Nothing Sacred (1937)

nothing_sacred_1937Directed by William (‘Wild-Bill’) Wellman and starring Carole Lombard and Frederick March, this film has been called by one commentator ‘the funniest thing to come out of the 1930’s that you’ve never heard of.’

It was the first screwball comedy to be shot in Technicolor, following the success of A Star is Born also produced by David O. Selznick and starring Janet Gaynor (who was originally cast for this film before the director met Lombard).

PLOT

To redeem himself after a hoax, reporter Wallace Cook (March) proposes to his newspaper boss, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), a series of stories on a radium-poisoned small town girl, Hazel Flagg (Lombard). Cook sees a chance to manipulate the public and increase sales but Hazel, meanwhile, discovers she has been mis-diagnosed. Nevertheless, the reporter’s offer of a trip to to New York is too good to turn down. The trouble is, as Cook’s write up of her ‘bleeding heart’ story makes her the toast of the city, Hazel’s conscience starts to get the better of her and things start to unravel.

SPECIAL QUALITIES

It has a musical score by Oscar Levant that both mocks and celebrates the George Gershwin-like musical style then in vogue.

Under the film’s humour lurks a cynical and serious theme of corruption and dishonesty. An acerbic script by the acclaimed Ben Hecht ridicules phony sentimentalism and attacks the sanctimonious posturing of the media in their tendency to put profit before dignity or truth.

Nevertheless everything is treated in accordance with the movie’s title; no aspect of human society is immune and in many ways – especially in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture – the sweeping satire of this fast-paced and sharp-edged script flies in the face of modern political correctness.

But it is not mean-spirited and treats everyone in the same way – having sympathy even for the very characters whose faults it so ruthlessly exposes.

PRODUCTION BACKGROUND

Hecht (credited with writing the script in two weeks on a train) created a role for his friend John Barrymore in the piece, but producer David O. Selznick would not hire Barrymore (whose legendary alcohol abuse was now out of control). Hecht furiously refused to work further on any more drafts and quit the film: Bud Schulberg and Dorothy Parker were called in to write the final scenes, while contributions to the script were also made by director, Wellman, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufmann.

TRIVIA

Carole Lombard, apart from being beautiful, had a wonderfully prickly sense of humour. For example, to discourage the unwanted attentions of Frederick March during filming, she invited the co-star to her dressing room one night. After some preliminary fumbling, March abruptly got up and left in horror, having discovered that Lombard was wearing a rubber dildo! He never bothered her again.

The film was made into a Broadway musical (Hazel Flagg) in 1953, then re-made as a Dean Martin/ Jerry Lewisfilm, Living it Up (1954), with Janet Leigh in the March role and Lewis gender-bending the Lombard character!

Lombard was not only beautiful, but an exceedingly talented actress with impeccable comic timing – as this filmdemonstrates. Sadly the film’s tragi-comic lines about death and dying and never being able to grow old gracefully became prophetic. . .

On January 16, 1942, Lombard, her mother and 20 others were lost when their plane crashed flying back to California from a war bond drive in her home state of Indiana. The highly acclaimed (and in the late 1930s most highly-paid) actress, who had been the star of some 12 silent films and had successfully made the cross-over to ‘talkies’ (in almost 40 more) was dead at 33 and few have been able to match her talents.

Her devastated husband, Clark Gable, never got over her death, joining the Air Force in grief afterwards and disappearing from the screen for three years. When he died of a heart attack almost 20 years later, he was laid to rest beside his beloved Carole Lombard at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

But hey, that was all in the future!  It was the only colour film in which Lombard appeared and its use of rear projection for backgrounds were the first to be filmed on the street of New York. So enjoy this film as as a historical document as well as a comedy great.

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