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Slander (1957) was the last of seven movies Ann Blyth made in the 1950s for MGM and was unique among them since her other outings at the studio were Technicolor musicals (1955's Kismet) or adventure films (1953's All the Brothers Were Valiant), and this is a black-and-white "topical drama" with shadings of film noir. To date Blyth has made only two more features, The Buster Keaton Story and The Helen Morgan Story (both 1957), although she continued to work in television and on the musical stage.
In Slander, made in the heyday of Confidential magazine and other early examples of tabloid journalism, Blyth plays Connie, the distraught wife of struggling puppeteer Scott Martin (Van Johnson), whose sudden success on a television children's show is threatened by a "scandal sheet" called Real Truth. In a storyline that seems somewhat inspired by a 1950s Confidential exposé of actor Rory Calhoun's conviction for armed robbery, we learn that Martin once served four years for the same crime -- though, in Martin's case, it was to provide for a poor and sickly mother.
The smarmy publisher of Real Truth, H. R. Manley (Steve Cochran, in more debonair mode than usual) is desperate to boost sales because he has fallen into debt and is searching for a blockbuster scandal. He's less interested in Martin himself than in a famous Broadway star with a pristine image who happens to have been a childhood friend of Sawyer. There's something shady in her past, too, and Martin knows about it. If he doesn't inform on his old friend, Manley tells Martin, the front page story in the next Real Truth will be about him. Again, there's some veracity in the situation; Confidential was known to have traded one celebrity scandal for another in real life, having pursued the Calhoun story in exchange for not going after Rock Hudson for his homosexuality at the height of his fame as a romantic leading man. And the concept of friends and colleagues informing on one another was a familiar one in this time of the McCarthy hearings.
Martin refuses to knuckle under and fights back, leading to tragedy involving his and Connie's young son (Richard Eyer) as well as Manley's alcoholic, disapproving mother, to whom he seems inordinately attached (Marjorie Rambeau, in a strong performance). Also in the supporting cast are Harold J. Stone, Lurene Tuttle and Philip Coolidge. The puppets used in the film were designed and operated by Bil and Cora Baird, who later fashioned similar puppets for "The Lonely Goatherd" number in The Sound of Music (1965).
Slander is based on a teleplay by Harry W. Junkin, Public Figure, which was broadcast on the CBS-TV drama series Studio One in 1956, with James Daly and Mercedes McCambridge in the roles played by Johnson and Blyth. The film's screenplay was adapted by Jerome Weidman, with direction by Roy Rowland, whose other noir-flavored films include Scene of the Crime (1949), Rogue Cop and Witness to Murder (both 1954). The cinematography, by Harold J. Marzorati, is a little glossier, in the MGM style, than the usual film noir -- and, despite the cynicism of some of the characters, the film doesn't quite capture the genre's atmosphere.
The movie's title is something of a misnomer since the term refers to malicious false statements, and the damaging stories about the characters in the film apparently are true. Also, technically speaking, "slander" refers to the spoken word, while the correct word for malicious falsehoods in print is "libel." Interestingly, Van Johnson himself had personal brushes with the perils of tabloid journalism. A few years before the release of Slander, Confidential had done stories questioning his sexual orientation and had reported that the star had revealed his homosexual tendencies when he was called before the draft board in 1941. Johnson later claimed to have rid himself of this "abnormality."
Confidential had declared at its launch, "The Lid Is Off!" Soon afterwards the magazine was running such titillating stories 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!" As some celebrities began fighting back with lawsuits and the mainstream press began routinely "reporting" gossip, the magazine gradually lost its power.
In the film, the ironic motto of Real Truth is "For Ye Shall Know the Truth and Truth Shall Make You Free." Cochran's character puts it a little more bluntly: "I know that if I dig deeply enough, no matter who the person is, I'll find something rotten... There's something dirty in everyone's past."
By Roger Fristoe