Nothing Sacred (1937): William Wellman’s Screwball Comedy, Starring Fredric March, Carol Lombard, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly 

Half a dozen A-list writers contributed to the screenplay of William A. Wellman’s superb screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred, though it bears the signature of Ben Hecht.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Nothing Sacred
Nothing Sacred (film).jpg

Theatrical release poster

It’s Hech, who changed the locale of James H. Street’s story from Mount Ida, Arkansas to Warsaw, Vermont.

The first screwball comedy filmed in color, Nothing Sacred also represents the first use in color film of process effects, montage and rear screen projection. Backgrounds for the rear projection were shot on the streets of New York.

Janet Gaynor had originally been cast as Hazel Flagg to follow on the success of A Star is Born (1937). However, after Wellman Sr. met Carole Lombard, he convinced Selznick to cast her.

The movie has been interpreted as a satire on “yellow” journalism because of Hecht’s own personal experience and previous scripts on the same subject.  Thus, there is a key line in the film in which a New York journalist is told: “A newspaperman, huh, The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of them to the depth of degradation!”

Nonetheless, the movie’s issues are broader than journalism–the tale deals with the creation of instant celebrities (a topic ahead of its time), corruption, and excessive materialism. Perhaps more significantly, the movie presents a counter-view to Hollywood’s predominant imagery of small-town. Nothing Sacred is a rare film in that it suggests that there are no significant differences between small-town and big city’s folks since their conduct is shaped by similar (selfish) motivations.

The protagonist, Hazel Flagg (Carol Lombarde), lives in Warsaw, a small town dominated by the Paragon Watch Company. Like many young people, she has always dreamed of visiting the glamorous Big City. The opportunity comes when Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) informs her that she is a victim of radium poisoning (contracted at the factory) and has only a few months to live.

The story of her impending death reaches Wally Cook (Fredric March), a down-on-his-luck journalist. Cook has fallen out of favor with his cynical and dyspeptic managing editor, when he tried to pass off a poor black man as the “Sultan of Marzipan,” a prospective donor of a huge amount of money for an art institute. However, during the dignified banquet, the black man is exposed by his wife and his kids and Cook is demoted to writing obituaries in a small corner of the office.

Anxious to get out of this rut, Cook seizes the opportunity of advertising Hazel’s radium poisoning in the form of an expose titled “The last days of a courageous girl.” By exploiting her, he hopes to enhance his prestige and also increase the paper’s circulation. Little does he know that, in the meantime, Dr. Downer has changed his diagnosis. “You’re not going to die,” he informs Hazel, “unless you’re going to be run over.”

Extremely distressed, her plan to go to New York and “die happily” goes down the drain. Disappointed, she cries: “To be brought to life twice, and each time in Warsaw!” But shrewd and unscrupulous, Hazel persuades her doctor to maintain the story of her death.

The only scene in Warsaw occurs early on, when Cook arrives to meet Hazel. It is far from the idealized and hospitable small-town that prevails in Frank Capra movies (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”). Upon arrival, the baggage man refuses to take Cook to Hazel’s residence, warning that no one in town will talk to him; the only reason he responded was to get his money. The drugstore lady is not much friendlier, answering his questions as laconically as possible, with yeps and nopes. She, too, is greedy, grabbing his coin. And Dr. Downer’s housekeeper is just as reserved and uninviting as the others. “Tell him yourself,” she tells Cook, when he asks to be announced.

Walking down the town’s streets is no fun either. Children on an ice wagon throw bits of ice; a maniacal child runs out after Cook and bites him on the leg.

Hazel is not the innocent small-town girl who’s bewildered by the Big City. If anything, she is the manipulator and aggressor. That she and her doctor are one of a kind becomes clear when, hung over, she has misgivings about her behavior. “Why did you let me come to New York” asks Hazel, “You were always as honest as your look!” Hazel and Downer can make themselves look innocent, demonstrating that appearances are deceptive and not to be trusted.

Cook, by contrast, looks suave and shrewd, but deep down he is more innocent than Hazel.


Boxing champion Maxie Rosenbloom gave Lombard boxing lessons to prepare her for her fight scene with Fredric March.


Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg
Fredric March as Wally Cook
Charles Winninger as Dr. Enoch Downer
Walter Connolly as Oliver Stone
Sig Ruman as Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer (as Sig Rumann)
Frank Fay as master of ceremonies
Troy Brown as Ernest Walker
Maxie Rosenbloom as Max Levinsky
Margaret Hamilton as Vermont drugstore lady
Hattie McDaniel as Mrs. Walker
Olin Howland as Will Bull
Raymond Scott as musical leader
John Qualen as fireman (uncredited)
George Chandler as photographer (uncredited)

Carole Lombard

Margaret Hamilton as drugstore lady

Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred

Fredric March and Carole Lombard


Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Ben Hecht (screenplay), uncredited contributions from Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, Sidney Howard, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Robert Carson, based on “Letter to the Editor,” 1937 short story Cosmopolitan by James H. Street
Produced by David O. Selznick
Cinematography W. Howard Greene
Edited by James E. Newcom
Music by Oscar Levant

Production company: Selznick International

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: November 25, 1937

Running time: 77 minutes
Budget $1.3 million
Box office $2 million (U.S.)