Nothing Sacred; (1937), Dir: William Wellman

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Nothing Sacred has themes very familiar to present-day audiences, with its spoofing of celebrity culture and ridiculous fame-hungry journalists who participate in “human interest” stories, sometimes at the expense of truth, good taste, or logic. From 1937, starring the blonde goofball extraordinaire Carole Lombard and a grumpy cynical Fredric March (he’s one of my favorites), Nothing Sacred tells the wacko story of a girl named Hazel Flagg (Lombard) from a small town in Vermont, who apparently is slowly being poisoned by “radion”. Her bones are disintegrating. It is tragic, apparently. Except that she isn’t really being poisoned by “radion” at all. It was some snafu on the part of her quack of a doctor who is a little bit too fond of the bottle. The doctor, played hilariously by Charles Winninger, is named “Enoch Downer”. Hysterical.

The movie opens with a glittering gala dinner, hosted by the big New York City paper The Morning Star, honoring a “sultan” who is going to donate all of his Arabian millions to building a new complex of schools and auditoriums and libraries, all emblazoned with the name “The Morning Star”. The “sultan” sits at the main table, swathed in robes and a turban, and he makes some bogus speech about how glorious it all is – before he is unmasked by his long-suffering wife and many children, who walk into the gala dinner, accompanied by a police officer, and the wife points him out, “That’s my husband.” So the sultan is a swindler. He’s actually a shoe-shine man in Harlem. The Morning Star has been duped, and their top reporter, Fredric March, was the one who bought his story, hook line and sinker. It is a horrible embarrassment. To be taken in by such a hoax! Uhm, Jessica Lynch, anyone? There is nothing dated about any of this.

Fredric March, as punishment for the embarrassment of being taken in, is relegated to the obituary section of the paper, and we see him struggling to type out the obituaries, hemmed in by filing cabinets and water coolers and workmen hovering directly over him on ladders. It is a fall from grace. (Fredric March looks like a young Gene Kelly – anyone else notice that?) March is a newspaperman, cynical and jaded, but he’s also (until the sultan debacle) very good at what he does. His reputation has been golden, and he takes a lot of pride in his work. He sees a buried story in the newspaper, about a girl dying of “radion poisoning” in Vermont, and wonders why the paper isn’t covering it more prominently. Wouldn’t this be a good human interest tale? Doesn’t such a story have all the earmarks of a slamdunk?

Nothing Sacred is, make no mistake, a screwball comedy, and there were times when I found myself laughing out loud, and had to pause the movie to get it all out. But on a deeper level, it’s an indictment, in a way, of the kind of journalism that uses up people – that makes heroes out of people whose only “gift” is that they suffer – and then, just as quickly – drop them like hot potatoes when the novelty has worn off. Fredric March fully participates in that part of his profession. It is his bread and butter. He hears about this suffering girl, sees her picture in the paper, sees how pretty she is, and wheels start spinning in his head. Couldn’t he turn her into some kind of symbol? Of perseverence, of goodness, of dignity while suffering? It’s contemptible, his profession, but he’s so engrossed in it he doesn’t know it. He decides to try to use her to save his own flagging career.

He takes a trip up to Vermont to track down Miss Flagg. It’s a small town, uppity and judgmental. The second person he meets is Margaret Hamilton, sitting in a general store, rocking in a rocking chair, knitting, and not giving him the time of day. Everyone can tell that he’s not “from ’round these parts”, and the second he starts asking about where he can find Hazel Flagg they know he’s a newspaperman, and nobody wants anything to do with him. Finally, we meet Miss Flagg, the radiant and spectacularly gorgeous Carole Lombard (she, like Marilyn Monroe, would look fantastic in a potato sack), who manages to make every single thing she does funny. Without ever mugging or seeming to reach for it. Her sensibility is inherently funny. As Mitchell wrote: “gorgeous and goofy – a killer combo”. Indeed.

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Judging from the stories of those who knew her, she was just as funny in person. Howard Hawks describes watching her, an up-and-coming starlet, at a party after “she had a few drinks in her”, and he watched how hilarious she was, how free and goofy – one of the boys, swore like a truck-driver – yet looked like THAT. He never forgot it, and came to her when he had a project ready for her (Twentieth Century). A tragically short career, although who knows what would have happened to such goofiness at that time, when women were so much relegated to the sidelines after their heyday of youth. Meryl Streep’s career now would be more appropriate to someone like Lombard, who just would have gotten better and more interesting as an old dame … but sadly, that was not in the cards. First of all, because of how the industry was set up then – who knows how she would have survived the 50s, where would she fit in there? – but also because she died so young.

What a shame.

She had it all.

She sits in the doctor’s office, weeping about how she is being poisoned, and she manages to make the entire thing hilarious. She is funniest when she cries (I am thinking now of the brilliant “Carlo turns into a gorilla” scene in My Man Godfrey – which is funny because of all the shenanigans of Carlo, of course, and the shrieking laughter of her grotesque mother, but it’s also funny because the crazier Carlo gets, the harder she cries).

Her doctor informs her that no, she is not dying. Lombard’s response is classic screwball. She had been let go of her job at the factory due to her illness, and they were going to give her a big severance. She was going to use that severance to take a trip to New York City, see all the sights, live it up, and then be able to die happy. So now that she was going to live, all of this is a tragedy. Will she not get to go to New York now? Can her doctor please NOT inform the factory that she is NOT ill, so that she can still get her severance? “I know it’s not ethical …” she sobs. Uhm, no, it’s NOT. Into the middle of this strolls Fredric March, wanting to interview her about her impending death, and also (drumroll) fly her to New York, to show her the sights, and introduce her around. “New York will love you!” he tells her, his ulterior motive all over him. She’s his ticket to journalistic fame and redemption!

Everyone’s got an angle in Nothing Sacred (which you can tell just from the title of the picture). Lombard wants to get to New York, and is willing to pretend she is still dying in order for that to happen. March wants to make his name as a journalist and redeem himself from the sultan hoax, so he offers Lombard the moon, talking about how much hope she will give to others. And Hazel’s doctor, the always slightly drunk Enoch Downer, has been holding a grudge against The Morning Star for twenty years, because he didn’t win the contest sponsored by the newspaper to a reader writing in on “The 5 Greatest Americans”. He is looking for any way he can to finally stick it to The Star, who rejected his brilliant work. He decides to keep up the farce, that Hazel Flagg is dying, so that he can keep the fancy-pantsy newspaperman in thrall, until finally – the hoax will be revealed, to the ruination of all. Enoch Downer will get his revenge.

The three schemers all set off to New York. Once there Fredric March goes to work, writing piece after piece about the bravery of poor miss Hazel Flagg, and Hazel Flagg finds herself a celebrity. She goes everywhere, sees everyone. Wellman does a very funny montage sequence, where you can see the effect Hazel Flagg’s presence has had on New York. A chalkboard outside a restaurant that would normally announce the specials now reads: “HAZEL FLAGG DINED HERE TODAY”. There’s a shot of a tousled man in a study, hovering over a pad of paper, and then you see the newspaper headline: “GREAT POET FINDS INSPIRATION FOR HIS BEST POEM IN THE STORY OF HAZEL FLAGG”. You see her name on billboards at nightclubs, saying they welcomed her to the show that night. She goes to a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden and the referee stops the entire match to ask for “10 seconds of silence” for Hazel Flagg. The two sweaty wrestlers let go of each other, and stand there obediently, heads bowed. Then there’s a funny footnote to the montage, where a newspaper, showing yet another front-page story about Hazel Flagg, is used to wrap up a stinky dead fish at the Fulton Fish Market, and a plump grumpy hausfrau, completely uninterested in the story, grabs the wrapped-up fish and walks off. So down on the ground life goes on. But up in the glittering elite world, Hazel Flagg becomes a hero. She makes everyone feel good about themselves. They get to be charitable, humane, they get to show how much they FEEL things (women breaking into sobs during a random speech that mention Hazel Flagg’s name), how much compassion they have, how selfless, how open-hearted … It’s all a big display, meaningless at the center of it, but quite compelling on the surface. If you weren’t cynical, you might be fooled.

Hazel Flagg, at first, is swept away by it all, by her newfound celebrity. She loves being loved, it’s amazing to her that people want to take her picture, that she shows up at a play and the director comes out before the curtain rises to welcome their “very special guest”. But slowly, the bloom wears off the rose. Her deception begins to eat away at her. She feels awful. All of these people, weeping over how sick she is, how brave, are all being fooled. What will they think of her when they find out? How will she get out of it? Should she fake her own death and then just disappear? She can’t live with it.

There is a very funny scene in a nightclub, where, of course, she is welcomed, by name, before the show begins. The speech given about her is maudlin, over-emotional, and pathetic. How wonderful it is to give the poor dying girl a few laughs before she slips off this mortal coil. How magnanimous we all are! A waiter comes over to the nightclub table to refill Hazel’s drink, and, as he pours the drink, you see that he, too, is in tears. He slowly pours her drink, sniffling above her. Lombard is so over it. She wanted to come to New York to have a good time. But everyone is so sad at just the sight of her, it has all become too morose. Not to mention the fact that she is healthy as a horse, and not dying at all. The concern of the masses is unbearable to her because it is all based on a lie.

Things grow more complex when it becomes apparent that Fredric March, against his journalistic creed, is falling in love with her. And she with him. He believes he is falling in love with a pretty woman who doesn’t have much time left. She knows she is falling in love with a man who doesn’t know the truth about her.

Oh, what will she do??

Lombard begins to disintegrate emotionally. I guffawed watching it. She gets very drunk at a nightclub show one night, hiccuping, and smiling giddily (and emptily) at the crowds who adore her. She lies in bed with her hangover, sipping on raw eggs, ice pack on her head, and I just want to hug her, she’s so funny. She’s devastated. She wants to come clean. But her “downer” of a doctor insists she keep up the charade, so that he can get even with the paper that so humiliated him many years before.

Fredric March, more in love every day, decides to call in a Viennese specialist on “radion poisoning” so that she can get a second opinion. Carole Lombard’s face when she hears that … there’s so much going on there, and it all battles it out on her beautiful face. Shouldn’t she, if she were really near death, be grateful for such a gesture? But all you can see is the flickering trapped panic of a woman who knows that the second that specialist takes a look at her he will realize that she isn’t sick at all.

There’s a scene where she and Fredric March get into a fist fight in her room. Yes, an actual fist fight. She flails at him wildly, missing him at every turn. This is all done in one take. The glory of the movies back then, which didn’t rely too much on closeup or quick cuts. We get to see these two actors basically dance around one another, fighting, pushing, ducking, weaving … Carole Lombard is in a silky negligee which makes it even funnier. Finally, he does punch her, right on the jaw. (He has ulterior motives, of course, which I won’t get into – avoiding spoilers). After his fist lands on her face, she stands there, unmoving, head thrown back, stunned by the blow. You can see him staring at her, quizzically, waiting. Carole Lombard’s mouth is moving. Nonsense words. Brilliant physical comedy. Finally, he gives her a gentle tap, and she falls back on the bed, straight as a board. I had to watch it three times in a row.

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She’s so easy with herself, her talent just FLOWS out of her. Nothing worse than someone trying to be funny. She never has to try. She stands there with tears glimmering in her eyes, flickers of guilt and shame going across her face, and it is automatically funny. Lombard was a genius that way.

I won’t give away the ending of Nothing Sacred, but I will say that it has a symmetry to it that is so satisfying. Lombard and March are so great together, wonderful sparring partners, and the goofball atmosphere of the entire picture makes it a comedic treasure trove. Every single person who enters, no matter how small a part, is in some way, off their rocker. Lombard tries, desperately, to have SOME sort of moral compass, but the attraction of the big city life is too much for her, and she gets sucked into her own deception with far more completeness than she could have ever dreamed. How will it work out? How will she get out of it?

The fun of Carole Lombard is to watch her deal with a big fat mess. She’s best when she is navigating chaos, most of which is of her own making. She shines when everything is out of her control. It suited her manic humor, her highly-tuned sense of the absurd.

Nothing Sacred is fun from beginning to end.

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8 Responses to Nothing Sacred; (1937), Dir: William Wellman

  1. mitchell says:

    perfect! i wish we had watched it together…im so pleased u loved it!

  2. red says:

    Fredric March is so awesome. A perfect foil for her battiness.

  3. red says:

    And yes, I wish we had watched it together too!!

  4. The Siren says:

    My Wellman admiration grows with every movie of his that I see. This one of the first for me, but still one of the best. Love your every word about Lombard; I hope that the proprietor of Carole & Co., a fan blog for her that’s extremely smart & well-written, sees this.

    My favorite Lombard moment, and I am not sure why it cracks me up but it SLAYS me every time —

    SPOILER

    When she’s decided to throw herself in the river to end it all, and runs up to the river’s edge — then pauses, holds her nose and counts one, two, three. I want to know, was that her? the script? Wellman? It’s priceless.

  5. red says:

    Yes!!! It looks SO spontaneous – I have to believe that that was her genius, and Wellman just “let her go”, and when she did THAT, he knew: this is comedy gold.

    She is so conflicted in that scene, with her little veiled hat, and she so doesn’t want to jump … Hilarious!!!

    Love her to DEATH.

  6. miker says:

    Brilliant review – you make me lust to watch it again. Carole Lombard is beyond amazing…

  7. Ken says:

    Lombard’s expression in the last still looks like “the slugger’s wife.” So comically glum.

  8. Vincent says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party, but what a sensational review! There were some reflections on Lombard, and the film in general, that I’d never considered. (The only blemish is that the disease Hazel Flagg was thought to be suffering from was radium poisoning; the material that made old luminous watches glow in the dark was found to be hazardous, one reason it isn’t used anymore.)

    I thank the Siren for alerting me to this, as well as for her nice comments about “Carole & Co.” I return the favor to her site, which is wonderful (as is yours).

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