Although I didn’t watch it for this reason, Nothing Sacred turned out to be a perfect and hilarious companion film to Dark Victory. It is a satire of celebrity, media sensationalism and the strong urge of people to experience compassion via entertainment.
Wally Cook (Fredric March) is the best journalist at the Morning Star, though he is currently in the bad books of editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for a hoax involving a bootblack (Troy Brown) disguised as a sultan (the bootblack is found out when his wife, played by Hattie McDaniel, shows up with their children). But Wally is a very persuasive man and convinces Stone to relieve him of writing obituaries and let him follow up a story of a young woman dying of radium poising. His idea is to bring her back to New York, where she will naturally become the toast of the city (because she’s dying), which will sell lots of Morning Star papers.
The young lady, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), lives in Warsaw, Vermont, the unfriendliest town around. People say “yep” and “nope” and won’t give information without first being payed, while their children are downright mean (one child bites Wally on the leg for no particular reason). Hazel wants out and it’s hard to blame her. She thought she was going to get a free trip to New York (because she’s dying), but when Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) tells her that he made a mistake and she’s not really dying, she doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad (“It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”). So when Wally Cook arrives and wants to take her to New York, she jumps at the chance and brings Dr. Downer along with her to help her play at being terminally ill.
Hazel Flagg becomes a sensation. She’s in all the newspapers (which are then shown to wrap fish), goes to events where moments of silence are observed in her honor. She’s pointed out at nightclubs, receives the key to the city and encounters tearful people everywhere she goes, all drowning in admiration and sadness for her. She starts to feel guilty about making everyone so sad. But worst of all is that Wally starts to fall in love with her (in between arranging a funeral were a quarter of a million people will attend and a state holiday declared) and Hazel is afraid that when the hoax is discovered she’ll ruin his career.
Of course her hoax is discovered, but nothing goes as one would expect. People are simply too invested in the narrative of the girl heroically and inspirationally going to meet her death.
William Wellman directs this film (with an irreverent script by Ben Hecht) at breakneck speed. Sometimes, comedies can get tangled up in the end with sentiment, but not Nothing Sacred, which lives up to its title. But the romance still manages to be sweet, as Wally asks Hazel to marry him, even though he believes she’s going to die, and talks about how a few perfect moments are better than a lifetime. It’s funny – because she’s not going to die at all – but it’s also sweet. It’s also funny because she’s just tried unsuccessfully to fake a suicide (which he believes is real) because she can’t see any way out of the mess she’s gotten herself into. Dripping wet, they pledge their love in a packing crate and are then interrupted by a fireman. And then Wally forgets to offer his coat to his fiance, leaving the fireman to do the gallant thing.
Fredric March is not an actor I’ve thought about much one way or the other (though I’ve enjoyed many of his movies), but I was impressed with him here. As Wally, he shifts believably from journalist huckster to sincere lover without overplaying either, though in the end he remains a little bit of both. He’s a grounded comedian, but still gets his laughs.
Carole Lombard is another actor I have been warming to. I first saw her in My Man Godfrey, which convinced me for the longest time that I did not like Carole Lombard. She was hyper and generally too much for me. But Hands Across the Table changed my mind and I’ve come to agree that she is a very fine comedian. It’s hard to put my finger on just what makes her so funny. Oftentimes, it’s simply her facial expressions, though she can certainly do slapstick with the best of them.
There are so many laugh-out-loud moments (one favorite is the attempted-suicide scene – with practically the entire city looking for her). And though it was made two years before Dark Victory, moments still play like a satire, such as when Hazel says she wants to go off alone to die – “like an elephant.” And I got a big chuckle out of the four radium poisoning specialists who come to analyze Hazel. Sig Ruman leads the way as Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer, from Vienna. The other doctors are from Prague, Moscow and Berlin and I couldn’t help but wonder how they got these doctors together. This is 1937, so presumably one is a communist and the other a Nazi.
Near the end, when Oliver Stone has discovered that Hazel is not really dying and is sputtering with anger, Wally says that the people of New York ought to be thanking the Morning Star for what they did, even if Hazel is a fake. It gave people what they wanted – an opportunity to feel maudlin and sorry for someone. That got my attention, because I had been reading an article a little while ago in the Wall Street Journal called “Leonardo DiCaprio, Meet St. Augustine,” by Daniel Ross Goodman. The author was discussing why people enjoy watching movies where people suffer (and why actors tend to win Oscars for portraying people who suffer). According to St. Augustine, it’s not sadism; it’s an innate desire to experience compassion and remind ourselves that there is goodness in us. As Goodman writes, “When we see suffering depicted in a movie, our empathetic itch is scratched, giving us the sensation that we have exercised true empathy.”
Nothing Sacred mocks this thoroughly…at least the hollow side of this phenomenon, where people can congratulate themselves secretly for feeling good without ever doing anything genuinely compassionate. Though I wouldn’t say that is the message of the movie. It’s not a message picture, but a very funny satire that shrewdly hits on some truths about human nature.