William A. Wellman’s very aptly titled Nothing Sacred (1937) begins with a series of titles informing us, “This is New York, skyscraper champion of 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.” That effectively captures the tone of the film, which is quite probably the single most cynical of all screwball comedies. Wellman’s film — and Ben Hecht’s screenplay — takes no prisoners in its jandiced look at not only the cult of manufactured celebrity, but the people who attach themselves to cause celebre cults. If you’ve ever felt a little skeptical of the business of people aligning themselves with tragedies that have no actual bearing on their lives, this is your movie. It’s a film that sets up sacred cows and then happily leads them to the abattoir — and yet it does so with such good humor that it’s ultimately more funny than bitter.
The story concerns disgraced newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) seizing a chance to redeem himself by turning Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard looking luminous in her only color film) — a girl from Warsaw, Vt. who’s been diagnosed with radium poisoning — into a media sensation by bringing her to New York. Such a coup will square him with his editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), who has been punishing Wally ever since his last sensation, the Sultan of Mazupan (Troy Brown), turned out to be a shoeshine man from Harlem. Obviously — since Wally had nothing to do with the original newspaper article on Hazel — here’s a story that can’t blow up in Stone’s face. It just has to be true, right? Well, at least that’s what everybody assumes is the case.
With this in mind, Wally sets out for Vermont to bring Hazel Flagg back with him. If the film is cynical about New York, it’s perhaps even less favorably impressed with the fictional town of Warsaw, Vt. (I suspect it’s a deliberate parody of the equally fictional Mandrake Falls, Vt., presented in Norman Rockwellian terms in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town the previous year.) The town is depressingly rundown (it must have been 30 years since anything was painted) and the locals are unfriendly and grasping, expecting to be paid (“Well, you’ve tooken up my time”) just to be talked to. Hazel’s physician, Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger), is an ill-tempered souse with a chip on his shoulder over a contest Wally’s paper didn’t give him an award for 22 years ago. It’s this feeling of entitlement that prompts him not to reveal the fact that he misdiagnosed Hazel’s condition and she isn’t suffering from radiation poisoning (“It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice — and each time in Warsaw,” sobs Hazel). Dr. Downer’s notion is to take the paper for everything he can get out of them. So with all the credulity of one of his own readers, Wally takes the “dying” girl and her doctor to New York.
Of course, the city goes wild over the “doomed” Hazel, turning her into a celebrity — and feeling ever so good about themselves for feeling sorry for her. This can only go on so long before two inevitable things happen — Hazel’s true condition comes to light and Wally falls in love with her (even cynical comedies bow to this convention). How it all plays out, however, is somewhat at odds with what you might expect. That’s what makes Nothing Sacred something special in the realm of classic screwball comedies. Don’t miss this one.
Plays at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., Nov. 14 at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14