Nothing Sacred (1937)
An unscrupulous reporter takes advantage of a tragic story to sell papers and manipulate the world—sound familiar? This is a common tale, but it was seldom told with such comic, satirical flair as in 1937’s Nothing Sacred.
Starring Fredric March as the reporter and Carole Lombard as the heroine of his sad story, the movie deftly layers its screwball comedy with biting cynicism. It takes aim at newspapers more desperate for profit than truth, a public more interested in sensational tragedy than reality, and individuals wiling to sidestep decency in favor of ill-gotten perks. But it’s still funny!
Nothing Sacred was written by former reporter Ben Hecht after he read James Street’s short story “A Letter to the Editor” in Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan magazine. Producer David O. Selznick had asked him to come up with a comedy for Lombard, and Nothing Sacred seemed perfect.
Hecht was one of the pens behind Lombard’s breakout role in Twentieth Century (1934), and he was no stranger to the world of newspapers. In fact, he’d previously used his experience as a reporter to write The Front Page (1931), which was remade as a little movie called His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Hecht infuses Nothing Sacred with his trademark snappy, quick dialogue and screwball sensibility. (You may also recognize Hecht’s name from Notorious (1946), Spellbound (1945), The Black Swan (1942), Barbary Coast (1935), or many, many others. He was extremely prolific.)
Hecht hoped Nothing Sacred would star his friend John Barrymore, but the actor was deep in the throes of alcoholism and he’d struggled to complete his last few movies. (You can read more about that in my post on Midnight (1939).) Selznick wasn’t going to take a chance with Barrymore, so he refused to cast him.
But Hecht remained on the project even without Barrymore until Selznick asked him to craft a happy ending. He declined to sully his clever black comedy with a tacked-on, Hollywood finale, so he left the film. Selznick then called in four other screenwriters, including Dorothy Parker, to complete it. I’d love to know how Hecht wanted the movie to end!
Nothing Sacred is especially notable as an early color film, and one of the few screwball comedies in color—since that genre flourished in the 1930s, few films used the relatively new and very expensive Technicolor process. The movie features the first montage and process effects in Technicolor, and it was the first to incorporate rear screen projection (watch for it during the airplane scene). It also used footage filmed on location in New York, another rarity at the time. Nothing Sacred also holds the distinction of being Carole Lombard’s only color movie. If you’ve never seen the blonde dynamo in glorious Technicolor, this is your chance!
Opposite Lombard is Fredric March, who had just appeared in another Selznick production, A Star is Born, with Janet Gaynor. That film came out in April of 1937, with Nothing Sacred premiering a few months later in November.
Fun fact: March would receive his third Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for A Star is Born. He previously won for 1931’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and would also win for Best Years of Our Lives (1947).
Another fun fact: March would find success on Broadway, too. He won Tony Awards for his performances in Years Ago (1947) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), making him the only actor besides Helen Hayes to win two Oscars and two Tonys.
Lombard was hitting her stride in 1937, too. My Man Godfrey (1936) had been a huge success and earned her a Best Actress nomination. In 1937, she was the highest paid actor in Hollywood with a $450,000 salary, which equates to roughly $8 million today.
As usual for a Lombard movie, production was an entertaining series of practical jokes. Lombard and March drove around the backlot in a fire truck during breaks, and Lombard convinced some crew members to put director William Wellman in a straitjacket. Perhaps in exchange for that prank, Wellman personally “helped” Lombard prepare for the fight scene with March! The joy and whimsy of the production comes through onscreen and makes what could be a rather bleak story crackle with delightful screwball energy.
To the film! First, a deeply cynical warning about New York City:
And then to a prime example of these “gold bricks” and “crushed Truth:” a swanky gala hosted by The New York Morning Star newspaper in honor of the Sultan of Mazipan. The bejeweled ruler has pledged $10 for every $1 donated towards the creation of a massive arts and culture complex called the Morning Star Temple.
The only problem with this plan is that the “Sultan” is actually Ernest Walker (Troy Brown), a shoe shine man from Harlem. Reporter Wallace “Wally” Cook (Fredric March), engineered the scheme, and it was all going great until Mr. Walker’s wife (Hattie McDaniel, two years before her famous role in Gone with the Wind) found out. She shows up at the gala with their children and exposes the hoax.
The Morning Star‘s editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), is furious. He thought the sultan was real, and he now looks like a fool in front of the whole city.
So he demotes his star reporter to the Obituary desk. Bored Wally hates his new job, and desperately looks for a way out. He finds it in a small clipping about a young woman named Hazel Flagg stricken with radium poisoning who has only weeks left to live. Wally is intrigued.
The story has everything he looks for: beauty, exotic tragedy, and pathos for days. One gets the feeling Wally would have ignored the story if the poison victim had been an old woman, or a man…Wally is all about selling papers and getting his name out there, morals and ethics be damned! It reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, who famously wrote that “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world…”
Anyway, Wally pitches the idea to Oliver, who reluctantly allows him to go to Warsaw, Vermont to talk to Hazel.
Wally arrives and finds out that Warsaw is a horrible small town with even smaller-minded people, which is an interesting choice for the movie. The film has already assured the audience that New York is nasty and morally bankrupt, so it could have positioned Warsaw as its opposite: a small town full of earnest, kind, simple folks delighted to welcome a stranger.
But instead, Wally meets one cruel, rude, money-grubbing person after another, including the store owner, played by Margaret Hamilton. She was two years away from her famous role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but had already perfected some onscreen meanness.
Eventually, Wally finds Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger), who diagnosed Hazel’s radium poisoning. But Dr. Downer isn’t helpful, either, once he finds out that Wally works for the Morning Star. He is still full of rage about a Morning Star essay contest from decades ago. He thinks he should have won, and even brings out his essay to prove it. Wally’s trip seems like a waste of time. He leaves the doctor and wanders around the town.
Meanwhile, the doctor’s most famous patient, fatally poisoned Hazel (Carole Lombard), shows up for an appointment. She gets quite the shock when Dr. Downer announces (as he shaves, no need to make a production out of this news!) that she isn’t dying after all! The diagnosis was a mistake, and she is totally healthy.
Hazel is happy, of course, but also a little bummed. She was really looking forward to a trip to New York City, which was to be her last chance to get out of Warsaw. She knows that Warsaw is a terrible town, and she was excited to leave it before she died. As she tells the doctor, “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”
That’s why she’s crying as she leaves the doctor’s office, but Wally assumes she’s sniffly because of her impending doom. He tells her that his paper would love to bring her to New York. She excitedly explains that she’s always wanted to visit the city: “My grandmother took me there when I was three, but I didn’t appreciate it.” That is probably my favorite line in the movie.
She wants to go so badly that she neglects to tell him she is “cured.” She also makes Wally promise not to hire a bunch of doctors and scientists to examine her. She tells him that since radium poisoning is always fatal, why bother with doctors? She’ll bring Dr. Downer along as her medical attendant, and otherwise she just wants to have a terrific time (but of course this is a clever way to prolong the fake poisoning). You can watch the scene here.
Off they go! And now we see why Warsaw was set up to be such a terrible place. Hazel needed a reason to escape once the radium poisoning excuse dropped away, and Wally needed extra motivation to get her to New York.
The Morning Star essay contest also comes into play for the doctor. He seems like a fairly honorable man, but his lingering anger over the contest gives him a reason to go along with Hazel’s plan. By pretending she is still poisoned, he can put one over on the paper that failed to recognize his genius!
Isn’t it wild to see them flying right over New York City? The Statue of Liberty seen in the window is an example of the aforementioned rear projection. Fun fact: the review of Nothing Sacred in Motion Picture Reviews magazine stated that “Technicolor is an advantage in adding to the fantasy, and the shots of the New York skyline as seen from an airplane are strikingly beautiful.” The Los Angeles Times‘ review also praised this scene, noting that the film “reveals the Manhattan skyline as breathlessly beautiful.” To us the images might look fake or mundane, but this was a big deal at the time!
When they arrive, Hazel is feted as a tragic heroine. She is embraced by the city and gives them something to celebrate and to weep over.
She gets a key to the city, becomes an advertising bonanza, and at a wrestling match (which must have been the height of sophistication at the time because even Nick and Nora Charles go to one in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)), they hold ten seconds of silence for her.
The movie mocks this as it happens, with Hazel-inspired poetry producing a particularly cutting moment. Hazel is terribly bored by the process, and the poem is later used to wrap the day’s catch!
You can watch the scene here. At first, Hazel enjoys the attention, but soon she and Wally both feel sick about it. She feels gross because she knows she’s lying to everyone, and he feels gross because he has grown to truly care for Hazel, and he hates that he is using her tragedy for a “bonus and a byline.” He tells her, “Stop looking so happy and gallant, will you? It breaks my heart.”
At “Hazel Flagg Night” at a popular nightclub, it all bubbles to the surface.
Hazel has grown tired of being such a downer. Everywhere she goes, people start crying. And Wally is disgusted watching the city cry false tears for her. The movie really slams the world’s voyeuristic sympathy and seeming enjoyment of a tragic situation.
Notice all the flowers placed in the foreground? This movie is packed with foregrounded objects like that. For example, early on in the movie, Hazel and Wally have a long conversation while standing behind a tree, and at the end of the film, some action occurs with a pole and some drapery placed between the camera and the actors. Watch for it. One could read it as visually representing the characters “hiding their lies” behind things, I guess? It’s a showy technique because it’s hard to maintain focus with stuff in the way, but mostly it just distracts. The tree scene is especially strange.
Anyway, Wally and Hazel drink way too much to manage their complicated emotions. After a show featuring burlesque versions of Catherine the Great, Lady Godiva, Pocahontas, and the Dutch girl who put her finger in the dike to save her town, Hazel is called to the stage to join these famous heroines.
The champagne, lights, and emotional stress combine to send Hazel into a faint. The room thinks she has died, of course, but it doesn’t stop an annoying photographer (who is often snooping around Hazel) from snapping an Ophelia-esque picture.
Oliver can’t help himself, either. As Dr. Downer tends to Hazel, Oliver tells him: “Doctor, I want to know the worst. I don’t want you to spare our feelings. We go to press in 15 minutes!” Hazel is still a story, not a person. You can watch the scene here.
How pretty is her Travis Banton-designed gown and cape?
Banton did most of Lombard’s costumes. She was powerful enough that she could request him no matter what studio was producing the movie. In many of her films, he only designed her costumes and the studio’s resident designer, Walter Plunkett in this case, did the others.
The next day, Hazel recovers from a nasty hangover and some intense guilt over her hoax. She doesn’t care about New York, but worries that she has ruined Wally’s career. With his history, everyone will think he orchestrated this fraud, too. Who would believe he truly thought she was dying?
In positive news, Hazel has turned Wally from the most cynical of the bunch into a kinder person. He really does love her. He even thinks she is worthy of a presidential appearance at the funeral he is helping to organize!
Was fishing President Roosevelt’s golf?
Wally also admits that he has sent for the world’s expert in radium poisoning to examine Hazel, just in case there is any chance of a miracle. Hazel knows she has gotten in too deep. Her original plan was to quietly return to Warsaw after a few days in New York and be forgotten, but she’s too famous for that now. So, to save Wally’s career, she decides to fake a suicide and disappear.
As she is formulating this plan, a children’s choir sings a song written especially for her. To cut through this tragic sweetness, we watch as a squirrel climbs out of one of the kid’s pockets and finds its way into Hazel’s bed. Gross! It’s the film in microcosm: a cynical, fairly serious moment dealing with intense themes while a healthy dose of screwball runs right alongside it.
Once the squirrel situation is cleared up, Hazel writes a suicide note thanking New York for a wonderful time and explaining that she wanted to end her life on her own terms by jumping into the river. Then she heads out.
Rather than just put on a disguise and get on a bus heading out of town (which makes more sense, right?), she actually goes to the river. The doctor waits nearby in a rowboat and she plans to jump in, swim to him, and then both will disappear.
But Ernest Walker, the “sultan” and shoe shine man, accidentally spoils the plot. He breaks into Hazel’s hotel room to steal some of the flowers littering the suite (there is a funny sequence when he calls his wife, asks her what kind of flowers she likes, and reassures her that they are all the same price–ha!). He finds the suicide note and calls Oliver, who alerts the authorities. Soon, the river is teeming with fire fighters and policemen searching for Hazel.
Wally finds her first, and after some screwball madness that sees both of them fall in the river, they confess their love. Wally proposes, Hazel accepts, and they ride back home on a fire engine.
But Hazel’s good mood evaporates when she returns to a suite full of doctors and scientists ready to examine her.
Cut to Oliver’s office at the Morning Star. The doctors have just delivered their verdict on famous Miss Flagg. Oliver is shocked to learn that she is healthy without a trace of radium poisoning. He is also furious with Wally, who he assumes was in on the hoax. But Wally doesn’t care. He is overjoyed to learn that Hazel tricked them because it means his beloved isn’t about to die!
Wally’s reaction is a big deal and shows that he really does love Hazel. The unscrupulous reporter from the beginning of the movie would have been upset and humiliated. But instead he is just thrilled that Hazel is healthy.
Or is she…? Oliver sends henchmen to the hotel to bring Hazel to him, but they inform him that she is deathly ill with pneumonia following her dunk in the river. Wally rushes to her side.
But she’s not really sick. She is pretending so that she can somehow evade the radium poisoning con. It doesn’t make sense. Wally figures it out immediately and decides to help her fool the doctors. Why? How would this help them? Not sure.
To raise her heart rate and temperature, Wally tells her to fight him. Why they couldn’t just run around the room or do jumping jacks or something is beyond me. But it makes for a more explosive scene, I guess. Eventually, Wally hits Hazel on the jaw and knocks her out. Maybe it was funny in 1937, but Wally punching Hazel is difficult to watch, and certainly not very funny today.
You can watch the scene here. If you’ve seen any ads or posters for this movie, you’ll realize that this scene was the scene in the film. It’s a relatively short, unimportant moment, but boy did they promote it.
This pneumonia ruse might have worked, but Oliver saw the whole fight from the corner of the room. So Hazel got punched for no reason! When she wakes up, she punches Wally in retaliation, so now both of them have sore jaws.
Now that the fight nonsense is out of the way, they can get down to business. Oliver has a vested interest in keeping the hoax quiet so as not to embarrass the paper yet again. And a group of “prominent citizens” of New York would also prefer that the truth remains hidden. Hazel’s tragedy has united the city in some positive ways, and they fear that if the lie gets out it would be too scandalous and embarrassing. So everyone works together to help Hazel and Wally escape while pretending Hazel left New York to die in peace.
Cut to a radiogram (read more about that here) from Oliver to newlyweds Wally and Hazel, onboard a ship somewhere, describing Hazel’s “funeral” as a “great success.” Happy endings all around! They get their romance, the Morning Star gets a great story, and New York gets its juicy tragedy.
This film was in production June 12 to early August 1937 and premiered shortly thereafter on November 25. Carole Lombard later said that Nothing Sacred was one of her favorite films, and critics were generally positive, too. The New York Times called it “one of the most entertaining” of the season, and Screenland agreed, writing that it was also one of the “most provocative pictures to be seen these days.” The review added that the comedy is “unselfconsciously ribald and unconventionally robust” and even stands up to repeat viewings.
Motion Picture Reviews magazine called the movie “sophisticated fare, clever in its burlesque, witty in its lines, and challenging in its satire.” And though the main “idea may possibly offend the sensitive…it is handled in a way which brings spontaneous laughter.”
The Los Angeles Times agreed, noting that “While the bereaved or the hypersensitive may recoil a little from such a basis for laughs, others will recognize that humor may be macabre, or semi macabre, and still be funny. What is important is that Nothing Sacred has a viewpoint; it is saying something even while it giggles.”
The review continued its praise, calling the acting “top notch, as, indeed, are all contributions,” and describing it as “one of the few adult comedies of the season and certainly one of the slickest.”
Variety advised its readers to “score another hit for David O. Selznick and leave plenty of room on the play dating calendar for the latest he’s sending along…Nothing Sacred is one of the top comedies of the season, a compact laugh show…”
The review complimented the Technicolor and assured the viewer that “The prismatic features of Sacred are pleasing to the eye, not unrestful and not disturbing.” It went on to praise Lombard and March, Hecht’s script, Banton’s costumes, and almost everything else in the film: “The comedy is as cleverly produced as it’s written and acted, while for added value there is tinting by Technicolor which greatly enhances its pictorial charm.”
But despite all this, Nothing Sacred lost money at the box office!
Nearly two decades after its release, Nothing Sacred was turned into a Broadway musical called Hazel Flagg in 1953. A year later, Paramount adapted it to the screen as Living It Up starring Jerry Lewis in the Lombard role, Janet Leigh as the reporter, and Dean Martin as the doctor in a role that was beefed up considerably.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! The copyright on this movie wasn’t renewed when it came up in 1965, so you can watch it for free online in several places. I recommend The Film Detective’s streaming version, but you can also buy the movie here.