Nothing Sacred (1937)

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…

 

 

 

 

+++ Wally Cook is a New York journalist. In fact, he is a highly effective journalist, providing his paper, The Morning Star, with lots of scoops as well as sales-increasing feel-good stories and tear-jerkers. But after a big screw-up on his part he is in the dog-house – that is, he is forced to write obituaries at a dark and tiny desk in the paper’s archive room. But he soon sees an opportunity to shine again: a young woman in rural Vermont is dying of Radium poisoning; not unusual in her small home-town, because of the factory that is located there. When Cook arrives there, no-one is willing to talk to him. The factory, it turns out, owns everything and everyone in the town, and no-one is going to help him publicise this story. +++

So there would be a story to be told here, about local corruption, about environmental and health issues, and about other people who apparently have suffered from Radium poisoning to a lesser or larger degree over the years. But the film is not interested in telling that story. And neither is Cook.

+++ Cook has a very specific goal in mind: he wants to find the girl, take her to New York to present her to the public and the high society, and write continuous articles about this young, blond, innocent country girl living out her last few days and bravely facing her imminent death.

The girl in question, Hazel Flagg (played by Carole Lombard), has problems of her own, understandably. She has been told she has not long to live, and she is planning to sell all her belongings and spending what little money she has on a trip to New York to see the big, big world outside of her small hometown before she dies. So Cook’s offer is a godsend, as it is exactly what she had been planning anyway, just on a bigger, more luxurious, all-expenses-paid scale – in exchange for being paraded around like a “freak” at a carnival, that is. But in spite of the fact that Hazel’s and Cook’s intentions seem to match so nicely, there is a little snag…. +++

 

 

Nothing Sacred was directed by William A. Wellman, and the screenplay was written by Ben Hecht (based on the short story “Letter to the Editor” by James H. Street).

This film is a romantic comedy, but it is definitely an odd one. The female character is flawed, which is not that unusual if you look at films like The Rage of Paris or False Pretenses. And the male character is also flawed, which is certainly not that unusual either. But the male character is also rather unlikeable. Not completely unlikeable, but definitely enough so that it is difficult to root for him; and with Fredric March having to embody such a cynical, shallow, misanthropic character, it becomes difficult for him to carry the film as his character does not elicit enough sympathy.

The problem with the flawed and unlikeable characters in this film stems from the film’s core intention. The film wants to shed a light on journalism. Now, there are plenty of classic comedies that criticise the press for snooping around, for making stuff up, for exploiting victims of disasters or crimes, and for sensationalising things. But this film is slightly more ambitious, slightly more cynical, and slightly more mature: it does not simply criticise the newspapers, it criticises the readers as well since they have to share the blame (as the film specifically states at one point). The readers buy this stuff, so they provide the demand for this product and the associated behaviour. The film goes even further and criticises society in its entirety of providing the background and environment for this exploitative interest and phoney concern; and it even seems to suggest that people want to be lied to, because a good story is just so much better than reality.

 

Throughout the story there are many people who are willing to entertain Hazel Flagg, wine and dine her, and praise her for her bravery. But none of them are actually really concerned for her. After all, they do not even know her. Whether they are journalists who are hoping to save their jobs, newspaper editors who hope to increase sales, politicians who hope the public sympathy will rub off on them, night club owners who hope for publicity, or everyday people whose “sympathy” helps them to feel good about themselves – all of them are phoneys. Everyone in this film is a fake, or a phoney, or a liar. And the blame goes to every facet of society. This has not even to be done by action or dialogue. There is a scene at the night club where you can see, in passing, an old man with a girl that is much too young, and likewise an elderly woman with a young gigolo at her side. The film does not comment on these gold diggers or give them any room in the scene – they are merely there to further illustrate what the film is trying to tell you: fakes, phoneys and liars can be found everywhere, all the time. Of course New York is one of those places where these phoneys will chiefly congregate, hence the setting of the story and hence the opening text of the film which I have quoted at the top of this review. But I doubt that the film intends to limit the problem to New York as it clearly sets out to show that the problem is all-pervading.

 

 

Now, if you take the film’s outlook on journalists, on society, and on humankind as a whole, it is not hard to see how you would end up with a cast of characters who are unlikeable. It is perhaps an apt omen that this film, which is littered with unlikeable characters, offers a cameo to Frank Fay, the most unlikeable man in show business. Thankfully, amongst the main characters only two are truly unlikeable. One is the editor of The Morning Star who has lost his ethical compass decades ago. The other is Cook – as mentioned above – but he is more on the cynical, miserable, and grumpy side; and that is partially because (unlike his boss) he is still suffering from the remnants of a conscience.

In many types of comedy it would not matter if some or all of your characters are unlikeable. But if your male lead in a romantic comedy is unlikeable, that is a problem that the film is never going to be able to shake off.

Accordingly, Fredric March never looks as comfortable in his role as Carole Lombard does in hers, and she is able to achieve a much better performance. Comic relief is provided by Walter Connelly as Cook’s boss, and Charles Winninger as Hazel’s Vermont doctor. But Winniger’s character, which had several facets at his introduction, is very soon reduced to a character whose fondness for alcohol is his sole source of comedy.

 

Small roles are going to former boxer Maxie Rosenbloom, who displays very nice timing in his performance and The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, as a Vermont drugstore manager.

 

The black characters in the film are painfully stereotypical caricatures; actually, there is only one black character, as Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) has only a one-line, two-second cameo, accompanied by a bunch of child extras. It is Troy Brown Sr. who has the only substantial black role, and the stereotypes applied to him (chiefly suggesting that shoeshiner or janitor are the commonly and justly expected occupations for black people) are in part justified by the plot, because Brown’s character’s humble origins serve to highlight the level of success he achieved with his confidence scheme (duping several high-ranking people into believing he was a rich foreign potentate).

Another historically interesting aspect is an extending scene depicting physical violence between Hazel and Cook. I think a scene such as this could have fallen foul of the Hays Code; but the specific circumstances in the story – the “fight” is not intended to inflict pain, but serves an entirely different purpose – probably allowed it to pass. It reminded me of The Philadelphia Story, where the full extent of the physical altercation between the main characters merely climaxes in Grant’s character pushing over Hepburn’s character in an almost gentle manner, as if that was the maximum the filmmakers felt they could get away with.

 

 

Nothing Sacred was not some cheap B-movie. Produced by Selznick International and distributed by United Artists, this was a 77-minute, Technicolor A-comedy that – at a budget of over 1.25 million dollars – produced a box office loss of about 400.000. The film also features somewhat elaborate opening titles that include tiny, drawn caricatures for most of the cast and crew, as well as caricaturesque plasticine figurines for the main cast.

According to imdb, the public domain versions of this film that are readily available today are not in Technicolor but re-worked in cheaper Cinecolor. But if you want to spend money, there are better re-issues available on DVD or Blu-ray.

 

 

There are a number of enjoyable aspects in this film, and the wide-ranging criticism of society is very interesting. Especially as it goes way beyond the more common criticism of journalism or the entertainment business – as I had pointed out above. But not all of this comes together to form a whole concept. Maybe they never managed to turn the short story into a working screenplay, or maybe they meddled too much with it afterwards. That there was a general problem with the writing seems likely, as writer Ben Hecht left the production, refusing to do any further re-drafting after Selznick refused to hire Hecht’s friend John Barrymore. It also does not bode well that imdb lists as many as 9 uncredited writing contributors.

More importantly, as I have pointed out above, many of the characters are unlikeable, which is especially becoming a problem in the case of the male lead. So, as a viewing experience, I cannot rate this film any higher than 5.5 out of 10.

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