Tuesday, 16 September 2014

SLANDER (1956)

 A failed film still fascinating for reasons outside of itself…

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

From the start Hollywood had to work hard to keep a close grip on the reputations of its stars. When the talent got reckless the studios moved quickly and discreetly to keep things quiet, often with the willing cooperation of the police and journalists. 

But in the early ‘50’s Confidential magazine began its public carpet bombing of celebrity gossip and innuendo, making good on its promise to ‘tell the facts and name the names’. At its launch Confidential had declared, ‘The Lid is Off!’ and soon after began to litter the landscape with stories headlined ‘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’. It was duck-and-cover time for a lot of famous people.

Confidential was the newest and most ambitious enterprise of Robert Harrison, a small-time smut-monger from New York publishing 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’. 

But the post-war market for low-rent titillation had waned and something different was needed to sell copy. Hugh Hefner, a young copywriter for Esquire thought he saw a market for a more mainstream and ‘sophisticated’ brand of girlie magazine initially to be called Stag Party. Harrison on the other hand was happiest doing business from the gutter. He was convinced that the biggest money was to be made in catering to a public appetite for the salacious and the sensational. And Hollywood was the mother lode. 

Movieland panicked as stars suddenly saw their careers at risk and studios, their bottom line. First attempts at damage control included cutting deals with the magazine. When it got around that Rock Hudson was to be outed, the studio heads and Hudson’s manager got the story pulled by giving over Rory Calhoun who’d served time for armed robbery. 

However as Confidential’s circulation exploded Hollywood realized that the game was up and it was too late to play nice. Individual stars began to fight back by suing Confidential and its copycats for defamation and libel (not slander) and the studios launched a flurry of film projects portraying the tawdry tabloid tell-alls as a plague endangering the moral life of America. 

First released was Slander Incorporated (1956). This was a B-title directed by Elmer Mann and starring Robert Hutton as a smarmy New York smear-sheet owner who ends up put away for his crimes and misdemeanors. An incoherent, cautionary tale remindful of Reefer Madness (Do not buy these magazines! Just say no!), the film got the audience it deserved. 

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

Slander featured Cochran as H.R Manley, the self-made millionaire owner of Real Truth, a trashy scandal sheet. Manley lives in a Manhattan apartment along with his alcoholic mother (Rambeau) who deplores both her son’s magazine and his hypocrisy. For his part Manley loves his mother and is anxious for her approval (the film seems to suggest maybe too much). He wants her to believe that his crusade for the 'truth' is real and legitimate. 

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

Real Truth knows that the key to unlocking the story is a childhood friend of Sawyer’s, Scott Martin (Van Johnson). Martin's a once-struggling children’s puppeteer who has hit it big with a television show. But the magazine also knows that Martin did four years for armed robbery (though he’d pulled the job only to provide for his ailing mother). 

Manley via Martin’s wife offers him a deal i.e. Tell me about Mary Sawyer or the front page story in Real Truth is going to be 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 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 much better for the movie which develops into an overwrought melodrama. The moral and ethical precipices on which the characters stand are real enough. But the direness of it all makes Slander seem fusty and quaint. 

The movie's director was 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 he manages to keep the pace brisk enough, Slander’s mis en scene is flat and without much emotional resonance. It's a dated style more of the 1930’s than the 1950’s. On the other hand Rowland may have had no option but to reach back for the film’s visual and narrative conventions given the sanctimonious script. 

Slander’s single-mindedness also weighs on its cast. Steve Cochran energizes every film he’s in with his physical presence and intelligence. His character here is so fabricated it’s as if he'd been asked to do an impression instead of act a part.

It’s a brute-force attempt by the filmmakers to portray Manley not only a journalistic thug but a pretentious parvenu. While American audiences can deal with thuggery, one thing they can't stand is snobbery.  

For his part Van Johnson's Scott Martin is made too wholesome and unmarked for someone who's spent time in jail and most of the rest of his life on the margins. Ann Blythe, not the most empathetic of actresses, is plainly ill-cast. Blythe was better playing more privileged or socially practiced types. She just not believable as a working class wife and mother who has to put up. Similar parts were better handled by Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk in Crime Wave.

Despite its listing in Andrew Spicer’s Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, Slander would have benefitted hugely from a much harder lean in the direction of film noir - something which it’s not . The film qualifies as tragedy but there’s little presence of the kinds and levels of melancholy, alienation, despair, futility, dread, etc. that go to map out the noir universe. 

Even the bleakness of its ending doesn’t make an argument for Slander as noir. The film's fade-out only extends what is a cynical manipulation of events, the most shameless example involving the Martin’s son, Joey. Threat of harm to a child is possible in film noir and may be central to it as in The Window. However real harm in thse films usually results in sentimentalization - something Slander both shamefully embraces and exploits. 

Of course, MGM also was the major studio always least disposed towards film noir, especially by late ‘50’s when classic noir’s earlier influences were ever less in evidence (although Alexander Mackendrick’s modernist noir, Sweet Smell of Success released in 1957 by United Artists brilliantly excavates some of the same thematic terrain as Slander). 

Nonetheless, Slander is a fascinating artefact of the period and it's worth watching for that reason. It was a time when seismic shifts in values and norms in American culture were starting to be felt and it was Confidential and other magazines 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 idealized way again. The Emperor could be seen to have no clothes or at least caught with his pants down. And there often were pictures and facts 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 in a perverse way did 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, suddenly didn’t look to be as black and white as it once had been. Not that one might take that away from a literal viewing of Slander

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