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 Born, though 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.
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.
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.)