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With: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly, Sig Rumann, Frank Fay, Troy Brown, Maxie Rosenbloom, Margaret Hamilton, Olin Howland, Raymond Scott
Written by: Ben Hecht, based on a story by James H. Street
Directed by:
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 73
Date: 11/25/1937
IMDB

Nothing Sacred (1937)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pretty Poison

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

William A. Wellman was not known for his comedies, but perhaps he should have been. He was clearly a director with an agenda, and comedy must have seemed frivolous to him. However, judging by Nothing Sacred, it's where his natural talents must have lain.

It helps that Carole Lombard was his star. Lombard was one of those rare, simultaneously sexy and funny women; too often women were not allowed to be both. Lombard had a tragically short career, having died in a plane crash at age 33. Nevertheless, she completed many films, and at least five great ones: Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century (1934), Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred, Alfred Hitchcock's Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942).

Wellman tuned into exactly what it was that made her tick. He did it in a way that Lubitsch might have done it, and he did it five years before Lubitsch would actually do it. He uses on-again, off-again rhythms, silences and explosions, such as the way she hides in bed, moaning, pretending to have a nasty fever, but pops right up -- perfectly normal -- when she is shown to be faking.

She plays Hazel Flagg, a small town girl (from Warsaw, Vermont). She has been diagnosed with radium poisoning (this is probably the element that attracted the socially conscious Wellman to the project). She learns that the diagnosis is incorrect and that she will live, but she decides to go ahead with the ruse so that she can visit the big city for the first time. Her patsy in this scheme is New York newspaperman Wally Cook (Fredric March). Wally takes care of her and shows her around in exchange for a much-needed, sentimental, prize-winning story. Of course, they fall in love and Hazel must figure out a way not only to break the news to Wally, but to the rest of the world, to whom she has become a celebrity.

Lombard played "high-maintenance" expertly. She worries and frets at such a high pitch that it becomes hilarious rather than obnoxious. In one superb scene, she attends a nightclub with Wally. She finds herself the center of attention, as people stare at her and begin crying. A floorshow compares her to the great heroines of the past. She also drinks heavily. She eventually becomes dizzy with emotional indecision, and so do we. Everything comes to a head all at once, like a brilliant crescendo.

Wellman knew to keep this story short -- it runs just 73 minutes -- and speedy. And yet he understands how to conduct it so that it's more than just breakneck comedy. Indeed, some of his edits seem rather casual and not rushed at all. The great Ben Hecht, considered by many to be the greatest screenwriter of all time, provides the wonderful, snappy dialogue, including all that great newspaper slang.

Aside from these and many other things, Nothing Sacred is also notable for being an early example of full-color, live-action films made in Hollywood; it was released the same year as Walt Disney's full-color Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (Before this, most color films were either hand-tinted, two-strip Technicolor, or color inserts.) The color isn't used to any particular effect, but it does help Hazel's trip to the big city seem all the more glamorous.

Nothing Sacred has been available in the public domain for some time, but the drawback to this is that the color has been terribly washed-out. Kino has now restored it for a new DVD and Blu-Ray release, and it looks much better, though perhaps several notches below the sparkling quality of something like Gone with the Wind. The DVD comes with a trailer.

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