Nothing Sacred (William A Wellman, 1937)

I’m returning to the director whose career I’ve been intermittently following on this blog, William A Wellman – and to another famous  movie, which has a lot in common with its predecessor, A Star Is Bornthough this time the emphasis is on satirical screwball comedy rather than tragedy.  Nothing Sacred stars Carole Lombard as  Hazel Flagg, a lively young woman fed up with her monotonous small-town existence. She  is wrongly diagnosed as dying from radium poisoning, and brought to the big city by New York newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) for a final fling. But just how long can a final fling last?

To be honest, I don’t feel Nothing Sacred has worn quite as well as A Star Is Born, but the problem may simply be that I had already seen it a couple of times in the past and watched it again this time on the back of repeat viewings of Small Town Girl and A Star Is Born – plus other directors’ versions of the Star Is Born story. So it’s likely that I had slightly overdosed on portrayals of women desperate to escape from small towns by the time I got to this one. Also I think Wellman’s melodrama often grabs me more than his comedy. Anyway, this celebrated movie is definitely worth seeing and is a must for Carole Lombard fans, as she gives a sparkling performance.

I’ve read that Fredric March was originally going to be re-teamed with Janet Gaynor – but then Lombard was cast instead. I’ve also seen a report that Ben Hecht, who wrote the witty screenplay, wanted his friend John Barrymore as the male lead, and stormed out of the production when the studio insisted on March instead because of Barrymore’s alcoholism. I don’t know how accurate these reports are, but it is intriguing to think that the film could have ended up with a Gaynor/March re-pairing, or with a repeat of the Lombard/Barrymore partnership in Howard Hawks’ great Twentieth Century, also scripted by Hecht. In any case, both Lombard and March make the roles their own, and there is plenty of chemistry between them.

At just 77 minutes, the film moves at a breathless pace. I’d have to say the opening  is the weakest section for me – with a cringe-making scene where editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) is presiding at a banquet in honour of a “sultan”, played by Troy Brown, who turns out really to be a janitor. There’s some tired racial stereotyping here, which Wellman often manages to avoid in his movies – and also, though I know it’s a comedy and not supposed to be realistic, it’s hard to believe that ace reporter  Wally Cook (March) could fall for such an obvious hoax! He is very drunk in this banquet scene, which I suppose is the explanation – the only drunken scene March has to play in this film, after a host of them in A Star Is Born.

Fredric March and Carole Lombard

After this shaky start, the movie picks up, as Cook is relegated to the paper’s obituary section by way of punishment for his story about the sultan. He sees his chance to revive his career when he spots a news item on the wire about a young woman from a small Vermont town who is doomed to die from radium poisoning – and suggests to the editor that it would be a great story to bring her to New York to see all the sights and enjoy herself while she still can. The editor reluctantly agrees, and Wally heads off to rural Vermont. The funniest scenes in the whole film, for my money, are those when he arrives in Hazel’s town and everyone in sight treats him with suspicion – with one small boy even dashing out through a gate to bite him on the leg! Apparently these scenes caused some offence in Vermont because they suggest it is such a backwater, but it’s worth remembering that this movie’s portrayal of New York is equally satirical. Also, the small-town scenes are very much in the same vein as the openings of Wellman’s two previous films, Small Town Girl and A Star Is Born. All of them show close-knit communities where people do have real friendships and care about each other – but where life is grindingly repetitive and petty rivalries can make life a blackly comic misery.

Just as Wally arrives, Hazel has learned that she was mis-diagnosed by her drunken doctor, Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger). She isn’t sure whether to be pleased that she isn’t doomed to an early death, or dismayed at the  thought of going back to her factory job. When Wally offers to take her to New York, she decides to keep quiet about the fact that she isn’t dying after all,  and go along for the ride – taking Enoch with her as the price for his silence.

Once they arrive in the big city, things grow increasingly complicated as Hazel and Wally fall in love, but both are secretly tormented by guilt about the way in which they are exploiting one another. There is some sharp satire as the newspaper sells its scoop shamelessly, while other businesses jump on the bandwagon too, trying to exploit the public’s ghoulish fascination with the “brave” Hazel. Hecht’s digs at the newspaper business here are just as telling as they are in The Front Page, and the whole portrayal of shameless manipulation of the public emotions seems very relevant to the way in which people respond to celebrities and tragic stories today.

I won’t go through all the later twists and turns of the bitter-sweet screwball plot, but will just say that both March and Lombard are great, though, to be honest, I don’t find the famous boxing match scene between them all that funny. Lombard in particular is both funny and poignant, making you understand why everyone who meets Hazel warms to her personality. Some scenes remind me a little of Frank Capra’s films about instant celebrities, like Meet John Doe, but I think there’s a greater cynicism at work here – and a greater awareness that many of the emotions which can so easily be whipped up in a crowd are self-indulgent and fake.

Charles Winninger, Carole Lombard and Fredric March

Like A Star Is Born, this film was made for Selznick International Pictures and is now available on a host of faded Technicolor public domain DVDs in region 1 and 2. As with the previous film, it has reportedly been restored, but, frustratingly, the restored version isn’t available to buy, though it may turn up at cinema screenings or on TV. (If anyone knows whether any of the existing DVDs is much better than the others, please do let me know – I’ve seen a suggestion that the out-of-print Lumivision DVD may be best of the batch, but can’t confirm this.)

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14 thoughts on “Nothing Sacred (William A Wellman, 1937)

  1. I agree that this movie hasn’t held up. I remember being disappointed with it because the story is so intriguing. But the way the story is executed is more frustrating than funny. I also agree that Carole Lombard gives a sparkling performance and she is the only reason to see the film. But then did she ever do anything other than sparkle in a movie?

    John Barrymore may have done something a little more interesting than March (I think we’ve already discussed my antipathy for Match), though I don’t think he could have saved the movie. The script is its major weakness.

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    • Sounds as if I like the movie a bit more than you do, Jason – I think it has some great scenes, especially the sequence in Vermont and some of the tear-jerking phoniness in New York, but it falls down in some other places and the slapstick gets a bit much at times. Glad you like Lombard’s performance in this too – I need to see more of her films.

      I suppose I’d say that I like March as an actor, but for me John Barrymore has that something extra – he always seems to bring a greater warmth and mercurial quality to his roles which makes him compelling to watch. However, by this stage, sadly, he was pretty well on his last legs as an actor and I’m not sure if he could have carried off such a demanding lead role. JB did make a film with Lombard in 1937 which was released just a month after ‘Nothing Sacred’, ‘True Confession’, but he wasn’t the lead in that one, playing second fiddle to Fred MacMurray – I haven’t seen that movie as yet, but hope to do so soon. Thanks very much for commenting!

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    • There is just something sad about hearing John Barrymore having to play second fiddle to a snoozer like Fred MacMurray, the only actor who ever made me mad when he won the girl away from Ralph Bellamy (coincidentally, Carole Lombard again in “Hands Across the Table).

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  3. Jason, I haven’t seen this one yet, as I said, but agree with you it sounds sad – though I have a feeling Barrymore probably manages to steal every scene he is in, all the same. Certainly hope so. I haven’t seen many of MacMurray’s films, so can’t really say much about him, but, yeah, I know what you are saying.

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    • Barrymore does steal scenes in True Confession. What might surprise you is how he’s presented – they certainly don’t glamor him up. Barrymore was well on his way down right at that time – he was appearing in Bulldog Drummond series films at that time! I thought MacMurray well cast there – he’s the man who’s always a little bit behind the curve and a bit stuffy besides. He ends up being the butt of the film. Lombard, Una Merkel, Barrymore, Edgar Kennedy, and Lynne Overman made me laugh often.

      My only problem with Nothing Sacred is that it takes its title too seriously, drawing everyone cynically, leaving nobody untouched. Hecht might be to blame for that, he wasn’t known as a romantic. I was rather amused by a contemporary review of that film I found, which complained that no newspaperman would be demoted as Wally Cook was. Yet, the Nathanael West book Miss Lonelyhearts has a very similar demotion, and it was certainly used in Hollywood before Nothing Sacred.

      I like March myself, seeing a good number of his early Paramount films. He also has a hilarious guest appearance on What’s My Line (it’s on YouTube, or was), where he stumps the panel.

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    • Mndean, thank you very much for this – I definitely need to get to True Confession too, and will be interested to see both Barrymore and MacMurray in it, along with Lombard. I have seen one or two of Barrymore’s later films where he was on the way down, like ‘The Great Man Votes’, where he is also not at all glamorous, although he was still the star, at least. I haven’t seen him in those Bulldog Drummond films!

      Interesting that you find ‘Nothing Sacred’ too cynical, since if anything I’d like it a bit more cynical – I do agree that Ben Hecht tends to bring this quality to his scripts. Thanks for citing that contemporary review – funny, I’d been thinking that Wally wouldn’t fall for such a lame hoax in the first place, but it hadn’t struck me that he wouldn’t be demoted to the obituary desk. May well be true, but I’ve definitely seen similar demotions in other films too, so I just took it for granted!

      I’ve seen one or two of Fredric March’s early films lately (didn’t manage to watch Laughter right through at Youtube, though, because of the picture quality which you warned me about), but not the What’s My Line clip – I will give it a look. Thanks again!

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  4. Judy, sorry to have taken so long to post a comment on your excellent post on “Nothing Sacred.” I’ve been busy catching up with the CMBA blogathon on the movies of 1939 and still haven’t finished reading all the posts. Anyway, I love screwball comedies of the 1930s and I know of the high reputation of “Nothing Sacred,” but I’ve always found it to be a disappointment. I’ve watched it several times thinking I’ll like it better and I never do, so I was relieved to hear you have some reservations about it too, as I know how highly you regard Wellman. It seems to have all the right ingredients and an impeccable pedigree, yet somehow it doesn’t completely work for me. Despite its brevity and brisk pace, something just seems lacking. What does work are the performances of Fredric March and especially Carole Lombard. When I was writing a post on the greatest classical performances by an actress recently, I was torn between this and “To Be or Not to Be” for Lombard but in the end went with “Nothing Sacred.” Her Hazel Flagg is a total delight. She handles the complex emotional demands of the role expertly and looks just gorgeous. For me she is the one thing that does get better with each viewing.

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    • Thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to comment, R.D. – I knew you were busy with the 1939 blogathon, and I’ve also enjoyed dipping into its wealth of postings. I also kept watching ‘Nothing Sacred’ thinking that I must have been in the wrong mood last time and this time I would like it better, just as you say! I do agree, though, that Carole Lombard is excellent in the lead, and I’m hoping to watch more of her work soon. I wonder if maybe I would like the film a bit more if the satire had stayed darker, although that would be difficult in a screwball comedy.

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  5. Likewise Judy, I am late at this post as well, as this has been a rather draining week with me with testing at my school. My apologies. Carole Lombard is fantastic in this classic satire culled from a brilliant script by Ben Hecht, whose attacks on publicity methods and the gutter press are consistently on target. I’ll agree that it doesn’t quite hold up as well as A STAR IS BORN, not is a film one warms up to as well. Many of course have thought it dated. I own a copy of the Alpha version, which you picture first, and it’s acceptable, but it would certainly be worth upgrading to the Lumivision, since that version is going for only a few bucks.

    In any case Judy, wonderful essay here, and I agree there’s a strong strain of cynicism running through the film.

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    • Very kind of you to comment, Sam, and sorry to hear you have had such a busy week. I do agree that Hecht’s sharp dialogue always adds a lot to a film and of course he knew the newspaper business inside out – but I suppose I think it falls off at times when it gets away from newspapers, in things like the boxing scene. Thanks for the info about the Alpha version – I have a region 2 DVD which, as you say, is acceptable, but it sounds as if the Lumivision is a better bet, or or course if it turns up on TV. Also totally agree with you about Carole Lombard. Again, thank you, Sam!

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  7. Judy, I’m sorry I’m late to the party, but I wanted to comment on your review of NOTHING SACRED. When I see this movie, I keep wishing a good restored version would become available on DVD. Watching it in “glorious pastels” leaves something to be desired. You’ve posted a wonderful review. I agree totally with your point about the “sultan” at the movie’s beginning, and I wasn’t impressed with the boxing match scene. Beyond those two things, I enjoy the movie and am so glad to see Lombard and March in color (even if it is pastel). Newspaper movies from the ’30s are some of my favorites, and while this isn’t an office movie, it has the cynicism and energy of a newspaper movie.

    And, by the way, exactly what finger did the gal in the stage show (which March and Lombard watch shortly after Lombard arrives in NYC) flip the audience? And if it really was her middle finger, how in the world did that get past the Hayes office? Inquiring minds want to know.

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    • Thanks very much for commenting, and not too late to the party at all! I like your phrase “glorious pastels” – that is the perfect description for the state of the print in both this and ‘A Star Is Born’. I also love newspaper movies from the 1930s, and would have liked a few more office scenes in this one, though, as you say, it has that sort of energy anyway. Must admit I don’t remember the woman in the stage show flipping a finger at the audience, so can’t answer that question – but, if it is, then you do wonder how the Hays office missed it. Thanks again.

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