Nothing Sacred (1937): Wellman’s Screwball Comedy, Starring Fredric March and Carol Lombarde

Four writers contributed to the screenplay of William A. Wellman’s screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred, though it bears the signature of Ben Hecht, who changed the locale of James H. Street’s story from Mount Ida, Arkansa to Warsaw, Vermont.

The movie has been interpreted as a satire on “yellow” journalism because of Hecht’s 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.