03 July 2014

Nothing Sacred

When the topic of screwball comedies comes up (one of my favourites), Carole Lombard is often mentioned as the queen of the genre. I wouldn't disagree with that title. She had the perfect mix of beauty, brains, and comedic timing needed to play a screwball heroine, a woman who could look seductive in one scene while laughing like a lunatic in another.

In Nothing Sacred (1937), produced by David O. Selznick and directed by William Wellman (yes, Wellman made a screwball comedy), Lombard gives a classic screwball performance in one of her most physical roles.

The film opens with shots of Rockefeller Center and Times Square with the words: “This is New York, Skyscraper Champion of the World...Where the Slickers and Know-It-Alls peddle gold bricks to each other...And where Truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye...”

The Morning Star newspaper is hosting a benefit banquet to honour the Sultan of Marzipan (Troy Brown Jr.), who has offered to lend his support for a proposed Morning Star Temple (a museum of sorts). The only problem is, he’s not a sultan but Ernest Walker, a bootblack, which we quickly learn when his wife (an uncredited Hattie McDaniel) shows up with their four children. Reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March), who concocted the scheme, is quickly demoted to the obituary desk (located in a busy corridor).

He is soon begging his publisher, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), to give him a chance to redeem himself. Seeing an item about Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young Vermont woman dying of radium poisoning, he convinces Oliver that there’s a story there and the publisher relents. Wally promises Oliver the biggest story he’s ever seen or “You can put me back in short pants and make me the marbles editor.”

Arriving in Warsaw, Vermont, Wally has trouble finding Hazel; the townsfolk, including a shopkeeper played by Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the East), are suspicious of newspapermen and refuse to speak to him. He finally tracks her down at the office of her doctor, Enoch Donner (Charles Winninger), who has just given her good news: his initial diagnosis was incorrect and she’s not going to die after all. Hazel is in tears, happy that she’s going to live but disappointed that instead of heading to New York to spend her final days she's going to be stuck in her small town. Wally believes she is upset because of her illness and before she can correct him, he offers to bring her to New York where the people will like her because she’s a “symbol of courage and heroism.” Seeing her chance to leave Warsaw, Hazel keeps mum about her news and agrees as long as Dr. Donner can come along.

Hazel’s arrival in New York is greeted with the headline “Doomed Girl Hailed Belle of New York.” She’s given a ticker tape parade and the key to the city (which she promptly tries to store down the front of her dress). She also goes to see the famous poet Ferdi Roassare (an uncredited Leonid Kinskey) who writes an ode to the dying girl. All the while Wally is by her side, taking her to see a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden, boating on the East River, and to the Casino Moderne. Noticing that her presence saddens those around her, Hazel starts feeling guilty about her ruse and gets drunk with hilarious consequences.

The next morning, suffering from a horrible hangover, Hazel tells Dr. Donner that she’s ruining Wally and when everyone finds out she’s a “good for nothing fake” they’ll blame him. Wally arrives with the news that he’s asked Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer (Sig Ruman) to see her in hopes of finding a cure. Not wanting to blow her story, Hazel decides to fake her own suicide; she leaves a note and then attempts to “jump” in the river (Dr. Donner is waiting nearby in a boat). Her plan goes awry though when Wally shows up to stop her. After they both wind up in the river, the drenched duo kiss behind a crate on the pier and agree to get married.

What follows is a ride back to the hotel courtesy of a fire engine (Hazel wears the fire chief’s hat and jacket) and the arrival of Dr. Eggelhoffer and his colleagues who soon assess that Hazel is not dying and give their findings to Oliver. He promptly informs Wally, labelling Hazel a “lying faking witch with the soul of an eel and the brain of a tarantula.” Wally doesn’t care because he’s in love with her and comes up with a plan: he taunts her into a fight so as to raise her temperature, making her appear ill. After they spar for a while, he knocks her out cold. Discovering Oliver hiding by the window, Wally wakes Hazel up and informs her that they’ve been found out. She promptly punches him in the jaw. Fed up with the lies, she confesses the truth to some waiting dignitaries who beg her to stay quite so they can save their own reputations.

The newspaper the next day announces that Hazel has left town and prints her farewell letter to New York in which she says that she’s had a good time but must face the end alone “like an elephant.” Soon afterwards a Mr. and Mrs. Cook are seen on board a ship bound for the tropics.

Nothing Sacred was filmed in Technicolor, a first for a screwball comedy and Lombard (it would be her only colour film). It’s great on one hand to see the actual colours of the costumes and sets but it’s hard not to think that it would have looked better in black and white. There's something about the time period that seems more suited to an absence of colour. One thing I did notice was that the scar on Lombard’s left cheek, which she received in a car accident as a teen, is noticeable in some scenes, something I don’t recall seeing in her black and white films. Another technical first is that it was the first time that montage and rear projection were used in a colour film.

The screenplay, written by Ben Hecht and adapted from the short story “Letter to the Editor” by James H. Street, is filled with sharp and witty dialogue. Apparently when Selznick refused to hire John Barrymore for a part that Hecht had written specifically for the actor, Hecht quit. A variety of writers were brought in to write additional dialogue and scenes including Budd Schulberg, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and Ring Lardner Jr. In one scene, a group of children gather outside Hazel’s hotel room to serenade her with a song. A little ginger-haired boy for some reason has a squirrel in his pocket that escapes and runs into Hazel’s room and up her back. I couldn’t help but think this bizarre contribution must have come from a member of the Algonquin Round Table.

One of the funniest things about the film is how rude the characters are to each other, constantly telling people to shut up and hurling insults like fat-headed monkey, tittering imbecile, hophead, prize boob, king of the boobs, and snake brains. While Oliver calls Hazel plenty of names, newspapermen are treated even worse. The dislike of the press goes beyond just verbal abuse. When Wally arrives in Warsaw, he’s walking down a quiet street in the town when suddenly a little boy darts out and bites him on the leg. Yet it’s not just fakers and members of the press whose characters are called into question. The American pubic are also called out for their relentless pursuit of celebrity. In a film titled Nothing Sacred, no one gets a pass.

Screwball comedies are often known for their physically demanding scenes, something that Lombard excels at here. Whether she’s being pushed into the East River or passing out drunk at a nightclub, she does it with gusto and seems to be having a ball. In the most famous scene in the film, the fight between Wally and Hazel, Lombard flails around throwing punches and yelling while constantly falling down and getting kicked in the bottom by March until he finally punches her, and she takes her sweet time passing out. When she wakes and he explains his plan, she begs him “let me sock you, just once on the jaw” and does just that.

The role of Hazel Flagg seems tailor-made for Lombard who, in addition to being able to handle the physical challenges of the script, was a gifted comedian adept at the fast dialogue that Hecht was known for. And even when she's screaming or and carrying on in the film, she still manages to look beautiful (and if there were any doubts, the black and white newspaper images of her that pop up throughout the film are pure Hollywood glamour shots).

As for Frederic March, he is a fine actor who has some genuine good moments in the film, particularly when he goes to Vermont and in his interactions with his publisher. Yet there is something restrained about his performance as if he was never able to relax and give in to the insanity that a screwball comedy requires. 

Walter Connolly and Charles Winninger on the other hand seem perfectly at home in this genre, two strong character actors who grab the chance when they can to really own a scene. As for the slew of cameos by uncredited actors, it’s a whole lot of fun spotting them. 

A thrilling aspect of the film is the New York footage by cinematographer W. Howard Greene including shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and an aerial shot of the city when Hazel arrives in New York by plane. There's something fascinating about seeing Manhattan as it looked 80 years ago; in many ways it doesn't seem like it's changed at all. 

Carole Lombard considered Nothing Sacred to be one of her favourite films and while there are other screwball comedies that I like more, I love Lombard and her performance in this film.

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