Nothing Sacred (1937)
I was really excited to watch Nothing Sacred this week! I mentioned previously that I have seen the film before, but had not realized that Fredric March was in it—Carole Lombard literally stole the show. So this time around, I watched Nothing Sacred with the intent of really focusing on Fredric March’s performance.
While I can’t say it was easy when Miss Lombard was in the shot, I did succeed in watching Mr. March in the film this time! And I am happy to say, I think he gives an excellent performance!
Nothing Sacred (1937) is a satirical comedy that as the name suggests, pokes fun at just about everything society holds sacred. If you are easily offended by political incorrectness, this may not be the film for you. But if you can appreciate satire, and recognize that there is not a single social group, gender, age, or belief safe from being poked fun at in this film, I think you will really enjoy it!
Nothing Sacred is set in New York City. The film begins with ace reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) in hot water when his boss at the Morning Star paper, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) discovers that Cook has fabricated a story: the African nobleman about to donate a hefty sum to a city beautification project is in fact a Shoeshine from Harlem, and Cook was behind the scheme. The public finds out it is all a sham, and the Morning Star’s reputation suffers. Stone decides that Cook must be punished, and relegates him to writing obituaries, basically in the basement of the Morning Star office building.
March has some really great physical comedy here, trying to work at his tiny desk with absolutely no respect from those around him. His facials are priceless as a female co-worker, seemingly unaware that Wally is trying to work literally right behind her, keeps bending over to get papers out of a filing cabinet, each time her rear is inches from his face, or when a male co-worker sets up a ladder even closer to Wally’s face, and proceeds to climb up the ladder, standing right over his head, presumably to get some document. March is excellent in this scene! He really underplays it, and as the viewer you can so relate to what he is experiencing. We have all been there—in a situation where you literally can’t believe how invaded your space is, with the culprit seemingly totally unaware. March just nails the scene with his underplayed, physical comedy. So much improved from his comedy turn in Design for Living four years earlier.
Ok, obviously Wally can’t stay in the basement writing obituaries forever, right? So he approaches his boss, and tries to win his status back as an indispensible contributor to the Morning Star by pitching a golden story to Mr. Stone that everyone else missed: a beautiful young woman named Hazel Flagg, is bravely dying of radium poisoning in sleepy little Warsaw, Vermont. After a little convincing by Wally that this story would really make the paper look good, Stone promotes him back to reporter, and sends Wally off to Warsaw to find Hazel. Wally must then convince Hazel to come back with him to New York, where the paper will share her miraculous story, and, out of the goodness of its heart with no ulterior motives whatsoever, provide Hazel with a snazzy new wardrobe, put her up in a ritzy hotel, take her sightseeing, to shows, and give her good times at the best clubs in town, with Wally as her escort. Because the Morning Star is such a gallant paper with moral individuals running it, they want to ensure that Hazel’s last weeks on earth are pleasurable. Are you catching on to the satire here?
You may have guessed this is where Carole Lombard comes in! We are kept in suspense, waiting a full 16 minutes for Miss Lombard as Hazel Flagg, to enter the picture. Wally finally tracks Hazel down in Warsaw, Vermont after receiving no help whatsoever from the town locals who can tell he is a big city newspaper man and dislike him on sight—he is given snarky looks by women passerbys, bitten in the leg by a toddler (!), and has objects thrown at him by a group of boys as he tries to find Hazel. (More comedy gold here from March! Once again, his facials are spot on. I love the sassy face he gives back to the ladies who pass him on the street.) And don’t miss Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, deny Wally a seat in her general store, and basically spit in Wally’s face as she gives him a series of totally unhelpful “yeps” and “nopes” to all of his questions as he tries to find Hazel. More satire! No idealization of small town life or characters here, even though the film has also already shown us the underbelly and duplicity of big city folks.
So Wally finds Hazel after she receives the news from Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) that she is in fact, not dying. His mistake, OOPS! Hazel is initially so happy, she kisses the doctor, who is shaving, and comes away from the kiss with shaving cream all over her face. An excellent example of how Lombard was not afraid to make herself look less than glamorous in her films. I mean, she has only been onscreen for a few minutes, and she is already allowing herself to be seen looking less than perfect. Pretty neat!
But Hazel’s initial elation at not being sick and dying is quickly replaced by even greater sadness at the news: she realizes that she will probably be stuck in Warsaw forever, and that realization really brings on the tears. She is sobbing uncontrollably when she runs into Wally outside the doctor’s office. Wally, understandably, presumes Hazel’s tears are because she is sad she is dying. And so he makes her the offer from the Morning Star for the glamorous trip to New York. After a brief moment of moral dilemma, Hazel can’t help but accept the offer, despite the lie she allows to go on by accepting—that she is not actually dying, or even sick! She so wants to get out of Warsaw, she decides the lie is worth it, and agrees to the trip on the condition that she can bring Dr. Enoch with her.
Director William Wellman has a really cool shot here! Wellman, the first director to win a Best Picture Oscar (for Wings) at the first ever Academy Awards ceremony, was constantly innovating in his films. In Nothing Sacred, he pioneered a few film techniques, such as montage and screen rear projection. In this scene, where Wally is trying to convince Hazel to come back to New York with him, Wellman has the two actors’ faces covered by a tree branch. So we can see their bodies and hear their voices, but their faces are covered by this massive tree branch! It is such a tease! And a really cool technique because, in real life, sometimes that is the way important conversations and moments go—you aren’t always standing in a perfectly framed shot. Wellman is pretty awesome.
Wellman flew for the French Foreign Legion during WWI (with a very impressive record no less), and was passionate about flying. As such, he was always looking for ways to incorporate airplanes and flying into his films. In Nothing Sacred, when Hazel, Wally, and Dr. Enoch fly from Warsaw to New York, we are treated to some amazing aerial shots from their plane of New York City in 1937. The scene goes back and forth between showing us beautiful NYC from the plane’s view, to the interior of the plane and our characters’ conversation. Talk about an innovative film technique and a gorgeous skyline!
Once in New York City, Hazel is treated to a ticker tap parade and given the key to the city—which she promptly and hilariously stuffs down her high-collared dress because she doesn’t know where else to put it. (Lombard is masterful at physical comedy!) Her story has made her a celebrity. The people of NYC are totally on board with giving Hazel all this fame and attention because it makes them feel good about themselves for feeling sorry for this beautiful, dying girl. But does anyone really care about Hazel? The butcher uses the newspaper with her story on the cover to wrap a dead fish in, and restaurants advertise that Hazel “ate here” to drum up more business. Again, more satire! From the rich to the poor, no one is safe from being poked at in this film.
Well, you probably also guessed that 1. Hazel’s act has to fall apart at some point; and 2. Wally and Hazel fall in love as he escorts her about town. One night, Wally takes Hazel to a fancy nightclub. (With Frank Fay playing Master of Ceremonies at the club. Remember him? Barbara Stanwyck’s abusive, alcoholic, first husband? He has his moments here where he is funny, but his cameo in Nothing Sacred is a great example of why Fay didn’t ever really make it in films. What do you do with a not very handsome comedian, who is more of a personality than actor, in 1930s Hollywood? The studio heads of the time sure couldn’t figure it out.) At the nightclub, it is clear that feelings have developed between Wally and Hazel. March as Wally is totally believable as a man in love. The way he looks at and talks to Hazel just oozes that he is nuts about this “dying” girl. And Hazel feels really guilty because, once she is found out, it will be assumed that Wally was in on her lie, and he will get the axe at his paper. She feels even worse because Wally informs her that he has gone to the trouble of bringing a European doctor to NYC, a specialist in radium poisoning, to take a look at her. Hazel gets drunk, and faints at the club. Which of course is taken as a sign of her illness, and becomes the cover story of all the NYC papers the next day! And does anyone look more lovely when fainting than Miss Lombard? In her beautiful blue gown, the image of her after she has fainted is sheer perfection!
To avoid being examined and exposed by the specialist, Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer (played by the hilarious Sig Ruman!!), Hazel decides she must feign suicide. Her plan is to leave a note, then go jump into the Hudson, where people will see her jump, but won’t see Dr. Enoch rescue her, at which point the two of them will run away, she will change her name, and Wally will get to keep his job. Foolproof plan, right?
Of course, Wally discovers the note and saves her, but only after they both fall in the Hudson, and, oh yeah, Wally can’t swim! So who saves who? More satire! And another great Wellman teaser shot after Hazel and Wally are safe on land, and have their first kiss hidden behind a crate on the dock. We can’t see the kiss, but we know it is happening!
Unfortunately for Hazel, she can’t avoid being examined by the specialist, and when she gets back to her hotel room, Dr. Eggelhoffer is there waiting. This is one point in Nothing Sacred where I really think the film suffers from Wellman’s penchant for getting things done fast—we don’t get to see Hazel’s exam! (Wellman was a director who preferred to get scenes in the can in one or two takes. This, among other things, led to his well earned reputation for finishing films on, or even ahead of schedule.) Lombard is so magnificent at physical comedy, and what a prime situation for physical comedy this could have been! But unfortunately, the film jumps right from Eggelhoffer in her room and Hazel dreading what is about to happen, to Eggelhoffer telling Oliver Stone at the Morning Star offices that Hazel is completely healthy, not dying, not even sick. Talk about a missed opportunity, in my book.
Stone tells Wally that Hazel is a fake, and Wally, alternately happy that Hazel is healthy and frustrated at her lie, rushes over to her hotel. Wally arrives to find Hazel faking sick in bed, and tells her he knows she has been lying about her condition the whole time. But he loves her and wants to marry her, so he has to get her showing symptoms of pneumonia before Dr. Eggelhoffer comes back for another examination, this time with a few of his colleagues. The doctors will surely expose her as a complete fraud to the world otherwise. To get her temperature up to 106, and to get her tired and frazzled and pneumonia-like, Hazel and Wally have to fight! Yes, man vs. woman in a boxing match, and—this is where the p.c. police should probably hide—man actually knocks woman out! Need I say satire again? Not even women are sacred in this film.
It is a great scene, and Lombard was actually trained by boxing champ Maxie Rosenbloom so her punches and moves would be believable. And she does great! You understand Wally’s logic in thinking that the fight is really for Hazel’s own good, but you are still rooting for Hazel to come out the victor, and smack Wally silly. But don’t worry, even though Wally knocks Hazel out first, she gets the last punch after she comes to, and successfully knocks him out! The film even treats love with humor, for it isn’t until Wally is unconscious that Hazel can tell him that she loves him.
The film ends with everybody conscious. The reputation of the Morning Star remains intact because it is decided that rather than risk scandal, the rouge that Hazel is dying will continue, and she will just vanish, leaving a note saying that she has gone off to die alone, “like an elephant.” She will remain in hiding until the fickle public (quickly) forgets about her and moves on to its next flash in the pan celebrity. (Ahem…more satire!) And in the meantime, Hazel and Wally, now married, will honeymoon in the tropics. The end!
Again, I think Fredric March does an excellent job as Wally Cook in the film. The role, basically playing straight man to Lombard’s zany Hazel—with limited actual comedy for March to deliver—was just better suited to his talents than a role like Tom in Design for Living where he is supposed to be the comical character (or a character delivering comical lines at least.) I must admit though, that when Lombard was in the scene, I still gravitated towards watching her over anyone else. She is just so charismatic! I don’t know many actors who could complete with that. One other confession, even though I think March does an excellent job in the film, I also can’t help but think what a great role this would have been for Clark Gable. And how fun would that have been, seeing Lombard and Gable together in a film at the height of their celebrated romance???!!!!!!!! OH MY GOSH, can you imagine?
There is so much more I would love to write! About how Nothing Sacred was the first screwball comedy shot in Technicolor, and a pioneering film of the then new, three strip color process, or how David Selznick spend $1.3 million on the production of the film, basically assuring that it would lose money despite its popularity at the box office. But this post is already crazy long, I need to wrap it up!
Did any of you catch Nothing Sacred? Did you enjoy it? What satirical touches stood out to you? What did you think of Fredric March’s performance?
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