Nothing Sacred

  • Nothing Sacred

6/29/17 (Thurs), DVD

I’m not always a fan of screwball comedies, which often seem to be trying too hard. But I loved Carole Lombard in her immediately preceding My Man Godfrey, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

A flailing newspaper reporter Wally Cook seeks to make his name with a human interest story on a small-town girl named Hazel Flagg who is dying of radium poisoning. Unbeknownst to him, Hazel has discovered that she was misdiagnosed and is not dying after all, interrupting her plans to whoop it up for her final weeks (she moans about being “brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw”). She thus jumps at the chance when the reporter offers her an all-expense-paid trip to New York to help her enjoy her short remaining life – that is, he wants to exploit her to sell papers, and she wants to exploit him to see the big city. Her initial enthusiasm for the city fades quickly when she finds herself the object of pious pity everywhere she turns, including from Wally himself. As the double double-cross proceeds, he makes the mistake of falling for her. Hazel tries to sneak away and fake a suicide, after which she hopes to vanish, but is caught at the last minute by Wally – and she starts to fall too. An examination by eminent European doctors finds her fit as a fiddle, but by this time too many people are invested in the story to risk exposure. So they come up with a ruse… 

It’s a very funny premise, but there are too many moments that just don’t feel natural, giving an impression of desperation. The famous fight scene, where the two main characters sock each other in the jaw, was especially questionable (and would NEVER be allowed these days), and the scene with the pet squirrel was dumb. But there was a welcome cynicism against all sides. The country bumpkins refuse to help others without a bribe and eye strangers with suspicion (in one hilarious bit, a kid runs and bites the reporter in the derriere), while the city folk are sanctimonious poseurs who use a dying girl’s tragedy as a way to prove their own compassion. The teacher tells Hazel, “We switched a whole study course from the menace of Communism to the inspiration of Hazel Flagg.” The reporter’s boss is horrified to hear that his poster girl is healthy (“the biggest fake in the century – a lying, faking witch with the soul of a eel and the brain of a tarantula!”), then briefly relieved when she is said to be dying of pneumonia (“It’s the finger of God if it’s true”). The town’s mayor, having given her the key to the city, wants her to stay dead however they can arrange it, and the doctors, given sufficient incentive, agree to remain silent on their findings.

The leads, who are responsible for the entire mess, come to realize the error of their ways. Hazel, after a tough night out, starts to feel guilty: “I’ve got something worse than [a hangover]. I’ve got a conscience.” (Doctor: “Keep on suckin’ that egg and your conscience will go away.”) Wally realizes once the gig is up that he really does love Hazel and would prefer her alive. While all naturally ends happily ever after, the cynicism, hilariously delivered though it is, is what remains.

The movie benefits tremendously from sharp dialogue from start to finish. The girl, asked if she’s in the little town all her life, retorts, “Twice that long.” Her hometown doctor says of newspapermen, “The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of degradation!” It unusually never lapses into phony sentiment, even between the two eventual lovers. That makes the silliness bearable.

The director chooses strange shots sometimes, obscuring the couple’s faces behind a tree branch in one dialogue and having them speak unseen from within a room during another. That just called attention to itself without any real point. I did enjoy the aerial shots of 1937 New York.

The film’s biggest asset was Carole Lombard, a joy throughout. Her performance was natural and effortless, and she made every line count. She made the film worth watching. Fredric March couldn’t rise to that personality level. He seemed a bit too serious for the part. The supporting cast was otherwise terrific, especially Walter Connolly as the put-upon editor Oliver Stone (!).

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