Nothing Sacred is a screwball comedy with a big problem. And it’s very easy to pinpoint the problem. The problem is Fredric March. There’s a reason Fredric March is not remembered as a great comic actor. He wasn’t even a mediocre comic actor. He wasn’t a comic actor at all.
This 1937 Selznick International film has another problem. It’s not a screwball comedy at all. It’s a satire, and it’s a very leaden one. March’s dull as dishwater performance doesn’t quite kill this film but it goes close. Which is a pity since the Nothing Sacred had a lot of potential.
The basic idea is very promising. Wally Cook (March) is a New York newspaper reporter whose latest stunt has backfired badly. The rich sultan he’s been building up as a patron of the arts has been exposed as a fraud - he’s really a guy who runs a shoe-shine stand in Manhattan. Now Cook needs another big story and he needs it fast. He thinks he’s found it.
Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) is a young woman from a small town in Vermont called Warsaw. She’s dying of radium poisoning as a result of working in the town’s only industry, a watch factory. Taking Hazel to New York to spend her last weeks of this earth living the high life sounds like a sure-fire circulation booster and Cook’s editor agrees. The only problem is, Hazel isn’t dying of radium poisoning. She isn’t dying of anything. She’s as fit as a fiddle.
Her shonky doctor made a mistake and now he sees a way of getting even with the paper for not naming him the winner of a contest years earlier. Hazel just sees it as a way of getting out of Warsaw, Vermont. Of course the secret, that there’s nothing wrong with Hazel, can’t be kept indefinitely. And of course Wally Cook and Hazel fall in love.
Ben Hecht’s screenplay is another newspaper satire along the lines of his much-adapted play The Front Page. It has some of the wit of that earlier effort but at times it seems heavy-handed. Yes we know that newspaper editors and reporters are cynical and we know that the public is gullible but while the screenplay makes its point it really doesn’t have enough actual laughs. A big problem is that any good lines that are given to Fredric March are pretty much wasted so Lombard has to carry the comedy on her own. And no matter how gifted a comedienne she was (and she was very gifted indeed) even the funniest actress needs someone to strike sparks off and playing opposite Fredric March she might as well be playing opposite a showroom dummy.
You can’t help wondering just how good this movie might have been with a Cary Grant, or even a Fred MacMurray, as the male lead. March is not just boring, he’s entirely unconvincing as a reporter. He’s too strait-laced, too serious, too stodgy and too unfunny.
Lombard almost manages to save the movie, but every time Fredric March shows up the laughs dry up. You also can’t help wondering if William A. Wellman was the right director. Like March he takes things a bit too seriously.
For some utterly inexplicable reason the movie was shot in Technicolor. This is particularly unfortunate since the movie has fallen into the public domain and most prints floating around are terrible, and the dull faded colours just make the movie look more lifeless.
Despite its problems Nothing Sacred is by no means a total loss. Lombard is very good and once she hits her stride things pick up. It’s a moderately amusing movie but it’s certainly the classic of screwball comedy that its reputation would suggest.