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The delightfully cynical Nothing Sacred holds a proud place at the center of the Screwball Comedy tradition. Just a mention of the film will elicit broad smiles from people that have seen it. Ben Hecht's disarming screenplay embraces what in 1937 had to be considered sick, morbid humor. The film's gags come from the plight of a beautiful woman dying of slow radiation poisoning, a premise that doesn't exactly promise big laughs. The satire targets the dominant medium of the day, the competitive New York tabloid papers that feed the public's voracious appetite for maudlin news. Ex- newspaperman Hecht opens his tale with a mock-pious quote lauding the heart of a great city, and then proceeds to demolish his own premise. Nothing Sacred is the third great Screwball Comedy from Carole Lombard, after Gregory La Cava's hilarious My Man Godfrey and the 1934 Howard Hawks film that helped launch the fad, Twentieth Century.
The sarcasm starts early and doesn't let up. Star reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) has been exiled to the obituary department for inadvertently making his paper the Morning Star the butt of a cheap hoax. To make amends with his publisher Oliver Stone (Walter Connelly), Wally rushes to the small Vermont town of Warsaw to get an exclusive on Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young woman expected to die in just a few weeks from radium poisoning. Wally suffers at the hands of the locals, who are hostile to all strangers and particularly newsmen from New York. It just so happens that Hazel's quack of a doctor, Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) has discovered that his diagnosis was completely wrong, that she isn't going to die after all. Excited by the prospect of being flown south for an all expenses paid madcap Manhattan weekend or two, Hazel decides not to inform Wally about her miraculous "recovery". Greeted as a combination angel and martyr, Hazel is cheered by thousands and given the Key to the City. She's toasted and sobbed over wherever she goes. So touched is Wally by the beautiful Hazel's courage that he's inspired to propose marriage, for the little time she has left. Oliver is overjoyed to be sponsoring such a newsworthy, and non-fraudulent, person. But Hazel knows that "her little secret" will probably get both her and Wally tarred and feathered.
Nothing Sacred begins with an outrageous non-PC joke that completely justifies the film's title. There's this black potentate from the Far East, see, who has promised to fund the construction of a vast civic project sponsored by the Morning Star. This Magi in a turban (Troy Brown) isn't exactly who he says he is. Writer Hecht next aims his lampoon at the hostility of the Vermont locals toward city folk. A monosyllabic baggage man (Olin Howland) and a stingy storekeeper (Margaret Hamilton) shock Wally with their rudeness and lack of generosity. It's so bad up in Warsaw that a tiny kid runs out and bites Wally on the leg, just out of meanness.
Carole Lombard's Hazel Flagg is so bored with rural Vermont that she volunteers herself and Dr. Downer to be honored and worshipped without thinking of the consequences. Vermont's most famous resident can't wait to get a taste of urban corruption. For the weary Oliver Stone the reveal of the truth would mean more embarrassment and disgrace. A group of bearded medical experts (including Sig Ruman and Monty Wooly) realize this immediately. After they give Hazel their own tests, they adjust their bill for services for keeping the results confidential. Meanwhile, the Big Apple's generosity is expressed in ever more grotesque ways. One nightclub builds an entire floorshow around Hazel, comparing her to great women in history. Everywhere she goes, Hazel sees at least one person that can't keep from crying, thinking about her imminent demise. And she doesn't know how to handle Wally's reverent, worshipful gestures. No wonder Hazel's responds to her bizarre predicament by getting totally soused.
Hecht has an ornate way of having characters describe each other. Wally Cook on Oliver Stone: "He's sort of a cross between a Ferris wheel and a werewolf. But with a lovable streak if you care to blast for it." Dr. Enoch Downer on Wally Cook: "You're a newspaperman. I can smell 'em. Excuse me while I open the window." Looking at a silly wrestling exhibition, Wally pronounces them phonies, and then adds, "I head the list." A montage of cynical headlines and signs honoring Hazel Flagg is a string of jokes worthy of Tex Avery. One newspaper dripping with concern for Hazel is shown being used to wrap a fish.
Director William Wellman avoids clever camera tricks but imposes his own brand of eccentricity. The ex-Eastern potentate casually enters Hazel's hotel room to collect a bouquet for his wife out of the many floral honorariums sent to ease Hazel's demise. When Oliver Stone needs a thug to drag Hazel back to his office, the nod goes to an ex-wrestler played by the unflappable Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. And the first real conversation between Wally and Hazel is an intimate scene purposely played out while a large tree blocks the actors' faces. Interestingly, Hazel's purported malady is based on fact. Her hometown is dominated by a watch factory, and in 1917 an appalling worker safety scandal broke out in the industry that manufactured glowing radium dials. The Radium Girls fell sick and died through the criminal negligence of the factory owners, who knew the danger well. They shielded technicians and scientists, but hid the truth from workers that painted the radium on the watch faces. The practice went on for years, and should be taught in schools as an example of the ruthlessness of 'free enterprise'. The workers at one Illinois Radium Dial plant were called "The Living Dead Women".
Nothing Sacred dispenses with the threat to Hazel almost immediately, leaving us to laugh at the spectacle of a media darling without a malady to stand on. The show amplifies its laughs with some hilarious third-act reversals, but the macabre concept ultimately hits a brick wall. Producer David O. Selznick hired a brace of top writers to concoct an acceptably upbeat conclusion. The crazy fable doesn't let us down, but even confirmed fans often can't recall exactly how it ends. Nobody would call this comedy a message picture, but it does express some truths about the madness of a media-driven public that craves bigger-than-life winners and losers, villains and heroes.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Nothing Sacred was sourced from an original nitrate Technicolor print preserved by the George Eastman House. An actual Technicolor release print normally makes a poor source for a video transfer; previous video versions of this title have had terrible contrast problems. Those drawbacks have been minimized in Kino's new HD scan of the print, and the use of new digital tools. The film's color varies, as does its contrast and grain. Some scenes look quite good while others resemble colorized B&W. I've never seen an original Tech print to compare but this Blu-ray is intact and sharp. It also has excellent sound lacking in most copies for many years. Oscar Levant's original music score is no longer broken up by splices, pops and dropouts.
After being turned into a Broadway musical, the story of Nothing Sacred became a 1954 comedy vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Living it Up.
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T'was Ever Thus.