In the Northern Hemisphere, March is typically thought of as the month when Winter transitions to Spring. We’re movie-obsessed, so March means Fredric March, the actor who transitions from Jekyll to Hyde. This year marks his 125th anniversary, so we’re dedicating March to the versatile leading man.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: This week we turn our attention to Nothing Sacred, one of those public domain films that tends to pop up on bargain DVDs and streaming online in what seems like dozens of transfers of various quality. However, thanks to a really beautiful recent Blu-ray release from our friends at Kino, we’re able to see it with new eyes.
ADAM WILLIAMS: Yes, this is most definitely a key title in the most dubious canon of all: the public domain staple. I first saw this movie years ago via one of those dollar store exclusives. It was a real pleasure to revisit it in the best available quality.
RB: I knew the basics of the film when I entered into it, screenplay by Ben Hecht, direction by William Wellman, and of course Frederic March and Carole Lombard in the lead, but I was pretty much in the dark besides those very basic facts. Little did I know what a treat I was in for.
Based on a short story, “A Letter to the Editor,” in Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan magazine, Nothing Sacred tells the story of a reporter, disgraced by a story of a sultan (from a country called Mazipan, or is it Marzipan? That’s what I thought I heard, but the internet is disputing me), that turns out to be a shoeshine boy.
AW: I just want to interject that the shooting script has the dignitary named the Maharajah of Pasoda, so they must have changed it during production.
RB: The reporter, Wally Cook (March) stumbles upon a story of a beautiful young woman who is plagued by radium poisoning with only weeks to live. He pleads his case to his editor, who eventually relents and allows him to pursue the story, but naturally, all isn’t quite what it seems.
The main problem is that Hazel Flagg (Lombard, lovely as ever in her only Technicolor performance) isn’t actually sick at all. Whoops! Apparently, her doctor made a mistake, as he informs her while shaving. He doesn’t seem bothered by it, and one thinks that Hazel should be ecstatic at the prospect of not being terminally ill, regardless of the manner in which she was told. However, this throws a major monkey wrench in her plans to use her illness as a way to get out of small-town Vermont for a couple of weeks anyway. With the assistance of her doctor who comes along to New York as her personal physician, Flagg dupes Cook into covering expenses for a lavish trip, where she is treated as a celebrity, as long as she is able to keep up her ruse.
Ben Hecht’s screenplay covers the gamut of emotions, never failing to be as sharp and witty as most everything he is known for. I found myself laughing out loud at several moments, especially at the lengths that Flagg was willing to go to in order to cover up for the fact that she was perfectly healthy. There’s also a good bit of satire here to take in, from the callousness of the press to the cavalier way in which physicians treat illness to our society’s macabre fascination with celebrity. There’s a lot to take in during a short hour and fifteen minutes or so. Due to the length the film moves at a breakneck pace that we’ve come to expect from the highest regarded screwball comedies.
AW: The film is a frontal assault on modern life. The Oklahoma News’ review highlights how effective this sting is when couched in comedy. The anonymous writer spends the majority of the review coping with the film’s less-than-generous depiction of the press. Although they claim to be able to endure criticism, the review seems awfully defensive. They write, “Even though we laughed our heads off at the film, this must not be construed as meaning that the ribbing of the newspapers as exemplified by Nothing Sacred, is receiving the encouragement of this department.” They go on to cite a New York Times piece which analyzed Hollywood’s depiction of the press and concluded that only a small percentage of movies depicted reporters as valiant arbiters of truth—you know, like the way they envision themselves.
Ben Hecht had plenty of experience in the field of journalism and this film positively radiates a deeply felt cynicism towards both newspapermen and the public whose minds are shaped by their writing. The film has a grand motif to express this sentiment: disrespect and outright abuse of the human head. Of course, this theme culminates in Fredric March and Carole Lombard trading haymakers, but the stage is set by Sam Berman’s swollen-headed caricatures in the opening credits and proceeds from there. The first time we see March, he’s slumped at a table holding his head as if it’s a 16-pound bowling ball. In his visit to Vermont, Margaret Hamilton spits into his eye (and he returns the favor). Carole Lombard’s head seems equally as heavy as she sits in a chair as a poet gleans inspiration. She later hides under the sheets with a hot water bottle pressed on her forehead. Together, the couple is nearly concussed by the overzealous wrestlers they’re watching. In a memorable second unit shot, a fish monger unceremoniously plops a bug-eyed specimen on a headshot of Hazel Flagg in a newspaper.
Hecht may get the most credit for the malicious tone of this movie, but it seems like many of these scathing touches were added during the filming. For example, that spitting bit with Margaret Hamilton is nowhere to be found in Hecht’s script. In other areas the disdain was amplified. In the script, March gets some water sprinkled on his papers when he’s working in the hallway as the obituary editor. In the movie, those Lily cups rain down directly on his head. Then there are the compositional choices. The stationmaster is photographed leaning back with his shoe covering his face. At one point, March and Lombard are both blotted out by a large tree branch bisecting the frame. The only way to make this film more avant-garde would be to scratch their faces out of the emulsion of the film.
RB: In spite of nearly universal critical acclaim, the film didn’t catch on with audiences during the latter parts of the depression, and it actually lost money at the box office. Film Daily predicted that the film would be a “smash hit as it not only has a great cast, but the screenplay that Ben Hecht has concocted has a continuous series of funny gags and witty dialogue running through it.” Variety praised the “sumptuous Technicolor production” and the New York Times considered it “one of the merriest jests of the year.”
AW: Somehow, it’s not surprising this wasn’t a commercial hit. It’s chock-full of so much of the greatness emblematic of the era—skyscrapers, commercial aviation, cruise ships, Raymond Scott’s kinetic music, Technicolor—that it probably could only work as a time capsule. Plus, the dark sense of humor and Carole Lombard’s untimely demise a few years later gives it an edgy quality that could only fully bloom in retrospect as a cult film.
RB: Small town America however, felt that the film was well made but a difficult sale. “This type of exaggerated comedy bordering on satire just doesn’t have general appeal regardless of how well done it is” opined Pearl Wisch of the small town Grand Theatre in Mohall, North Dakota. JE Stocker of the Myrtle Theater in Detroit, Michigan praised the Technicolor but complained that it “does not seem to add anything to the drawing power”. In spite of this, I thought this was a delightful film that has really stood the test of time. A generous four stars for a film that I think would easily hold up to multiple viewings and study.
AW: One could easily make a ranked list of the best non-speaking parts in Nothing Sacred. In fact, I’ll do that now:
5. Billy Barty: The demonic small child who bites Fredric March’s ankle.
4. Bobby Barber: Catch him peaking out from behind a much-taller dance partner.
3. Sidney Kibrick: The ginger little rascal with the pet squirrel.
2. George Chandler: The creepily omnipresent photographer who brazenly flashes his Speed Graphic into Lombard’s face when she receives the key to the city and later when she faints in the nightclub.
1. Alex Melesh: “Wally, look at that man with the toupee!” cries Carole Lombard. Alex Melesh is this strange, teary-eyed man.
These are just the non-speaking parts! This movie is a treasure trove of laughs. Four stars, without hesitation.