“Nothing Sacred solves no peace problems, Nothing Sacred solves no labour problems, Nothing Sacred solves absolutely nothing but your entertainment problems”, the film’s promotional trailer boasted. Yet Nothing Sacred is actually the keenest of all the screwball comedies to shine a light on society’s ills. What is “screwy” in this film isn’t just a woman but America as a whole; it is a land of opportunists – not to mention liars, cheats and scoundrels – with opportunity. The film opens with a series of intertitles overlaid on colour shots of Times Square and the recently completed RCA Victor (now the GE) Building: “THIS IS NEW YORK. Skyscraper Champion of the 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…” But small-town America is as bad, if not worse. Taking a clear swipe at Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), for which Frank Capra had just won his second Academy Award for Best Director, Nothing Sacred offers the purgatorial Warsaw as a counter to Deeds’ improbably decent Mandrake Falls, a backwater owned by the Paragon Watch Company, where the local children behave like Rottweilers and the Drug Store Lady (played by Margaret Hamilton – soon to terrify young and old as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz ) expects a tip to serve a stranger.
Typically, the screwball comedy sees an unlikely couple whip up enough conflict and confusion between and around them to keep the big, bad world at bay. No private bubble of blameless chaos exists for Warsaw factory-girl Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) and New York newspaperman Wally Cook (Fredric March). Their relationship is inaugurated in self-interest, sustained by deception and endorsed by a wider web of institutional corruption. Hazel fakes incurable radium poisoning after receiving the all clear from her blundering doctor Enoch Downer to get an all-expenses paid trip to New York. Wally writes maudlin articles about “the bravest kid who ever lived” to help resurrect his career at the Morning Star, whose circulation figures depend on a public who have a hankering for schmaltz and Schadenfreude. In a montage sequence that rivals screwball’s best – the beginning of The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940), the ending of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944) – we see the whole city cashing in on the “dying” woman, from the city’s politicians (“DOOMED GIRL HAILED BELLE OF NEW YORK. Flagg Will Receive Key to City”) to its temperamental poets (“Oh Laughing Girl Upon the Brink of Death / Oh Singing Heart Before the Door of Doom”). Even the lowly fishmonger misuses her tragic story in his own way – he wraps a fish in it for a paying customer. This separates Nothing Sacred from other screwball comedies: not even the workingman is safe from its satire. Being human means you have an angle, even if it’s just, as Wally says, a love of “trick tears and lamentations”. One of the film’s great achievements is that it supplies the genre’s expected antic froth-and-bubble without toning down the cynicism.
Nothing Sacred was conceived as a showcase for two things: Technicolor and Carole Lombard. Indeed, it was the only film to showcase both of them together. Producer David O. Selznick left MGM in 1935 to set up his own studio, aiming “to make the finer things, and to leave the trash to the other fellows” (1). To fund his “very expensive pictures” (2) – Nothing Sacred cost $1.3 million (3) – he joined forces with the fabulously wealthy John Hay (“Jock”) Whitney who owned a stake in Technicolor, Inc. That company had recently pioneered a three-strip process to produce natural-looking colour. The old two-strip process could not deliver yellows or blues, which explains why Nothing Sacred, their fourth Technicolor film together, makes exquisite use of them, largely thanks to a young art director who went on to win five Academy Awards (from 29 nominations), Lyle Wheeler. Take, for example, the cheeky “The Heroines of History” floorshow at the Casino Moderne and the Travis Banton-designed beaded dress with fox-fur Lombard’s Hazel wears to it, as the guest of honour. It is perhaps strange to think of a screwball comedy as a vehicle for technical innovation in the cinema, but Nothing Sacred was also the first feature in colour to use rear-projection. We see it used early in the film when Wally flies Hazel and Enoch to New York. The scene toggles between aerial shots of Manhattan and interior shots of the three passengers gasping at the skyline: “There she is in all her beads and ribbons!” Wally exclaims – and no doubt the cinema spectator of 1937, unaccustomed to such views, was thinking much the same thing.
It was Whitney’s idea to produce a comedy and get Lombard to star in it; he had adored Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936) and its star had made an impression on him off-screen as well as on. Early that same year, Whitney threw a “Nervous Breakdown Party” to celebrate the release of Bea Stewart (wife of Donald Ogden Stewart, the co-screenwriter of George Cukor’s Holiday ) from a psychiatric institution, and Lombard had turned up to it in an ambulance and on a stretcher (4). My Man Godfrey had confirmed Lombard as the “world’s champion attractive screwball” (5). She was also one of the Hollywood’s best-paid actors; her agent, Selznick’s brother Myron, ensured she earned $18,750 a week in 1937. To put that amount into context, Twentieth Century-Fox was paying Shirley Temple less than a third that sum (6). Off-camera, her new romance with Clark Gable was the talk of the town; he was still married and she was divorced from My Man Godfrey co-star William Powell and had zoomed through a string of high-profile affairs with Gary Cooper, George Raft and the crooner Russ Columbo. Lombard is goofy and luminous in Nothing Sacred. One of her many charms is her ability to affect girl-next-door affability and high-end sophistication in equal measure. In this film she looks as at home in the Art Deco luxury of a hotel suite as she does hanging by the rails on the back of a fire engine. Natural wit in gesture and intonation is her calling card: look out for the moment when she tries to stuff the key to the city down the goody-goody neck of her lace-collared day-dress like a latchkey kid who’s been told not to lose it. Arguably, screwball begins and ends with Lombard; her first starring role was in Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), alongside Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) the founding film of the genre, and her tragic death in a 1942 plane crash over Petosi Mountain near Las Vegas marks, near enough, the moment when it lost its zing.
If Nothing Sacred fails to measure up to the greats of screwball comedy, then it is on account of the lack of chemistry between its central couple. But this is not for wont of trying on the part of director William A. Wellman. In the topsy-turvy world of screwball comedy the pair who hit each other fit each other. Alfred Santell’s Breakfast for Two, which opened one month prior to Nothing Sacred, saw Barbara Stanwyck’s Valentine Ransom knock out Herbert Marshall’s Jonathan Blair with a pair of boxing gloves, leading inexorably to a marriage overseen by a celebrant wearing the same. Likewise, Nothing Sacred culminates with a comic scene of bedroom pugilism: “SEE THE BIG FIGHT! LOMBARD vs. MARCH,” Nothing Sacred’s publicity poster beckoned. It also features a scene-stealing cameo from the former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom. This brings us to the final lure of Nothing Sacred: if the central romance feels a bit lightweight, its supporting cast is up there with the best in screwball comedy. Walter Connolly delights as yet another exasperated businessman and Sig Ruman[n] revels in a role that few self-respecting screwballs could seem to do without (see Hawks’ Bringing up Baby ) – a Viennese doctor.
- Ronald Haver, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, Secker and Warburg, London, p. 174.
- Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Pantheon, New York, 1988, p. 178.
- Joel Waldo Finler, The Hollywood Story, Wallflower Press, London, p. 47.
- Robert D. Matzen, Carole Lombard: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Press, New York, p. 96.
- Noel F. Busch, “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl”, Life 17 October 1938, p. 48.
- Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, Blackwell, Oxford, 2003, p. 133.
Nothing Sacred (1937 USA 75 mins)
Prod Co: Selznick International Prod: David O. Selznick Dir: William A. Wellman Scr: Ben Hecht, from the story “Letter to the Editor” by James H. Street Phot: W. Howard Greene Ed: James E. Newcom Art Dir: Lyle Wheeler Mus: Oscar Levant
Cast: Carole Lombard, Frederic March, Walter Connolly, Charles Winninger, Sig Rumann, Frank Fay, Troy Brown, Hattie McDaniel, John Qualen, Margaret Hamilton