Nothing Sacred (1937) is a satirical comedy that, as the name suggests, pokes fun at just about everything society holds sacred. If you’re easily offended by political incorrectness, this may not be the film for you. But if you appreciate satire, and recognize that there’s not a single social group, gender, age, or belief safe from being poked fun at in this film, you will enjoy Nothing Sacred.
Fredric March Plays Wally Cook
Nothing Sacred is set in New York City. The film begins with ace reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) in hot water when his boss at the Morning Star paper, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) discovers that Wally fabricated a story: the African nobleman about to donate a hefty sum to a city beautification project is in fact a boot polisher from Harlem. The public finds out it’s all a sham, and the Morning Star’s reputation suffers. Stone decides that Wally must be punished, and relegates him to writing obituaries in the basement of the Morning Star office building.
March has some great physical comedy here, trying to work at his tiny desk with absolutely no respect from those around him. He’s much improved from his comedy turn in Design for Living (1933) four years earlier.
Sick of obituary writing in the basement, Wally approaches his boss, and tries to win back his status as an indispensable contributor to the Morning Star. He pitches a golden story to Mr. Stone that everyone else missed: a beautiful young woman named Hazel Flagg, is bravely dying of radium poisoning in sleepy little Warsaw, Vermont.
Nothing Sacred: the Satire Gets Rolling
After a little convincing by Wally that this story would make the paper look good, Stone promotes him back to reporter, and sends Wally off to Warsaw to find Hazel. Wally must then convince Hazel to come back with him to New York, where the paper will share her miraculous story, and, out of the goodness of its heart with no ulterior motives whatsoever, provide Hazel with a snazzy new wardrobe, put her up in a ritzy hotel, take her sightseeing, to shows, and give her good times at the best clubs in town, with Wally as her escort. Because the Morning Star is such a gallant paper with moral individuals running it, they want to ensure that Hazel’s last weeks on earth are pleasurable.
Of course, the situation drips of satire.
Wally finally tracks Hazel down in Warsaw, Vermont after receiving no help at all from the town locals, who can tell he’s a big city newspaper man and dislike him on sight: Wally gets snarky looks from women passersby, he’s bitten in the leg by a toddler (!), and has objects thrown at him by a group of boys. There’s no idealization of small town life or characters here, even though the film just showed us the underbelly and duplicity of big city folks.
Wally Finds Hazel Flagg
We must get a full 16 minutes into the film to see Carole Lombard, but it’s worth the wait. Wally finds Hazel just after she receives the news from Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) that she is, in fact, not dying.
His mistake, oops.
Hazel is initially so happy, she kisses the doctor, who is shaving, and comes away from the kiss with shaving cream all over her face. The scene is an excellent example of how Lombard was never afraid to make herself look less than glamorous in her films.
But Hazel’s initial elation at not being sick and dying is quickly replaced by sadness at the news: she realizes that she’ll probably be stuck in Warsaw forever. Hazel is sobbing uncontrollably when she runs into Wally outside the doctor’s office. Wally, understandably, presumes Hazel’s tears result from the fact that she knows she is dying. And so he makes her the offer from the Morning Star, for the glamorous trip to New York. After a brief moment of moral dilemma, Hazel can’t help but accept the offer. Hazel is so desperate to get out of Warsaw, she decides spreading the lie of her impending death is worth it. She agrees to the trip on the condition that she can bring Dr. Enoch with her.
The Innovations of William Wellman
Director William Wellman sets up a unique shot here. Wellman, the first director to win a Best Picture Oscar (for Wings) at the first ever Academy Awards ceremony, was a constant innovator in his films. In Nothing Sacred, Wellman pioneered a few film techniques, such as montage and screen rear projection. And in this scene, where Wally tries to convince Hazel to come back to New York with him, Wellman has the two actors’ faces covered by a massive tree branch: we can see their bodies and hear their voices, but their faces are completely covered. It’s such a tease, and adds realism to the scene because, in real life, you aren’t always standing in a perfectly framed shot when a life-changing moment occurs.
Wellman flew for the French Foreign Legion during WWI (with a very impressive record no less), and always sought to incorporate airplanes and flying into his films. In Nothing Sacred, Wellman works in his passion for flying by showing some spectacular aerial shots of 1937 New York City from the plane that Hazel, Wally, and Dr. Enoch fly from Warsaw to New York in. The scene goes back and forth between the beautiful NYC skyline and the interior of the plane, with our characters’ conversation. It’s another innovative film technique by Wellman.
More Satire in Nothing Sacred
Once in New York City, Hazel is treated to a ticker tap parade and given the key to the city—which she promptly and hilariously stuffs down her high-collared dress because she doesn’t know where else to put it. Hazel’s story has made her a celebrity. The people of NYC want to give Hazel all this fame and attention because feeling sorry for this beautiful, dying girl makes them feel good about themselves.
But does anyone really care about Hazel?
The butcher uses the newspaper with her story on the cover to wrap a dead fish in, and restaurants advertise that Hazel “ate here” to drum up more business.
Again, more satire.
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Wally and Hazel Fall in Love
Wally begins showing Hazel the town, and one night, the two go to a fancy nightclub.
Interesting side note: Frank Fay plays Master of Ceremonies at the club. Remember him? Barbara Stanwyck’s abusive, alcoholic, first husband? Fay has his moments here where he is funny, but his cameo in Nothing Sacred is a great example of why Fay didn’t ever really make it in films. What do you do with a not very handsome comedian, who is more of a personality than actor, in 1930s Hollywood? The studio heads of the time sure couldn’t figure it out.
At the nightclub, it’s clear that feelings have developed between Wally and Hazel. And Hazel starts to feel guilty. She knows that once she’s found out, it will be assumed that Wally was in on her lie, and he’ll lose his job. Hazel feels even worse when Wally informs her that he’s brought a European doctor to NYC, a specialist in radium poisoning, to take a look at her.
Hazel gets drunk, and faints at the club. Which is taken as a sign of her illness, and becomes the cover story of all the NYC papers the next day.
To avoid being examined and exposed by the specialist, Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer (Sig Ruman), Hazel decides she must feign suicide. She plans to leave a note, then go jump into the Hudson, where people will see her jump, but won’t see Dr. Enoch rescue her, at which point the two of them will run away, she will change her name, and Wally will keep his job.
Of course, Wally discovers the note and tries to save her. But both Wally and Hazel fall in the Hudson, and Wally can’t swim. So it’s Hazel who saves Wally.
Wellmen gives us another teaser shot after Hazel and Wally are safe on land, when he hides their first kiss behind a crate on the dock: we can’t see the kiss, but we know it’s happening.
The Fatal Flaw of Nothing Sacred
Unfortunately for Hazel, an examination with the specialist is inevitable when she gets back to her hotel room. Dr. Eggelhoffer is already there, waiting. This is one point in Nothing Sacred where the film suffers from Wellman’s penchant for getting things done fast—we don’t get to see Hazel’s exam! It’s truly a missed opportunity, for Lombard was such a master of physical comedy. The film instead jumps right from Eggelhoffer in Hazel’s room, to Eggelhoffer telling Oliver Stone at the Morning Star offices that Hazel is completely healthy, not dying, not even sick.
Nothing Sacred: Wally vs. Hazel
Stone tells Wally that Hazel is a fake, and Wally, alternately happy that Hazel is healthy and frustrated at her lie, rushes over to her hotel. Wally arrives to find Hazel faking sick in bed, and tells her he knows she’s been lying the whole time. But Wally loves Hazel and wants to marry her, so he decides to get her showing symptoms of pneumonia before Dr. Eggelhoffer comes back for another examination, this time with a few of his colleagues.
To get her temperature up to 106, and to get her tired and frazzled and pneumonia-like, Hazel and Wally have to fight. Yes, it’s man vs. woman in a boxing match, and—this is where the p.c. police should probably hide—man actually knocks woman out!
Satire again. Not even women are sacred in this film.
It’s a great scene, and Lombard actually trained with boxing champ Maxie Rosenbloom so her punches and moves would be believable.
You understand Wally’s logic in thinking that the fight is really for Hazel’s own good, but you still root for Hazel to come out the victor, and smack Wally silly.
Even though Wally knocks Hazel out first, she gets the last punch after she comes to, and successfully knocks Wally out. The film even treats love with humor, for it isn’t until Wally is unconscious that Hazel can tell him that she loves him.
Nothing Sacred: The Ending
The film ends with everybody conscious, and the Morning Star deciding that rather than expose Hazel, it would be better for the paper’s reputation to report that she’s vanished after leaving a note, stating her intention to die alone, “like an elephant.”
Hazel will then remain in hiding until the fickle public (quickly) forgets about her, and moves on to its next flash in the pan celebrity. (More satire.)
And in the meantime, Hazel and Wally, now married, will honeymoon in the tropics.
And that’s the end of the film.
Wrapping up Nothing Sacred
Fredric March does an excellent job as Wally Cook in Nothing Sacred. The role, basically playing straight man to Lombard’s zany Hazel—with limited actual comedy for March to deliver—was better suited to March’s talents than a role like Tom in Design for Living where he’s supposed to be a comical character, or at least a character delivering comical lines. Still, it’s hard to watch Fredric at all when Carole Lombard is on the screen. It’s near impossible to complete with Lombard’s charisma or comedy skill, no matter who you are.
Though Nothing Sacred was critically acclaimed, it lost $350,000 at the box office, in part due to its exorbitant $1.3 million production cost.
Despite the film’s financial loss on release, Nothing Sacred is now revered as one of the best screwball comedies of the era.