act a part (he sometimes sounds like he’s been dubbed).

It’s a brute-force attempt by the filmmakers to portray Manley not only a journalistic thug but a pretentious parvenu. While Americans may or may not find thuggery objectionable, something they really can’t stand is snobbery.

Van Johnson on the other hand is made far too wholesome and unmarked for someone who at an early age served years in jail and then has spent much of the rest of his life toughing it out. Ann Blythe, not the most empathetic of actresses, is just ill-cast. Blythe was better suited to play characters more privileged or socially practised - as opposed to a working class wife and mother who must endure. It’s too much of a temptation (and distraction) to keep re-imagining these parts played by less emphatic performers, e.g. Crime Wave’s Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk.

But then Slander would have to have been a very different kind of movie - one that could have benefitted hugely from a hard lean in the direction of film noir - something which it’s not (despite a listing in Andrew Spicer’s Historical Dictionary of Film Noir). Although Slander is framed as a tragedy, there’s none of the prevailing sense of the melancholy, alienation, betrayal, paranoia, obsession, despair, futility, dread, etc. that typically map the treacherous noir universe.

Even Slander’s bleak ending doesn’t make for an argument for the movie as noir. The fade-out only extends the cynical manipulation of events to the very end, the most shameless example of which involves the Martin’s son, Joey. A threat of harm to a child is permissible in film noir and may even be central to it e.g. The Window. However, if the harm actually takes place, it can result in a gross sentimentalization of narrative, something which film noir wants to reject. Slander embraces and exploits it.

Of course, MGM also was the major studio always least disposed towards the dark and unsentimental impulses of film noir, especially by late ‘50’s when classic noir’s post- war influence was in retreat (although Alexander Mackendrick’s more modernist noir, Sweet Smell of Success released in 1957 by United Artists brilliantly excavated some of the same thematic terrain as Slander).

Nevertheless, Slander remains of interest as an artefact of the period. It was a time in which seismic shifts in values and norms in American culture were beginning to be felt and it was Confidential and other magazines like it that were among the first to register the tremors and expose the fault lines.

Confidential was a double-edged sword. On one hand it was sensational and tawdry. On the other it made it impossible to view celebrities and other public icons in the same way again. The Emperor could be seen to have no clothes or at least caught with his pants down. And there were pictures and facts (in most cases) to prove it.

While there was nothing to admire per se about the manner in which Confidential went about its full frontal journalism, the magazine did in a perverse way force America further along in acknowledging and talking about important issues - personal, political, sexual, racial, social - that needed to be talked about.

If Sammy Davis Jr., a black man was 'having relations' with a succession of white actresses and Rock Hudson and others might be ‘queer’ and Joan Crawford really was a less-than-stellar parent, then perhaps those that audiences idealized really weren't that different from anyone else except for the fact of their celebrity. As culture critic Camille Paglia - who grew up reading Confidential - said, yes, the magazine may have been semi-fictionalized, but it functioned to tell the ‘pagan truth’ about life.

And life in America in the late ‘fifties, like the movies, didn’t look to be quite as black and white as it once had been. Not that one would ever guess from Slander.

Written by Night Editor


  1. Wha!! I just found your blog, and there's a huge back catalog you got there. I'll get through it and then some, hopefully.

    But seriously, Slander looks like silver screen propaganda. I wouldn't have been the wiser if you didn't give the back story to Confidential and that Harrison guy.

    I could have just said nice post, but I loved it! Thanks Steve-o.

  2. I seen a movie not to long ago about a guy who just gets out of the military, may WW2,and finds his town taken over by the local mob. This is suppose to be a true story I think. Anyway a boy gets run over so the mob can prove a point or scare the towns people also the stars dad get murdered while he runs for local office so he can clean the town out. The son finds the killers and runs in his dads footsteps and at the end he does some sort of narration which I think is a testimony about the son winning the election and i think the star may have been the real person. not sure though. Do you know what movie this is. A very interesting movie. Ben


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley