Classic Movie Reviews

Classic Review: Nothing Sacred (1937)

A clever screwball comedy with a stellar performance by Carole Lombard.

Synopsis: An eccentric woman learns she is not dying of radium poisoning as earlier assumed, but when she meets a reporter looking for a story, she feigns sickness again for her own profit. (IMDB)

Starring: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, and Charles Winninger

Writer: Ben Hecht & Hames H. Street

Director: William A. Wellman

Rating: G (Canada)

Running Time: 77mins

Trailer:

Wally Cook (March) is a reporter who fell totally out of popularity after a hoax he was involved in gets discovered. He is tossed aside to the obituaries until he stumbles upon the story of Hazel Flagg (Lombard), a small town girl who mistakenly believes she’s dying from radium poisoning. Realizing it could be a great comeback story for him, he invites her to New York, where he is intending to turn her sad and tragic story into a new sensation around town. What he doesn’t know is that Hazel was actually misdiagnosed by her doctor and she intentionally plays along with the story to fulfill her dream of leaving her small town behind and making it big in the Big Apple. But everything falls apart when they start falling in love with each other.

The best screwball comedies combine social commentaries with laugh out loud scenes and this one has both. Hazel goes to New York to have her sickness – and ultimately, her death – exploited endlessly by the media. Readers go crazy with her doomed existence and she becomes the talk of the town, the new celebrity everybody is talking about. They all gravitate towards her like vultures, eager to get a piece of her flash.

Fake news, the cult of celebrities, the dirty tricks of the media, the need to always be on the spotlight… this is an 81 years old movie and a lot has changed since the 30’s, but these subjects are still in very much a part of our lives.

The greatest part of Hecht’s script is the way he built his characters. They are all eccentric, like the best screwball characters truly are, and there are a lot of small little moments that are really funny. But Hecht was a savvy writer and he created a group of characters that are deeply selfish, which makes the script even brighter. They are all only looking out for themselves, using one another and not really worried if they’ll end up hurting someone else or even if they’ll get caught doing these things. This critique on the way people are is especially great because most of these characters are quite adorable and you can’t help but chuckle with a lot of the things they say or do. And them you realize what they are actually saying and doing.

A considerable part of the charm here comes from the cast. March was not really famous for doing comedy, but he manages to make quite a creating with his character. But unfortunately, he pales in comparison to Lombard who was an absolute genius in the genre. She had a great year, doing My Man Godfrey and them Nothing Sacred; her comedic timing is on spot here – as it was always, actually – and she manages to make her character adorable and hugely charismatic even when she is taking advantage of others. The way she makes Hazel innocent and manipulative at the same time is pretty remarkable. The supporting cast, full of character actors – and the Wicket Witch of the West! – is a joy to watch.

But although thematically the movie is still very much timely, the comedy of it has faded a little. There are still great laughs to be found here, but it’s noticeable that some of the jokes did not age very well – which is understandable. A minor problem in a delicious film.

Score: 7/10

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