Thursday, November 20, 2014

One Minute to Zero - 1952

One Minute to Zero (1952), like most war movies, isn’t “timeless,” which is a label critics so often paste on their reviews of a film to indicate a particular quality of excellence, more than of immortality.  It is locked, perhaps hamstrung, by its singular event of the Korean War—whose ambiguous political and military result is, not surprisingly, reflected in the film’s ambiguous and even ambivalent message.

The film, for many months up until its release in August 1952 was referred to in the press by its original (if unoriginal sounding) title: The Korean Story.  Produced at RKO by Edmund Grainger under the auspices of Howard Hughes, suffering delays due to severe weather on location in Colorado and the loss of its lead actress, Claudette Colbert, due to pneumonia she contracted there in the bitter cold.  The movie carried the reputation of a jinxed picture long before the crew limped back to Hollywood.  With several of the film’s cast and crew down sick, lead actor Robert Mitchum’s brawl with a serviceman, and the cooperation of the military up in the air with Howard Hughes over a scene the government preferred to be censored, the only bright spot in the lumbering affair seemed to be the popular, if unlikely, young actress Hughes hired at the eleventh hour to step into the female lead.  She also raised eyebrows due to her youthfulness compared to the other actresses hired, or considered for the role (Colbert, and also Joan Crawford), and speculation as to how the “little lady” of Hollywood would fare in a testosterone-infused war picture against bad boy Robert Mitchum.

Ann Blyth had just turned 23 years old when she belatedly joined the cast of what would eventually be called One Minute to Zero.  She told interviewer Eddie Muller in her 2006 appearance at the Castro Theater in San Francisco (in the transcript as posted by The Evening Class blog here):

I found myself in Howard Hughes' office with my agent—I didn't really want to go by myself; I'd heard stories—anyway, he was very nice to me, sat off in the corner…

According to a column by Louella Parsons, who visited Ann on the set of The World in His Arms, which we covered here, Ann was due to head out to location shooting in Colorado Springs for Hughes’ war picture “at the break of dawn the next day,” with no break between pictures. She told the gossip columnist that 1951 had been the most memorable and exciting year for her, in which she traveled to England for I’ll Never Forget You, visited relatives in Ireland for the first time, and saw the release of four very different films: the murder mystery Thunder on the Hill discussed here, exotic historical costume picture The Golden Horde, I’ll Never Forget You, and The Great Caruso, discussed here, which helped to launch her into MGM musicals.  Her versatility evident, there seemed to be no reason not to put her into a war picture, even if the script had to be altered to reflect a much younger woman in the role.  

From a syndicated article by Hugh Heffernan: 

This embattled outfit, headed by director Tay Garnett, has been filming The Korean Story on location sites near Denver for the last three months – and overcoming one rugged and discouraging hardship after another.…First of all, Joan Crawford pulled out from the star role after the company had been shooting there for several weeks awaiting her arrival.  Jane Greer was then announced as the replacement and there was more stalling until it became apparent that she could not be released from a previous commitment.

After two weeks of dealing, Claudette Colbert agreed to leap into the breach.  Claudette actually reported, but within a few days, was stricken…Meanwhile, the outfit kept on shooting with what it could, which wasn’t much.

Today they’re working with their fourth leading lady...but before Ann could take over, the heroine role had to be revamped almost in its entirety.

Too many excursions in Hollywood companies have been suffering torturous location pains recently and The Korean Story miseries may prove to be the straw that breaks the Hollywood jaunting budget.

Director Tay Garnett mentioned the troubles in his autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights:

When we arrived in Colorado, the trees had just come into full leaf.  When we finally locked up the last can of film, we had wired alien branches to the denuded aspens so as to match the stuff we shot in the spring.

Our initial difficulty was that, three-fourths through the location shooting, Claudette Colbert came down with a four-star case of pneumonia.  She was game, but 104-degrees of fever hospitalized her

He developed a “short sequence of pneumonia,” too, and was hospitalized.

H.H. suggested that I fly to Hollywood, because he wanted me, personally, to discuss the Colbert role with Joan Crawford.

Joan was represented at the time by Lew Wasserman (then head of the MCA talent agency, and now president of Universal Studios).  I’ve always felt that, because the male roles were dominant in Zero, Lew advised Joan against taking the lone female part.  I was disappointed.  I had known Joan for years and had always wanted to direct her.  She brings a brilliant talent onto the set, and I’m convinced she would have been great in the Zero role.

In Hollywood, I reported the situation to Mr. Hughes (by telephone) and was told to return to Colorado Springs the next morning, because Ann Blyth had been signed for the part.


Somewhat earlier, Ann had played (superbly) Joan Crawford’s daughter in Mildred Pierce; obviously our entire script had to be rewritten to accommodate the younger casting.

Ann managed to complete the assignment without getting pneumonia, and also got along with her bad-boy co-star.  She recalled in Eddie Muller’s interview noted above:

“…he was a terrific man to work with.  I loved working with Bob.  He was terrific.  He loved to play gags.  We had one scene one day—it wasn't too serious a scene so I guess he thought he could get away with this—and he got together with the prop department and he said, ‘Now, in this scene I want you to—up in the rafters—have a rubber chicken.’  In the course of the scene—and of course he always had his buff body—he said, ‘In the middle of the scene I'm going to aim up there and I want you to throw the chicken down.’  So we started the scene and—as I say—it was a fairly serious scene, rather melodramatic, and we were going along nicely when I hear this bang and this chicken comes down.  I kept right on going with my lines.”

Also, in 2006 she told interviewer Tavo Amador for The Bay Area Reporter:

Bob Mitchum was a favorite.  I loved Bob.  He was a big man, with boyish charm.  And an underrated actor.  He’s so frightening in the original Cape Fear, which was much better than the remake.”

She would continue to defend him when more alleged brawls gave his reputation a black eye in the years after she worked with him. 

“...when I worked with him, he was a perfect gentleman.  He always knew his lines.  He has the nicest manners and always was considerate of me.

“Every time he sees me.  He always comes right over and asks about my new baby, Timmy,” she beamed.  “I think he’s wonderful.”

Nor did she apparently mind climbing on a five-inch-high box for their kissing scenes.

Their most intriguing scene together, however, is playing sitting opposite each other at a kitchen table after she has made supper for him at her apartment in Japan, their first date.  The candles burn down, and both, slightly slumped over the table, he with his chin on his hand, give the impression of being all talked out.  A soothing, lazy tune, in a delicately Asian style, penetrates their silence, coming, we are told in quick camera shot from a record on a portable record player.  Suddenly, Robert Mitchum begins to sing along to the tune, in Japanese.  Catch Ann’s expression of surprised delight.  She is glued to his face, watching him sing, fascinated by him. It opens the door to their romance.  She sees there is more to him than just a blustering alpha male, dismissive of her opinions on the war.

In this story, Mr. Mitchum is a career U.S. Army officer stationed in Korea as tensions build with the communist uprising in the north.  Ann Blyth is a United Nations health worker.  He represents the male warrior and she is the female pacifist, (the yin and yang of this arrangement, I think, is more coincidental on Howard Hughes’ part than an artful use of Asian philosophy) and their first encounters are combative, a mixture of bad first impressions and a Cliff Notes version of geopolitics in 1951.  She puts her faith in the United Nations in curbing aggression; he feels the U.N. will be useless in stopping aggressors.  Both will bend somewhat in these opinions, but the conclusions are lost in a burst of new weaponry: jet airplanes firing rockets, and scouring the hills with napalm. 

We’ll go back to the war in a minute.  First, we return to that candlelight dinner.  As Robert Mitchum lazily smokes a cigarette (his trademark sleepy performance punctuates pretty nearly everything he does in this movie), he coaxes Ann, who confesses she knows only the English words to that tune, to sing.  Bless him.

So now it’s her turn at bat, and Ann sings an English verse of “Golden Moon.”  It is low, quiet, and lovely, and the really neat thing about this scene (correct me, please, if I’m wrong) is that they both appear to be singing “live.”  I don’t believe they’re lip-synching to a pre-recorded track.  It’s easier to keep the flow of singing and dialogue in this quiet, moody setting by having them do it live.  What we get is a very casual, natural, and intimate moment.

When they get up to move to the living room to have their coffee, Mitchum whistles another tune that becomes their romantic leitmotif, and we will later call it, “When I Fall in Love.”  It will swoop down upon us in a glorious wash of violins whenever they want each other, hurt each other, or just see each other.  For what is really a fairly pedestrian war movie, it’s unusual and quite charming to have such a moving love song be used so frequently and with such power.

The song was recorded by many through the decade, Doris Day and Nat King Cole both released very popular versions.  Unfortunately, Ann Blyth did not, and I don’t know who dropped the football here.

Thanks for “Golden Moon,” Howard, but why in Aunt Mary’s knickers didn’t Blyth sing the bloody theme song?

Pardon my French.

By the way, Ann gets to speak a little French in the movie too.

 Later in the film, when they’ve gotten serious, he proposes marriage, but she turns him down, bitterly showing him the box of medals, including the Medal of Honor, that had been awarded to her late husband, killed in World War II.  

“The President shook my hand,” she whimpers, not with pride, but brokenheartedly to the Medal of Honor, sifting the ribbon in her fingers.  That was another war, and another lifetime ago.  

We see this reality, too, in the modern weaponry the film displays.  This is isn’t your older brother’s war.  With Howard Hughes’ involvement with the aviation industry, it’s no wonder the fighter jets are the real stars of the movie, including a look at some Australian planes coming to the rescue of Mitchum and his infantry platoon at one point.  The footage of the military planes is impressive, even if the Australian accent from the pilot speaking over the radio is atrociously fake.

The picture also liberally uses genuine combat footage with the cooperation of the government. (The movie was filmed at Fort Carson, using troops of the 148th Field Artillery.)  It’s hard to say whether the footage is used successfully.  It is, certainly, a realistic view on war that takes us out of the back lot, and farther away than Colorado, but as often happens with interspersing other footage—say, as with rear-screen projection—the cuts are pretty obvious and we are not fooled into thinking the image we see is part of the scene.  We can easily tell what is government combat footage.  There are times when a soldier looks off to the side, we see a flaming tank, and it looks as if he is suddenly watching a newsreel and not a real tank beside him.  We are jerked out of the scene.

Another problem is the footage used, much of which is gratuitous—the enemy seared by flame-throwing and napalm, with screams added to the soundtrack for effect, pitiful refugees, and scores of dead American soldiers.  They seem to be used for shock effect and not for storytelling.  All these images are part of the reality of war, and to understand our participation in a war we should see them, but I think they are more effectively used in a documentary, or at least used in a fictional story with a greater skill.  After one removes these combat footage splices from One Minute to Zero, what is left is a standard Hollywood type war picture, with a squad of regular joes trying to maintain their position.  Some of the dialogue is pretty hokey.

We have the smart alecks, the comically naïve dumbbell, played by Alvin Greenman, who you’ll remember as the young janitor, Alfred, in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  Charles McGraw plays the gruff, but hero-worshiping sidekick sergeant of Robert Mitchum.  You’ll remember gravelly voiced McGraw from Once More, My Darling (1949) here, where he played the chauffer of oddball socialite Ann’s wealthy eccentric father.  He also stars in one of my favorite train noirs, The Narrow Margin (1952) here.  They stumble through the Korean countryside, kill and are killed, are kind to Korean children and teach them how to blow bubbles with bubble gum.

Richard Egan is the captain of the lost squad.  It’s really quite an accomplishment for the film to juggle so many subplots: the guys in battle, the air force pilots who fly over from their base in Japan, including Mitchum’s longtime pal William Talman, whom many of us remember as the perpetually losing attorney on TV’s Perry Mason.  Their wives are with them, and that, too, makes this war strangely different from the Pacific Theater of World War II.  They show up at the airbase to watch their men come back from a mission, and count to see which ones don’t come back.

And then, a romance with Ann Blyth, who pops in and out of Robert Mitchum’s very busy life in Korea.  Perhaps the oddest and most uncomfortable subplot in the movie, the scene for which the film is most remembered, is when Mitchum orders his men to fire upon a long file of refugees approaching his checkpoint.  Innocent men and women, small children, and frail elderly, are massacred.

It is this scene to which the Department of Defense objected, and asked Hughes to remove from the film. (According to Transforming the Screen, 1950 to 1959 by Peter Lev, Mr. Hughes first ascertained whether defying the ban would hurt his defense contracts for his Hughes Aircraft.  He was told it wouldn’t.  He went ahead, apparently despite his promise not to film the scene.)  

It is based on an apparent actual incident from 1950 where American troops fired on Korean civilians, the facts of which are still cloudy.  In the movie, a long column of refugees, moving away from battle areas to safety, approach Robert Mitchum’s platoon, which is maintaining a defensive position.  Mitchum gives the order to fire warning shots from artillery to scare them away, to force them to go back to an area where the military will drop food and supplies to them.  The refugees ignore the warnings and continue to walk toward Mitchum’s outpost.

We are shown, in a rather melodramatic and heavy-handed way that many of the refugees are being prodded forward by enemy soldiers, who are using them as, in the modern term, “human shields.”  Mitchum knows this, and he will not allow the enemy infiltrators approach.  He fires more artillery, this time a little closer to the people.  They still proceed forward.

It is a showdown, and ultimately, Mitchum gives the orders to fire the artillery directly into the long column of people, massacring them.

At this moment, Ann Blyth, on duty with her U.N. health unit, shows up in a jeep, watches with horror, and tearfully, hysterically confronts Mitchum on the monstrous thing he has done.  Of course, he slaps her because that's what you do with women who cry and shout in your face.

By the end of the film, William Talman will take her aside and show her (through the inevitable clip of government footage) a temporary morgue in a bombed-out village where lie the corpses of many American soldiers, whose deaths, many of them slaughtered with their hands tied behind their backs, are the result of those enemy infiltrators sneaking into U.S. lines by way of refugees.

The end of the movie tries to switch back to patriotic World War II movie-mode and shows Ann in a bombed-out church praying for forgiveness for misjudging Mitchum, and praying for his safety.  When she finally catches up to him, as he is going off to more fighting, she says she wants to be his wife.  He tells her, without a trace of romance, but rather like he is acknowledging a salute from one of his men, “You will.”  And the columns of men leave us with Ann's patriotic voiceover.

This scene, after the daring move of showing the horror of war with ugly combat film, the political murkiness of our involvement, and even the ambivalence of the men and officers, seems forced and ersatz.  The movie drifts awkwardly between comforting us that this is just like World War II, and “we did it before and we can do it again”—and an eerie, unsettled frankness that tells us we are in a completely different ballgame and nobody knows the future.

Regarding the massacre, we may acknowledge that a scene of this sort would never have been shown in a World War II-era Hollywood movie, even to justify it.  U.S. military personnel didn’t massacre civilians, that would be the message.  (Even in a future war, information on the MLai massacre in Vietnam was censored by the U.S. government.)

But, the boldness of this scene is weakened by the way the audience is supposed to feel sympathy for the stoic, if mentally anguished, Robert Mitchum for having to do his duty by firing on civilians.  We may, indeed, feel sorry for him, as making such a decision and then having to live with it must be terrible.  However, we cannot, in all conscience or logic, feel more sorry for him than we do for the innocents who were murdered in the name of weeding out the bad guys.  The idea that we must feel worse for Mitchum than the refugees is ludicrous, but that is what the film tries to accomplish in order to build up the hero.  Since everybody in this movie has been hero-worshipping Mitchum, talking about his character, his guts and his excellent military record, we don’t need to be hammered over the head that anything he does is for the greater good.  The scene would have been more powerful if it were Mitchum in the bombed-out church praying for forgiveness.

As propagandist as the World War II movies were (to an extent, all war movies are propagandist), the hero in those films never demanded, or even asked for our pity.  He might have earned it, but he didn’t ask.  

Perhaps we were so scared we’d lose that war, he didn’t have to.  Everything he did was jake with us.  But we didn’t feel Korea was a threat to our existence, and if many regarded it as an ideological threat, that was not enough.  It became, almost the moment it started, “The Forgotten War.”

Bosley Crowther, our old acerbic friend from the New York Times remarked of the film:

Plainly, One Minute to Zero is a ripely synthetic affair, arranged to arouse emotions with the most easy and obvious clichés.  And, although some of the battle talk sounds faithful and the inter-cut news shots are sincere, neither the story nor the performances of the actors, including Miss Blyth and Mr. Mitchum, rings true.  Here is another war picture that smells of grease paint and studios.

His last line is, I think, particularly telling.  War movies were old hat.  We’d seen them all before.  For whatever propagandist hue Howard Hughes tried to paint in this film to make it earnest for the military whose cooperation he needed to supply troops and equipment for the movie, and palatable to an apparently bored and war-weary audience, it didn’t create a big splash.   

But One Minute to Zero remains for us as a unique slice of history told, not in the grand scale Hughes was apparently reaching for, but in the detail of the reconnaissance plotting of the officers at the base in Japan, in the procedural tactics practiced with dull repetition by the little family of grunts that make up Richard Egan’s forlorn squad, and in the stolen moments between Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth, whose courtship is sporadic under the “rules of engagement” the Korean War has allowed them.  

I can’t imagine their characters ever settling down in suburbia together.  Maybe that’s where the audience of 1952 was really headed, in minds and hearts as well as physically, leaving the Korean War behind.

Ann Blyth, having long established a routine of donating whatever time she could to charity singing engagements, as we discussed in this post, also made time to visit military bases in the U.S. and territories to entertain the troops, just as she had as a teen during World War II. 

She toured several bases in the territory of Alaska in 1952, as we discussed on this post on The World in His Arms (1952) and performed with Jack Benny at the White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico in 1951.  She visited former Ford Ord Army Base on the Monterey Bay in California also in September 1952, where she was named the Queen of the 20th Regiment and apparently helped the young GI David Janssen to join Special Services, a unit that was involved in entertainment and sports activities on the base.  What clout she might have had, or how she was able to do this is unknown to me at the present time, but David Janssen gave her input a fair degree of importance, feeling that it might have kept him from being sent into battle in Korea, and he was always grateful to her.  A website devoted to Janssen posts a letter he apparently wrote October 13, 1952 to his mother from Fort Ord after Ann Blyth’s visit there in September mentioning his writing a thank you letter to Ann Blyth, as well as Frank McFadden of Universal's publicity department.

Ann received quite a bit of fan mail from military personnel, and it was reported in a syndicated column by Armand Archerd in 1951 that some 2,000 letters per month came to her from GIs, about three-quarters of all her mail.  Perhaps Howard Hughes knew about this when signing her to the role.

When the film finished, she went right into her next movie without a break, right into being 12 years old in Sally and Saint Anne (1952), which we discussed here.

But Howard Hughes wasn’t quite finished with her.  In appreciation for her stepping in when the clock was running out on his shooting schedule, he gave her a new Cadillac, and a trip to Hawaii.  Ann took her uncle and aunt, with whom she lived, with her in the spring of 1952.

U.S. Navy photo

Where, in April she performed for the troops at Fort Shafter, Honolulu with Bob Hope, and on Easter Sunday, she visited the USS Wisconsin and sang for the crew.

Come back next Thursday, our Thanksgiving post, for an on-location shoot not quite as arduous, when Ann appears in her first and only big-screen western, her first movie in color, with Howard Duff and George Brent in Red Canyon (1949)


The Bay Area Reporter, July 20, 2006, by Tavo Amador – “The Real Veda Pierce: a Serene Ann Blyth.

Court, Darren and the White Sands Missile Range Museum.  White Sands Missile Range – (Charleston, SC; Chicago, Portsmouth, NH; San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009) pp 121-122. 

David website -

Deseret News November 28, 1951 p. 2F – see article by Hugh Heffernan; December 9, 1951, by Sheilah Graham. 

Garnett, Tay.  Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights (NY: Arlington House, 1973), pp. 282-283.

Kentucky New Era, February 9, 1951 – by Armand Archerd “Home Girl, Not Cheesecake, Pit Top Requests of GIs.”  

Lev, Peter.  Transforming the Screen, 1950 to 1959.  (University of California Press, 2006)

Milwaukee Sentinel, November 14, 1951, column by Louella Parsons part 1, p.8.

New York Times, September 20, 1952, review by Bosley Crowther.  

The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon) January 24, 1955, p. 5B  “Friends to the Defense of Robert Mitchum.”

St. Joseph News-Press (Missouri), December 16, 1951, column by Louella Parons, p. 4D.
USS Wisconsin website:

THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.

mel said...

I consulted David Meeker's authoritative and exhaustive book "Jazz On The Screen - a Jazz And Blues Filmography" (2008) and Albert Ammons is not mentioned as performing in Dillinger (1945).
So my educated guess is a negative.
November 7, 2014

Thanks, Mel.
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from The Dennis Day Show (TV), The DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.
I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Slander - 1957

Slander (1957) is a noble experiment, and if it fails to be as biting a drama on the scandal press as it could be, perhaps that is because it is difficult to make a tasteful movie about a distasteful subject.  It’s trying desperately to appeal to the better instincts of its audience.

That it also tries, at the same time, to indict the readers of scandal magazines—the movie-going audience—is a daring, but ultimately futile, tactic to legitimize the film’s message.  A lot of people bristle at any message in a movie, considering it preaching.  They like a clear-cut villain to shoulder all the blame and get his comeuppance in the end.  We have a villain here, and he does get foiled in the end.  But our villain does not, cannot shoulder all the blame for the evil in the story.  We must assume some of it.  The result is inevitably awkward.

Ann Blyth was rounding the corner on her 28th birthday when she made this film, her last film for MGM under her contract.  It would be the first of her three final movies, all of them released in 1957.  Slander came out in January; The Buster Keaton Story, which we covered here, was released in May for Paramount, and finally, The Helen Morgan Story, for Warner Bros., which we will cover in weeks to come, released in October 1957.  With this flurry of activity, more films at one time than she had made in years, and for three different studios, it did not seem like her film career was winding down.  There was no handwriting on the wall, no way to predict she would be a “former movie star” soon at 29 years old.

Harrison Carroll, a syndicated columnist, visited the set while Slander was being filmed, and watched her confrontation scene with character actor Harold J. Stone.

After the shot is over, I remark to Ann that it is an unusual sort of role for her to play.  Her face becomes very serious.

“It is a difficult decision for the woman in the story to make,” she says, “And anyway,” she defends, “It gives me a different sort of a part.  Audiences get tired of you if you fall into a rut.  And, just as important, a performer also gets tired of being in a rut.”

Her previous film to this had been the musical, Kismet, which we discussed here, and which had capped a string of several films, musical and non-musical which put her in fairy-tale circumstances and fanciful costumes.  In Slander, however, she is the picture of unglamorous modern reality, a housewife making beds and preparing meals for a husband and son in a tiny New York apartment in the low-rent district, her costume a neat but nondescript housedress and a wary, anxious demeanor.  Her last three films would feature her in serious, even doleful roles that were mature, sedate, and emphatically told the audience and future potential producers that she had grown up.

Her husband here is Van Johnson, in one of his last starring roles, as an up and coming entertainer.  He is a puppeteer (his work with marionettes being done by famed puppeteers Bil and Cora Baird), who has just landed a plum job with his own children’s show on TV.  Van had a hardscrabble youth in a rough neighborhood, and his past will come back to haunt him.

Their young son is played by Richard Eyer, whom we saw here in Friendly Persuasion (1956), a natural and charming kid.  His goofy, cockeyed grin is sweet, and he is the sort of gosh-gee all-American boy who loves baseball, and gets a huge kick out of his father being a TV star, as it makes him top dog at school.  But there is a down side to fame, and young Richard will suffer for it.

Harold J. Stone is Van Johnson’s agent, a friend to the family and a loyal, but ineffectual barrier to the cruelties of public life.

Directed by Roy Rowland, who directed Ann in Killer McCoy (1947), which we discussed here, the film is a good attempt at delivering a socially conscious agenda, but falters when some of the dialogue goes terribly mawkish.  I don’t think Mr. Rowland’s work here is as good as it was with Killer McCoy, most of the camera work is fairly lackluster, but I would lay most of the blame on the script for the movie’s just missing the mark.

The opening credits show the title as a blot on screen, and the actors’ names awash in a nightmarish image of floating tabloid magazine covers.  We are given the impression of sordidness from the beginning.

Then Rowland sets his opening shot on the city, its canyons of brick and steel monuments to mankind that represent both wealth and poverty, depending upon the angle.  We settle in on wealth and power first, in the palatial Park Avenue apartment of Steve Cochran, who plays the editor/publisher of one of those dirty tabloid confession magazines.  We don’t know that yet.  At first, all we see is a well-dressed man, fastidious in manner and speech, who with extraordinary thoughtfulness, arranges the daily activities of his semi-invalid mother, played with seasoned, nuanced irascibility by Marjorie Rambeau.

He is dapper, polished, refined and deliciously unrushed.  But there is a seed of doubt about him planted for the viewer by his mother’s resentfulness toward him, and by what we may suspect is the false adoption of his well-groomed self-superiority.  There’s more to this guy, and it doesn’t take long to find out.

We follow him to his office, where the gloves come off and we see that he is the master of his own kingdom of hack journalists, losers on the edge of the profession who deal in dirt, secrets, even outright lies when it serves them.  But all is not well in Steve Cochran’s world.  He has been in business for two years, enjoying enormous profits, but now he has competitors, other magazines imitating his formula for spoon feeding scandal to their readers.  Cochran’s gentlemanly demeanor of the introductory scene is stripped away when we see his work, and his cutthroat manner.

“The public has about as much brains as a halibut steak.”

He has found his success in the public’s appetite for filth.  But to top his competitors, he needs a big new story, and has found it in a well-known actress named Mary Sawyer.  Interestingly, we never see Mary Sawyer in this film, and though not showing a character that is spoken about is usually a problem in film, in this case her not being seen is perhaps a way of illustrating the point that it does not matter who is smeared.  Anyone can be a victim.  All we know of this Mary Sawyer is that she has been an actress for a long time, and is currently appearing in an uplifting film called Song of Faith.  “In the minds of the American public, she’s practically a nun.” 

One tipster has supplied information that Mary Sawyer is not practically a nun and that she fell upon some sort of disgrace in her youth.  Someone who might be able to give the magazine more information is a person who knew her from way back when, grew up with her in their old neighborhood—Van Johnson.

From this point, Van Johnson and Ann Blyth are squeezed in the jaws of a vise of moral conscience.  Van must tell what he knows about Mary Sawyer to Steve Cochran’s magazine, or else Cochran will spill the beans on Van’s secret.

As a teenager, Van committed robbery and assault with a knife, and went to prison for several years.  If the public found out, his career as a performer on a kid’s TV show is over.  There are arguments between husband and wife about the logic of throwing Mary Sawyer to the wolves to save themselves. 

What might appear as mere screen melodrama to younger viewers today was really a hot issue when this film was made, and based on numerous factual cases.  One of the most famous of these was probably when the foremost of these new scandal magazines, Confidential, threatened to disclose Rock Hudson’s homosexuality to the public.  His agent stepped in and made a deal, feeding them info on his other client instead, newcomer Rory Calhoun, who had a past involvement in armed robbery and prison time as a teen.  

Gossip columns and magazines had been part of the Hollywood scene since the first reel was shot, but what had been fairly innocuous, if occasionally irritatingly intrusive, interest in the stars’ homes, hobbies, and romances, exploded in the post-war era as a sinister inquisition into the private lives of stars, a wildly cruel seek-and-destroy mission. Hollywood actors and actresses were attacked not merely on peccadilloes in their private lives, but for their politics, and sometimes created scandal where there was none to be found.  Confidential, and other magazines and columnists of this sort who were politically conservative had taken their cue from the infamous blacklist tactics and sought to sink the careers of Liberal-leaning actors, directors, and members of the film community.

Shirley MacLaine, in her first memoir, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain, recounts a run-in with one such trash columnist of the day, Mike Connolly of the Hollywood Reporter, who, apparently believing her affiliation with liberal causes required punishment, inferred that she had her nose fixed, had attempted suicide over an unhappy love affair, had undergone an abortion, and other lies.  Sufficiently fed up, and after consulting her attorney and bringing along her secretary as a witness, Ms. MacLaine marched into Connolly’s office and slapped him hard, twice, across the face.

Columnist Hedda Hopper, despite being known, and feared, for her own self-important brand of heavy handedness, called her and told her, “Why didn’t you knock him out cold at least?  As far as I’m concerned, you should be ashamed of yourself for not finishing him off completely.”

Everyone applauded Shirley MacLaine when she visited Chasen’s restaurant; former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano sent her a pair of boxing gloves; and she received many congratulatory telegrams by those in the industry, by the governor, and a humorous one from President John F. Kennedy. 

I think of Ms. MacLaine’s the-slap-heard-around-Hollywood during the scene where Van Johnson visits Steve Cochran in his office, and slaps him.  It’s a temptation to draw similarities with Cochran’s character to real-life figures working for the scandal mags, but they’re really just types, there were plenty of them, and megalomaniacs exist in every industry.

The upshot of all this nonsense was an ugly grab for power.  This is the template by which Steve Cochran wields the whip hand over Van Johnson.  Van, his wife and child, mean nothing to Cochran, but the end result of more power, more circulation is irresistible to him.

In this climate of real-life controversy, we might suggest that the studio was brave to make this film, throwing such a moralistic dart at these magazines.  However, we could also note that the story takes place in New York, with an unknown puppeteer and involves the world of TV.  It’s as if the studio pulled a punch on this one.  If Hollywood really wanted to tell the story as it was, they’d place the setting in their own backyard, they’d show a studio mogul or two throwing an innocent actor under the bus to quash a story about to be planted about someone more valuable to them and to stay in the magazines’ good graces, the way you fork over your lunch money to a bully.  That was the way the HUAC worked during the blacklist; that’s the way all power is achieved.

But Slander attempts to show more than how the rotten deal worked; it attempts to educate the audience that buying these magazines and reading them is not nice.  That’s a tougher message to sell.

There’s a secondary social blot here to examine, but it falls by the wayside, and that’s how our society tends to grab children in a headlock and feed them garbage.  The sponsors of Van Johnson’s kids’ show, who make breakfast cereal, have the most to lose—the most money, that is, especially when, as Van’s agent Harold J. Stone proudly announces, “Kids would eat carpet tacks if Jeff Martin told them to!”

The sponsors admit their nervousness over Van’s past, and frankly admit, “We’re trying to sell children.”  It’s about as opportunistic and unseemly as the scandal mags pushing dirt on a public dirty-minded enough to enjoy that stuff.

Not all enjoy it, and some look down on Steve Cochran—respected publishers who bar him from speaking on a television panel show, waiters and maître d’s who won’t serve his mother in swank restaurants, and even his mother, who wishes he would quit this racket.  Cochran just grows more defensive and more poisonous.

The movie skirts just shy of another big issue, and that is what truth worth knowing?  We may regard a movie star’s third marriage as his own business and not worth shouting about.  But if our congressman was, say, an abusive spouse or parent, wouldn’t we want to know?  That aspect of his personality may have nothing to do with balancing the fiscal budget, but most of us would feel ill to realize we voted for such a person, and would want to avoid voting for someone who, if not a saint, at least was not cruel or involved in illegal activities.

A wise old respectable editor, who is meant to represent the nice journalists, says of Cochran: “If our drinking water was being poisoned, none of us would think it funny.  Why should we laugh at something that is doing us the same sort of damage?”

Cochran tells his ashamed mother, “I’m giving the public something that they not only want, but something they need.”

Two sides of the coin, indeed, but the movie pulls back from any thoughtful debate, preferring to show us Cochran’s arrogant sneer, Van’s hunted look of fear, and all-American boy Richard Eyer’s silly grin. 

I’ve got to give you a spoiler here, because I really can’t discuss this film without it, so go down to the corner and get a paper if you don’t want to hear this.  Or a magazine.  A nice one.

Despite a wedge driven through his marriage because of this, and his career on tenterhooks, Van won’t give Steve Cochran the information.  In part, his decision not to fold is because of the shame he carries from his crime as a teen and his prison sentence.  He is deeply sorry for that and is determined not to carry any more shame in this life than what he’s already got.  That should be played up more; instead we are given only the picture of a decent man doing the decent thing.  Honorable, to be sure, but his motives are more than pure righteous stubbornness. He’s haunted.

In retaliation, Cochran prints the story, and the sponsors, horrified at the loss of sales of cereal, drop Van Johnson from the show.  His sponsor apologetically tells him, “The public always calls the tune.”

So true, which is why when we get inferior products, either in the form of entertainment or anything else we deserve it because we don’t demand better.

The cost of his marriage and career isn’t enough, and Van must suffer one more great sorrow: the death of his son.  The kids (a microcosm of the adult world with its own rules for bullying and swaying public opinion), turn on young Richard and tease him.  Distressed, he bolts out of the schoolyard and gets hit by a car in traffic.  He dies. 

On the one hand, it’s tempting to view this scene as really going overboard, as indeed, some critics of the day felt.  On the other hand, it’s so shocking and unexpected, just by itself the scene has immense power.  We may or may not draw a direct correlation to Steve Cochran’s bullying and the death of a little boy due to the boy’s own negligence, but we see the pattern of poison entering the minds of society and the minds of children that has far-reaching effects we cannot imagine.

The aftermath also gives Ann Blyth one of her most intense scenes.  She is at her mother’s apartment, sitting in an almost catatonic state, when Van Johnson, who has just heard the news about the death of their son, rushes to her.  She had been on her way to pick him up from school when the tragedy happened.  She thaws out of her shock, and it is as painful for us to watch her allow herself to grieve as it must be for a woman to smack hard against the realization her little boy isn’t coming home anymore.  When Van kneels to embrace her, she gulps slurred words in broken sentences of helpless, almost apologetic explanation to him, and wails, a heartbreaking moan, repeatedly calling her son’s name.  A very real and powerful scene.  She goes deep here, and it is deftly played.

Van Johnson is nearly sick trying to hold himself together.

The dénouement of this is for Van to appear on the nice editor’s TV panel show to have his say on things, and though his illusion to his son being poisoned by the gossip is an analogy as true as it is emotional, unfortunately the rest of his cautionary speech limps along, weakly written.

Because we have to have an ending to all this horror, agent Harold J. Stone catches up with the sorrowing Van and Ann, and tells them that the TV station is being flooded with phone calls of support, that the public is determined not to buy anymore of these kinds of magazines.  Hurray.

It would have been a better film, and a better service to an impressionable movie audience, to simply have them walk down a street, see the latest issue with their son’s grisly death splashed across the cover, and a line of eager customers waiting to buy it.  That’s not the kind of thing we might want to see, but it would be the truth.

Though there are still a few tabloids knocking around today, for the most part they have been rendered harmless by their ridiculous stories of Hitler’s brain being kept in a laboratory or celebrities being abducted by space aliens.  Truly, only idiots buy them.  However, the real reason we have few of the old-time scandal mags is that this kind of reporting is no longer considered gossip.  It’s considered news.  Dirt, and at the very least, fascination with the superficial and shallow, has gone mainstream. The line between good solid journalism and schlock has blurred, and not only the public, but the professionals in journalism don't seem to know the difference anymore.

A few more good scenes:

When Ann and Van lie in their beds at night, unable to sleep, are acutely aware the other is awake, but are loathe to continue the fight they had earlier in the evening, and any words, even ones of comfort, are difficult now.

Van’s tortured struggle with his past and his guilt, and his pained refusal to be anything less than the decent man he wants to be.  He loses everything in the attempt, but still seems like a champion. 

Marjorie Rambeau’s caustic sniping at her son, and her futile, and melodramatic, visit to Ann Blyth after the death of the little boy to determine for herself if the cause of his death was the smear campaign.  Ann lets her have it between the eyes.

Then Miss Rambeau’s careful, pained walk down the steps of their brownstone, thumping with her cane, shoulders slumped in sorrow, just an unknown old lady to Van and Mr. Stone as they rush past her.

The triumph, the fire in Cochran’s eyes when Van Johnson calls him out on TV, because he knows it will mean even more publicity for his magazine.  Steve Cochran is very good in this role, especially as this is not the usual sort of bad guy.

One may feel the story jumped the shark when Steve Cochran is shot to death by his own mother, like a bad seed she must kill for the greater good.  Since he had made a remark earlier in the film about someone being driven to a suicide attempt over one of his previous smear jobs, perhaps it would have been more in keeping with the flow of the story to have his mother commit suicide over her son’s activities.  Some grisly end for Cochran is generally what would happen in these scenarios, though the reality is nothing would ever happen to him to make him regret his actions.

Here’s the trailer for Scandal:

A review in the Florence (Alabama) Times wrestles with the telling of this story and the idea that, like Steve Cochran’s gleaming eyes at the kill, may have given more power to the scandal mags by giving them importance:

For what is an obvious attempt at retaliation at one of Hollywood’s most feared foes, Scandal could hardly be classified as a mortal blow.

In fact, this middle bracket drama…might not only have missed the target altogether, but may have inadvertently given aid, if not comfort, to the enemy…where even the hardest knocks boomerang into boosts.

Ann Blyth took a more gentle, if no less earnest, course to address the scandal mags.  In February 1955 she was called upon to be hostess, and Pat O’Brien was master of ceremonies, at the film industry’s fourth annual Lenten Mass and Communion breakfast.  Around 1,500 film workers attended at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, where Mass was celebrated by James Francis Cardinal McIntyre (who had performed Ann’s marriage ceremony two years previously – see this post).

She delivered a speech that she and her husband, Dr. James McNulty, wrote together.  It was reprinted in several newspapers afterward, and even today you can still find the tale of it's enthusiastic reception bouncing around the Internet.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  And since then one million billion words have been said.

There are words that sing and jump and skip and dance: little girl words.  And there are words with fun in their eyes and things in their pockets and their hair mussed: little boy words.

There are young words.  And there are wise old words with a glint in their eyes.  There are words wide-eyed with wonder, soft as a baby’s feet, strong as a baby’s twining fingers.

There are steel words and iron words; thrusting, stinging, lancet words; cruel blades of words.  And there are sweet words; soothing, unguent words: father, mother words: the words that raise you like a child again, and hoist you on their shoulders.

Words are everything that man is; everything he can be-they are everything he should not be.  They are his slave; they are his master.  In a world of mercy, of the word of God, man is at the mercy of words.

In the beginning was the word—all the infinite wonder and beauty and truth and love and life that God is, uttered in one divine word.  This is the truth.  And, by its nature, every word should be a reflection of the divine Truth.

I plead with you, gentlemen of the press to remember that words are written about men, and read by men.  I plead that infidelity is not new—it isn’t even news.  That a Decalogue broken on the front page helps no one and hurts many.  That sensationalism and emotionalism and carnalism are a direct appeal to man’s baser part and the betrayal of a trust.

You are the light bearers, men of the press.  Don’t burlesque man; lead him.  You have the words.  You have the truth.  Lead not the child of God into darkness.

Come back next Thursday for Ann Blyth and Robert Mitchum, adversaries and lovers in the Korean War in One Minute to Zero (1952).

A love triangle: Ann, Robert Mitchum, and the box on which she is standing.


Catholic Herald, (London, England) February 25, 1955, p. 1.

The Florence (Alabama) Times, February 19, 1957.

MacLaine, Shirley.  Don’t Fall Off the Mountain. (NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 1970) pp 108-110.

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, May 26, 1956, letter to the editor by G. E. Grezaud, p. 16.

The Warsaw (Indiana) Times-Union, September 1, 1956, syndicated column by Harrison Carroll, p. 12.
 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.

mel said...

I consulted David Meeker's authoritative and exhaustive book "Jazz On The Screen - a Jazz And Blues Filmography" (2008) and Albert Ammons is not mentioned as performing in Dillinger (1945).

So my educated guess is a negative.
November 7, 2014

Thanks, Mel.
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from The Dennis Day Show (TV), The DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.