Monday, October 21, 2013

FI: Nothing Sacred

Nothing Sacred
US, 1937
Directed by William A. Wellman

Color had been a part of film from its very early days, from laboriously hand-painted frames to the shadings and tints used to indicate day and night in silent films. The various Technicolor processes had allowed for color feature films as early as the 1920's. But by the time of Nothing Sacred's release in 1937, Technicolor had not yet come to dominate the industry they way it would in the coming decades. As such, one could still apply "firsts"—most notably, the first color screwball comedy—to the film. Indeed, I'm not even sure what the NEXT color screwball picture might be, it being a genre whose high points largely came in the '30s.

The film tells the story of New York City reporter Wally Cook (Frederic March), who is busted down to the obituary desk after being duped by a con artist. Trying to redeem his reputation and that of his flagging paper, Cook convinces his editor (Walter Connolly) to let him travel to Vermont and meet Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a pretty young woman diagnosed with fatal radium poisoning, with the intention of sensationalizing her story and turning her into a public martyr. The only trouble is that her doctor, the alcoholic Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) has misdiagnosed her. Seeking an escape from her mundane life, Flagg carries this secret to New York, where the unaware Cook turns her into the talk of the town. In typical screwball fashion, Flagg and Dr. Downer go to great lengths to hide the truth, while Cook and Flagg begin to fall for each other in spite of themselves.

Nothing Sacred features a script written by a who's who of the era's best and wittiest writers. Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr., Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Budd Schulberg, and even Dorothy Parker herself had some part in the script. As such, it's a little strange that the film isn't funnier than it is. While there are laughs, and the scenario allows for strong comedic potential, there is less laugh-out-loud wit than one might expect. Director Wellman, a longtime industry pro, keeps the pace brisk while still giving his stars room to work, especially on the physical comedy side of things. Winninger's drunk doctor nearly steals the show, while March's feisty energy fits well with his cynical character. Lombard is, of course, one of the preeminent stars of screwball comedy, and does well here conveying Flagg's conflicted enjoyment of her new superstar lifestyle. It is nice to see her in color, as I'm not sure she made another color film in her all-too-brief career. Speaking of color, the film looks great for its era, and its use of New York locations serves as an interesting time capsule. Groundbreaking though it may be on a technical level, Nothing Sacred doesn't stand out much from its genre. But it is a nice, lightweight, brief (only 77 minutes) trifle to watch when you're in need of a classic pick-me-up.

If you want to see Nothing Sacred for yourself, it is, as of press time, available to stream on Netflix in the US.

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