‘Slander’ Airs Out the Dirty Laundry of the Genteel ’50’s

Slander hasn't dated much at all; it still engages the viewer with something harsh and sordid under its veneer of '50s gentility.

After many years of struggle, puppeteer Scott Martin (Van Johnson) lands a gig on a children’s TV show sponsored by a cereal. He and his picture-perfect wife, Connie (Ann Blyth), are giddy with happiness; they can’t wait to move from their New York apartment to the suburbs. After this, Connie is summoned to the offices of H.R. Manley, played by Steve Cochran in an excellently coiled, soft-spoken manner.

Manley edits Real Truth, a scandal magazine that’s taken the country by storm in the last two years and bred many imitators. Feeling the pinch of competition and debt, Manley needs a huge story. He has learned of an incident in Martin’s past that will ruin his career, but he’s willing to quash the story if Martin can reveal some bit of dirt about a childhood neighbor who’s grown up to be a beloved star actress.

Jerome Weidman’s script builds tension and suspense until a melodramatic blow-out that few viewers will see coming and fewer will completely believe. That’s not a mark against the picture, which feels like what it is: a TV play (originally by Harry W. Junkin for Studio One) expanded into a movie. Not surprisingly for a project originating on TV, this film was very timely.

Although Slander doesn’t have any actual slander in it, it’s chock full of intriguing cultural signs of 1956 America. Foremost is the influence of TV, both as subject matter and source. On his new TV gig, Martin is playing the type of Buffalo Bob character seen on Howdy Doody. We also see an example of the type of serious-minded panel show that used to be on the air. Called What Do You Read?, it’s a trip to imagine a similar show on American prime time now.

There were TV personalities, including children’s show stars, whose reputation suffered from rumor, most notably Ireene Wicker of The Singing Lady, whose career foundered during the Red Scare although Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee cleared her of suspicion and apologized. It was too late, because her show had already been cancelled. In this film, Martin’s refusal to divulge secrets of a past association touches pretty directly on that still-fresh period.

More significantly, this film belongs to the wave of Hollywood features taken from teleplays for live TV anthologies. More famous examples include Marty, Edge of the City, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Bachelor Party, The Catered Affair and Patterns. TV was still the enemy, but Hollywood was in the early stages of co-opting the medium and causing it to relocate to Los Angeles, as had happened with radio.

As a TV project, the story’s view of that medium as a force for change is more positive than Hollywood’s view had been, and its details about production and sponsorship are of course accurate.

Hollywood was sympathetic to this crusading material, which aims to make the public feel ashamed of buying scandal sheets. The rise of these rags in the ’50s was having almost as much of an effect on the film industry as TV was. Hollywood had previously controlled the content of fan magazines and gossip columns, but a new wave of publications like Confidential were causing problems and crimping the careers of young contract players with investigations into vice arrests and the like.

As the TCM website points out, one can perceive similarities to this movie’s plot and the real-life saga of how Rory Calhoun’s teenage conviction for armed robbery was exploited in Confidential in exchange for sparing Rock Hudson’s exposure. They also report that Van Johnson had his own brush with the magazine over having revealed homosexual tendencies to the draft board during WWII; he claimed he’d gotten over it.

The TCM site can’t be trusted on all counts. The main article claims Martin’s marionettes were the work of Bill & Cora Baird, but another page on the site quotes a 1956 Hollywood Reporter article crediting Jack Shafton and Allan Henderson. Although the puppets superficially resemble the Bairds’ work (aside from being taller), they were established stars that wouldn’t have worked without credit. (By a curious coincidence, Shafton’s other feature work as a puppeteer is Desire Me.)

Slander encodes various scandals between the lines of its literate dialogue. If the ironically-named Manley isn’t coded as homosexual, then he’s the era’s only movie image of a tasteful, manicured bachelor, surrounding himself with “exotic” art and doting on his mother with nary a female love interest in sight. Still, the scene where he instantly fawns on little Joey Martin (Richard Eyer) and wants to sweep him off to a baseball game feels creepier than it was probably intended at the time.

Manley’s bristling resentment of the mavens of right-thinking society, from the headwaiters who snub him to the mainstream publishers who insult him publicly, implies a vindictive motive against being held in contempt and a desire to rub it in the polite world’s face. His assertions that everyone has “something rotten” in their past if you dig deep enough also carry the whiff of wanting to un-closet everyone’s dirty laundry for his own psychological reasons.

The offscreen character of Mary Sawyer, the famous actress who becomes the story’s McGuffin, looms large. We only gather that she got “in trouble like a lot of Brooklyn girls” and that Martin’s mother “helped her”. This sounds an awful lot like a story of unwed pregnancy and illegal abortion, although nobody ever spells it out.

Director Roy Rowland is a neglected figure critically; for example, Andrew Sarris omitted him from his landmark survey The American Cinema. He showed strength in Americana and melodrama and when working with child actors. Slander covers at least two of those bases, thanks to Richard Eyer’s meaty role as Joey, the Martins’ ten-year-old son. Seen mostly on TV, Eyer had a healthy line in clean-cut, baseball-loving, tooth-brushing, polite little tykes who got endangered in such films as The Desperate Hours and The Invisible Boy.

With a clean, unfussy approach, Rowland relies on Weidman’s script, one of a handful of screenplays by this reputable writer of novels and stories. Wikipedia quotes Weidman’s New York Times obituary for his specializing in “the rough underside of business and politics—and daily life—in New York”, and that describes this project easily. Each scene has its own integrity and the project holds together until those questionable but fascinating turns in the last reel.

Marjorie Rambeau, an illustrious actress of much stage and film experience, plays Manley’s elegantly alcoholic walking-stick of a mother. Harold J. Stone, Philip Coolidge, Lurene Tuttle, Lewis Martin, Irene Tedrow, Claire Carleton, and Malcolm Atterbury also appear in a movie whose supporting cast seems to consist entirely of middle-aged character actors, save for a very young Dean Jones as a newscaster.

An excellent print of this black and white film is now available on demand from Warner Archive. The only extra is the trailer promising a topical “shock-story”. Slander was it topical in its own time, and best of all its basic situation hasn’t dated and still engages the viewer with the air of something harsh and sordid under its veneer of ’50s gentility.

RATING 6 / 10