William A. Wellman may be best known as the director of the film A Star is Born, nominated for seven Oscars and winning one, but the same year as that film, he had another, Nothing Sacred. Both 1937 films also starred Fredric March, but this is the main point they have in common, as A Star is Born is a drama, while Nothing Sacred is a romantic comedy of the “screwball” variety.
March plays newspaper reporter Wally Cook, who finds himself on the outs with his editor after being taken in by a story about a generous “sultan” who turns out to be a local shoe shiner. His editor reassigns him, permanently, to the obituaries section. But Cook figures out a way to redeem himself in Mr. Stone’s eyes when he discovers that the town of Warsaw, Vermont has had a rash of deaths due to radium poisoning from the watch factory (this being just slightly after it was discovered that radium wasn’t a wise way to make glow-in-the-dark watches.) But one of the victims of poisoning is still alive, and momentarily healthy. And so Cook goes to interview Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), the “brave doomed girl” in the belief that her story will break the hearts of readers. Only problem is, just before the interview, Hazel learns that she isn’t dying after all…
As the alternative is continuing to live in Warsaw, she handles this less well than one might expect.
When Wally finally gets a chance to talk to Hazel, he tells her that she’ll be the toast of New York, where he’ll show her all the sights before she dies. Because this had been how she meant to live out her last few weeks — with death benefit money from the radium poisoning — she decides to keep her healthy status a secret from him in order to go on the trip. Naturally as time goes by she begins to fall for him, feeling guilty about her deception, and he falls for the girl who is so courageous in the face of death, not realizing he’s being taken in by another hoax.
The difficulty of maintaining the charade and the awkward positions that Hazel is often put in dealing with people praising her courage provide a lot of the comedy for this feature. It’s helped by the main characters being just slightly exaggerated in certain character traits. Hazel is a touch overdramatic, Wally is just a bit too earnest and credulous. The supporting characters are even more comic in their exaggerated natures. Hazel is supported in her ruse by her town doctor, played by Charles Winninger, who goes along with it partly for a chance to see the sights of New York himself (as her doctor he has to accompany the “sick girl”), but mostly because he’s been harboring a grudge against the New York Morning Star since he was a child over a contest he lost. Meanwhile, Walter Connolly plays editor Oliver Stone with a mixture of severity and excitability; he’s something of a cross between William Randolph Hearst and J. Jonah Jameson.
It takes a special kind of pettiness to hire a hoaxer as your janitor just to remind your star reporter of his humiliation.
There’s also a fair amount of situational humor, including a degree of physical comedy. Of particular note is when Wally arrives in Warsaw to find that nobody in the town wants to talk to reporters. There’s verbal comedy with one character after another cutting him off and clamming up, and physical comedy with him enduring abuse from the local children, which ranges from mildly amusing to laugh-out-loud funny.
But while this is a screwball romantic comedy, it also has a pretty sharp satirical bent to it as well. Even though this was made in 1937, only a few decades into Hollywood’s existence, it ruthlessly mocks the public’s fascination with fleeting celebrity. It could be taken as a satire of all the morbid reality television programs based on following celebrities around, except it was created decades before any of those programs existed. It just goes to show that such shenanigans were always present in the media, even when the only medium was print. The Morning Star turns Hazel Flagg into the darling of New York, and she is sent to one party and event after another, while the whole town goes nuts following every minutiae of what she’s doing — usually with the director inserting some facetious element poking fun at the whole notion.
Not always subtly.
Lombard and March play their roles well, and always feel believable. And the film provides comedy of enough different types that there’s always something to laugh at; the movie is simply funny throughout. Today’s romantic comedies could stand to learn a lesson from Nothing Sacred, which distinguishes itself by putting an edge to its comedy that isn’t often found nowadays.