Nothing Sacred (1937) William Wellman

I always thought “His Girl Friday” was one of the most acidic screwball comedies to ever hit the screen until I watched “Nothing Sacred.” The cup runneth over in this sharply written film and it isn’t with love. For this you can thank Ben Hecht who co-wrote the original source material for the prior film, the Broadway hit, “The Front Page” and was the only credited writer for the latter (Producer David O’Selznick handed Hecht’s script over to George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker and Ring Lardner Jr. among others. Despite all these other hands in the pot, Hecht’s sour look remained intact). Hecht may be more the auteur of these two films than either of the two directors. Both are driven by aggressive, cynical newspaper reporters who will exploit and outright lie to sell newspapers and make a buck for themselves. If anything stops “Nothing Sacred” from being a full blown masterpiece of prickly comedy, it has to do with two components. The first, the part of Wally Cook, the cynical newspaper reporter screams out for Cary Grant. Instead, here we have Fredric March. Now, it’s not that March is bad, he’s not. He just seems like he is wound up a little bit too tight for the role. He cannot let himself let loose like Grant would have. The second factor is the treatment of the film’s black characters which I will get into in more detail a little further on.

For Ben Hecht, it not just the newspaper reporters who are nasty, evil and corrupt, it’s the entire cast! Carol Lombard’s Hazel Flagg is an unscrupulous liar willing to carry on a charade just so she can get out of her hick New England town and visit New York City. The folks from Warsaw Vermont, Hazel’s small hometown are monosyllable, unwelcoming and suspicious of outsiders. Even the kids are nasty; one youngster (Billy Barty) bites Wally on his leg while others pelt him with stones after he arrives in town inquiring about the unfortunate Hazel Flagg.

I should talk a little about the plot before going any further. As I said, Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a small town girl from Warsaw, Vermont, where people don’t take kindly to strangers, especially slick New York City newspaper reporters. Factory worker Hazel was misdiagnosed by her doctor (Charles Winninger) who informed her she was going to die due to exposure from radiation poisoning at the factory. Her fellow co-workers collected $200 dollars to send Hazel on her dream trip to see New York before she dies. However, just before she is about to leave, she receives even worst news from her doctor. You see, he made a mistake, she’s going to live! Upset, she cries out “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice…and both times in Warsaw!”

Meanwhile at New York’s Morning Star newspaper, ace reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) is in the dog house with his editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connelly) due to a fraudulent scam he unknowingly became involved in. During a banquet to honor the “Sultan of Mazipan” (Troy Brown Jr.), who pledged to donate money to finance a new museum in union with the newspaper, the “Sultan” is exposed as a phony. Right in the middle of Stone’s speech in walks the Sultan’s” wife, a housewife (Hattie McDaniels) and their young children, along with a policeman.  “That my husband,” she screams out.  Wally is regulated to writing the Obituary column.

Anxious to get back to his regular beat he pitches Stone a story about Hazel Flagg, the Vermont woman dying of radiation poisoning. Stone, against his better judgment, but a Cougar when it comes to getting a big story that will sell, gives Wally his reluctant okay and Wally is off to Vermont to find the unfortunate Hazel Flagg, who as far as everyone knows, other than Hazel and her Doctor, is still dying.

Stone soon flies Hazel off to New York and the City welcomes her with open sympathetic arms. She quickly becomes a celebrity, the kind of celebrity we are infested with these days, those who are famous for being famous…Kardashian famous. The key to the city is hers, a parade is held in her honor, a wrestling match is stopped right in the middle of the bout when it is realized Hazel’s in the audience. The ring announcer request for ten seconds of silence for poor Hazel before the match continues. Hazel and Wally fall in love of course and her scam comes to light, at least to Wally, Stone and a few others. In the end, and I won’t tell you how, the couple manage to get out of this mess and in the old Hollywood tradition sail off happily ever after.

Directed by the idiosyncratic William “Wild Bill” Wellman, “Nothing Sacred” is a wicked delight filled with devious people who are only interested in furthering their own ambitions. Hazel knew she was not dying yet wanted to get out of Warsaw and go to New York so bad she was willing to carry on with the dying charade until she finally is exposed. Wally is nothing more than a greedy self-centered reporter looking for the story that will put him back on top even if it means exploiting a dying woman. You might say, well he has given the public what they want, a sad story to weep over. He turns Hazel into a celebrity for no other reason than make money off a dying woman.

In 1953, a Broadway musical version of the film was made with music and lyrics by Jules Styne and Bob Hilliard. The musical was a minor success running for 190 performances. Paramount acquired the rights and in 1954 released it as a vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, called “Living it Up.” The premise was the same, only Hazel Flagg was morphed into Homer Flagg as played by Jerry Lewis, and Fredric March’s Wally Cook changed into the lovely Janet Leigh whose romantic interest is Dino who play’s Homer’s devious doctor and is in on the whole scheme. Some of the songs from the Broadway musical found their way into the film including, “How Do You Speak to An Angel” and “Every Streets a Boulevard.” Martin and Lewis fans will enjoy the film but for me, a little bit of Jerry Lewis goes a long way and in this particular case, I will stick with the original.

The cast is filled with some wonderful supporting players in bit parts like Margaret Hamilton, Billy Barty, Hedda Hopper, Monty Wooley along with the previously mentioned Hattie McDaniels. Additionally, the movie was one of the first to be filmed in Technicolor giving you some spectacular and rare scenes of the New York City skyline in color for that time.

Carole Lombard is superb and remains a rarity. Here is a beautiful woman who can be both sublime and funny at the same time. She doesn’t mind taking a sock in the jaw, or giving one, if it is for the good of the story. Fredric March, as I mentioned is not as loose as the role requires, still he does an adequate job. This brings me back to the treatment of the black characters in the film, specifically the “Sultan” who in the early part of the film is exposed as a charlatan. It turns out the “Sultan” is a shoe shiner from up in Harlem. Upon being exposed the character is reduced to a stereotypical fool begging not to be fired; he even begs for March not to lose his job. The publisher “allows” him to stay on as a janitor for which he is exaggeratedly grateful. The whole scene reeks of racism more than what even could be considered standard for the times.

That said, “Nothing Sacred,” like its counterpart, “His Girl Friday” remains a complete assault on the sugar coated world that Hollywood is generally accused of always producing. The film attacks big cities, small town Americana, adults, children exposing them all as petty, mean, frauds and con artist and way too human.

****1/2

10 comments on “Nothing Sacred (1937) William Wellman

  1. Vincent says:

    Intriguing to envision Cary Grant as Wally Cook, something that hadn’t crossed my mind before. As it turned out, 1937 was Grant’s breakout year (“Topper” with Constance Bennett, “The Awful Truth” with Irene Dunne), though at the time of casting Cary may not have been deemed quite as “box office” as Fredric. (March also had a history with David O. Selznick and Wellman, having played in “A Star Is Born” earlier in the year.) Of course, fate denied us a Cary-Carole screwball collaboration; a few years later, they might have teamed up in “His Girl Friday” had Lombard’s salary by that time been viewed as a bit too rich by Harry Cohn, who otherwise got along well with her. (She was one of the few actresses who actually had a good relationship with the Columbia mogul.)

    Hecht apparently had a bit of a racist streak about him. Supposedly, the closing scene of an earlier version of the “Nothing Sacred” script had the janitor’s stereotypical wife giving birth to multiples a la the Dionne quints. (If Preston Sturges knew about this, might it have inspired his ending to “The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek”?)

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  2. John Greco says:

    Vincent,

    Thanks for some wonderful background information on this film. While I love Roz Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Lombard would have certainly been an interesting choice for sure. I salivate at the thought of a Grant/Lombard screwball (lol). Thanks again!

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    John: I agree that Grant would have been the most ideal to negotiate this material, even if March’s presence did not detract in any sense. Oddly, a number of people have thought this film dated, and it’s reputation now is somewhat lower than deserved. I quite agree that like HIS GIRL FRIDAY the film is a no-holds-barred condemnation of the sacharine lements we come to associate with Hollywood. Ben Hecht’s work here is truly magnificent, as is your stellar essay!

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      I do find it odd that the film would be considered dated today. In fact, if you look at it as an attack on the media’s false buildup of giving everyone their 15 minutes of fame, it is quite relevant. On top of that it is just damn funny with a wonderful performance by Carole Lombard.

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  4. Judy says:

    Great piece, John, and some fascinating background from both you and Vincent. I must admit this isn’t one of my favourite 1930s Wellman movies, partly because of that janitor opening and also because I find some of the humour gets a bit wearing at times (the boxing match). But the Ben Hecht script is very sharp all the same, as you say, and it is really true that nothing is sacred here, with the country, the city, the newspapers and the public all coming in for their share of scorn. Must also agree that Lombard is wonderful in this.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Judy!

      The “fight” between ” Lombard and March is definitely something that is on the tasteless side today as is how the Black characters are written. The more you watch these films the more sensitive you become to how things have changed. I see it as another aspect on how these films teach us on the changing behavior of our society, in these two cases for the better.

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  5. […] Nothing Sacred, a film I wrote about here recently and which John Greco has just written a great review of at his blog.) But it does seem to be a Depression-era theme that had a particular appeal for Capra, an idea […]

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  6. Vincent says:

    This is as good a place as any to announce the first-ever Carole Lombard blogathon — and you’re invited. From Oct. 6 to 9, “Carole & Co.” will sponsor “Carole-tennial(+3)!” named for the 103rd anniversary of Lombard’s birth. You can learn more about it (along with banners you can borrow) at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/427564.html.

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