Classic Film Review: Racist and inclusive, a comedy about radium poisoning — “Nothing Sacred” (1937)

I distinctly remember cringing a bit and scrunching down in my seat during the opening scenes of “Nothing Sacred” the first time I saw it, in a university film society.

The William Wellman/Ben Hecht classic opens with some tomfoolery about a fake “sultan” who bamboozles a New York newspaper and others into thinking he’ll finance some development scheme in the middle of the Great Depression.

It’s remarkable to see prominent African American representation in most mainstream movies from that era, and there’s more of that in this David O. Selznick production than in virtually anything contemporaneous. The imposing, bug-eyed Troy Brown is in a few scenes. Here’s Hattie McDaniel, who’d win an Oscar just a couple of years later in Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind,” playing the charlatan/hustler’s wife.

Brown is playing a stereotype, but a character with some agency. And wide-eyed double takes or not, he’s funny. The cringing comes in after his “Walker” character is exposed. The headlines about the “bootblack” who fooled a “star reporter” (Fredric March) include so many “shine” jokes than you’d think even 1930s white America would have winced.

But when your movie’s titled “Nothing Sacred,” when it’s built on corruption in government, medicine and newspapering and centered on a young woman feigning “radium poisoning” that gives her just days to live, well I suppose a little racism just adds edge.

This high gloss Technicolor production, with gorgeous art deco sets and Carole Lombard in the lead, is the film that sealed her screen immortality. She’d already made “Twentieth Century” and “My Man Godfrey,” and she’d marry The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, complete “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” for Hitchcock and “To Be or Not to Be” for Lubitsch before dying in a plane crash at the end of a “Buy War Bonds” public service tour.

But the 77 minutes of “Nothing Sacred” had given the Queen of Screwball Comedies her crown.

She’s Hazel Flagg, a Vermont woman mistakenly diagnosed by her small town doc (Charles Winninger) as dying of the magic ingredient that scores of young women died from hand painting on watch numbers to make them glow in the dark.

Man. That’s is one BLEAK subject for comedy.

Hazel’s gotten just enough notoriety to merit media attention and a planned “dying girl’s trip to New York” when the same “star reporter” who bought into the bogus sultan storms into town intent on redemption by turning her into a New York celebrity in her final weeks. Or months. However long it takes.

March, who’d age into many a distinguished role after WWII, was a decent substitute for the assorted Kings of Screwball (Cary Grant, William Powell– Lombard’s ex, others). All his Wally Cook needs is a break from his editor.

That would be Oliver Stone. Well, an “Oliver Stone,” harrumphing and threatening and played by Walter Connolly.

Ex-newspaperman Hecht and a whole Scout Troop of gag writers tarted up the dialogue surrounding Hazel’s Toast of New York trip in which she knows the awful truth, and drags her compliant tipsy doctor along for cover.

 “I’ll tell you briefly what I think of newspaper men,” the about-to-commit-fraud doctor lectures. “The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of degradation!”

A Vermont joke — “You lived here all your life?” “TWICE that long.”

And there’s lots of offhanded dark humor about the situation at hand.

“For good clean fun, there’s nothing like a wake!” “Oh please, let’s NOT talk shop!”

Reconsidered today, the picture feels like a dry and dry-eyed run at Frank Capra’s later and more highly-regarded “Meet John Doe,” a sentimental romantic comedy about a homeless hobo set up for a Voice of the Common Man newspaper hustle, only to be coopted by the oligarchs of his day.

“Meet John Doe” is funnier as well, and has a timeless quality “Sacred” seems to have lost.

Lombard and March click. There’s virtually no screen time wasted as it sprints along. And after that early racial insensitivity, a children’s choir comes along to serenade the “dying” Hazel, and you can’t help but notice it is integrated.

Even Walker the hustler makes a more amusing second entrance, running a “deliver flowers/steal flowers” scam in Hazel’s swank hotel.

Then we hit the scene in which Wally “has to” punch out Hazel and the grimaces return. Part of Lombard’s rep as “one of the boys” able to take a joke is seriously tested in this sequence, which begins with Hazel standing up and being repeatedly knocked down by a desperate, scheming and smitten Wally.

Watch where his hands land every time he shoves her. I’d like to think Lombard slapped his face between takes of that.

The “knock out” bit is something movies and TV shows toyed with, male violence against women played for laughs, with a lot of “Why I ougghtas” all the way through “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” and even “The Flintstones.”

Whatever audiences thought of that at the time, it’s not funny now. Not in the least. And one of the defenses of the racism/sexism in such films is how “that was the norm” and how “prevalent” it was. Then you see “Casablanca” and are reminded of how few films of the era went as far as “Nothing Sacred,” how “It was the norm” but plenty of Hollywood people knew it was wrong and managed to avoid putting caricatures in their films, or somehow managed to avoid “She needs a good spanking” as comedy.

Not Selznick. 

Accept a movie as representative of its time, appreciate how times have changed and take all that into account when you watch it. Let your jaw drop at the “I cannot believe they WENT there…in 1937!” But there’s no getting around the story elements that make “Nothing Sacred” problematic, that take you out  of the picture and won’t let it age well.

Some of the comedy is so seriously “not funny any more” that the luster is fading on this “classic” too fast for the shine to last. 

Rating: “approved”

Cast: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly, Margaret Hamilton, Sig Ruman, Troy Brown, Hattie McDaniel and Charles Lane.

Credits: Directed by William Wellman, scripted by Ben Hecht, with bits added by Moss Hart, Budd Schulberg, Davod O. Selznick, Ring Lardner Jr., Sidney Howard, Goerge S. Kaufman, George Oppenheimer, Ben Carson and William Wellman. A Selznick International production released through United Artists.

Running time: 1:17

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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