Originally published November 12th, 2014
Slander’s off-kilter air manifests itself the minute you realize there’s no actual slander found in the movie. I guess the screenwriters thought “Libel” didn’t pack enough gusto. Either way, this 1950s cautionary tale against the gossip industry is an interesting slice of the times. In a movie landscape where audiences were told to fear the skies, director Roy Rowland warns audiences against tabloid journalism and gossip. If he knew how we’re still consuming revamped versions of Confidential magazine, the movie might have said “If you can’t beat ’em….”
H.R. Manley (Steve Cochran) is the owner/editor of a scandal rag where truth and dirt are synonymous. Desperate for the story of a lifetime he decides to blackmail beloved children’s performer Scott Ethan Martin (Van Johnson) who once knew a successful Hollywood starlet and might have dirt on her. When Scott isn’t forthcoming with the information Manley prints a secret about him that threatens Martin’s life.
Rowland wasn’t a director of fine cinema, more genre fare and kiddie dramas like Margaret O’Brien’s Lost Angel and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. This B-movie cautionary tale infuses light film noir into its story, where the shady boardrooms of Manley’s magazine hold as much fear and suspense as an abandoned alley. The ink and information in Manley’s world flow as easily as they do in the opening credits, and Cochran channels Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success which actually came to theaters six months later.
Cochran was never much more than a pretty boy, and he’s given some heft as H.R. Manley (overcompensating much?). The unnamed magazine Cochran works for is strapped for sufficiently smutty content; stories about politicians and their “Mexican tomatah” aren’t selling. There’s no doubt the gossip industry of the period, Confidential and others of its ilk, fabricated content against the stars or used tales from their past to shame them. Manley’s magazine boasts top reporters who were once unemployed. Manley is certainly benevolent in his desire to help those less fortunate, but it’s apparent their “hunger” has turned more figurative, geared towards more sensationalism as opposed to it being a job. Slander shows little has changed in the world of celebrity gossip, and it’s fun watching and comparing how far – and how we continue to fall short – today. Scott’s tortured story comes off as ripped from the headlines and Van Johnson is a likable enough guy you don’t wish bad things on him.
However, Cochran and Marjorie Rambeau as his mother are the strongest elements Slander has going for it, especially because Johnson and Ann Blyth are so milquetoast. Everyone wants to root for the baddie, why not in a tawdry B-movie like this? Manley is a mama’s boy to a mama who can’t stand his control: “I don’t want my days planned.” Because this is about the horrors of the gossip industry, Rambeau suffers the slings and arrows of her son’s job, being denied tables at a restaurant and other general ill-treatment. Her son, Manley, isn’t much better, acting as her father, acquiescing in her request for two Bloody Mary’s; it’s evident her son is driving her towards the bottle. Rambeau’s meeting with Ann Blyth’s Connie Martin is the film’s brightest sequence, two traumatized mothers dealing with the loss of their sons – one literally and the other figuratively.
Speaking of Blyth, she’s come a long way since playing Veda Pierce. Blyth is too sophisticated playing an average woman like Connie Martin, but she certainly proves herself a catch for Johnson’s Scott. They’re the sole source of reality in a film that becomes very silly quick. As Scott’s world crumbles around him – he’s a children’s radio star who performs with creepy puppets – it causes his son to be bullied. There’s a real Peyton Place quality to this film, especially once the body count rises. A death in the third real, one of two in this movie, is insane because it’s so unexpected, hammering the message with a blunt nail. For all the movie’s grand pronouncements it because a sick source of schadenfreude watching the sufferings of such bland all-Americans that you half expect Cochran’s Manley sitting in a chair, fingers pointed, laughing manically while cigarette smoke whirls. By the end, Manley himself becomes the front-page headline in a way he never expected and it’s just desserts for his character.
Slander wants to be serious but it ends up good old-fashioned 1950s fun; an After School special for the apple pie set. Steve Cochran, Marjorie Rambeau, Van Johnson, and Ann Blyth all take the material seriously and do well in clearly defined roles. The circumstances and “one big score/story” element of the film keep things engaging and emphasizes the worst in us. Slander proves the old adage “if it bleeds it leads” but we shouldn’t enjoy the bleeding as much as we do.
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