Friday, January 30, 2009

Nothing Sacred (Selznick International, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The feature I ran us was Nothing Sacred, which I’d ordered not long ago on a public-domain DVD (the current print showing on TCM is probably a good deal better but this one was eminently watchable) and which was produced by David O. Selznick in 1937 as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and Fredric March. At the time Selznick’s business partner and chief financial backer was John Hay Whitney, who was also the board chair and a major investor in Technicolor — indeed, one of the reasons he bankrolled Selznick was in hopes that Selznick would make great films using the Technicolor process and that would convince other producers that even their more mundane productions could be gussied up in color for more audience appeal. This was a time in which it cost twice as much to make a film in color as it did in black-and-white, and so other producers mostly reserved color for big-budget spectaculars and (occasionally) musicals — or films like The Wizard of Oz that were both. Louis B. Mayer was cooler towards color than just about anyone else in Hollywood — that’s why only two of the eight Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musicals are in color, why he actually tried to talk Selznick out of making Gone With the Wind in color and why MGM cinematographer William Daniels said late in life that his one professional frustration was that he never got to shoot Greta Garbo’s blue eyes in color.

Selznick went so far to prove that color could be an attraction even for straightforward stories with a contemporary setting that in 1937 he filmed The Prisoner of Zenda — exactly the sort of big-budget costume picture that seemingly cried out for color — in black-and-white, while making A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred (both of which were contemporary stories and featured Fredric March in the male lead) in Technicolor. Nothing Sacred was directed (as was A Star Is Born) by William A. Wellman, but the real auteur (Schreiber theorists take note!) was its sole credited writer, Ben Hecht.

The film opens with a printed foreword (a Hecht trademark; later Selznick would use Hecht to write the title cards for Gone With the Wind and Portrait of Jennie even though he had nothing to do with the dialogue for those films) establishing New York as a city of swindlers, con artists and fakers even before the story proper begins. The film opens at a big banquet being given by Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), editor-in-chief of the New York Morning Star, whose star reporter, Wallace Cook (Fredric March), dug up the Sultan of Mazipan (Troy Brown) and extracted from him a promise to help fund a 27-building arts and entertainment complex by pledging to match every $1 contributed by New Yorkers with $10 of his own — only his wife (Hattie McDaniel) and their kids crash the banquet and reveal that the supposed “Sultan” is really a bootblack from Grand Central Station.

Stone demotes Cook to the obituary desk, but Cook sees a chance to redeem himself when he reads a short item about Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young woman in Warsaw, Connecticut — a company town for a firm that makes radium-numbered watches — who’s been diagnosed with radium poisoning by town doctor Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger, surprisingly restrained) and has expressed a wish to see New York in the few weeks she has left to live. After dealing with typically suspicious New England townspeople — whose whole vocabulary seems to consist of “yep” or “nope” and who are so suspicious of outsiders, especially New Yorkers, newspapermen or both, that in one of the film’s funniest scenes a kid from one of the local houses charges out of his front yard and, like a dog, actually bites Cook on the leg.

Flagg gets her trip to New York courtesy of the Star, but not before Dr. Downer calls her back to his office and tells her he misdiagnosed her and she’s not dying at all. From then on the story turns on the suspense of when and how Hazel will be revealed as a fake, while in the meantime she’s being built up into an enormous human-interest story, she’s getting the key to the city and a tour of all its nightclubs as well as its more sedate tourist attractions — and, of course, she and Cook complicate the issue by falling in love with each other.

Nothing Sacred isn’t as relentlessly paced as some of the other screwball comedies of the period, and despite the dramatic difference in the class positions of their female leads the story’s debt to It Happened One Night is all too clear — but it’s still a great film, and the story’s basic premise is sturdy enough that it got remade in 1955 as Living It Up, a vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with Lewis in the Lombard role, Janet Leigh in the March role and Martin in the Winninger role, while Sig Ruman repeated his role as “Dr. Egilhoffer” — the same name Hecht and Charles MacArthur used for their incompetent psychiatrist in The Front Page — the Viennese specialist in radiation sickness who finally “outs” Hazel as not terminally ill at all and precipitates the third act.

Afraid that the whole “Hazel Flagg” story will go the way of the “Sultan of Mazipan” and the other fakes the Morning Star has promoted and their competitors have gleefully exposed, Stone and Cook decide to worm their way out of it by faking Hazel Flagg’s death — and the final scene shows Cook, Hazel and Dr. Downer on a South Seas cruise (with the sort of brilliant-orange sunset that recurs again and again in Selznick’s color movies, including Gone With the Wind and Duel in the Sun), with Hazel upbraiding a fellow passenger who thinks she looks like Hazel Flagg — “I don’t want to be compared to that fake!” she says in an outraged tone of voice, to which the woman who approached her responds, “Don’t say anything bad about Hazel Flagg, young woman! She faced her death with great courage” — and Hazel then worries about being recognized when they get back to New York, while Cook assures her that by the time they return she’ll have been totally forgotten, which sends Hazel into one of those marvelously comic hissy-fits Carole Lombard played so well. It’s a nice movie to begin with and Hecht’s cynicism about the news business seems all too modern even though some of the story dates badly — newspapers may be dying but the manufactured “news event” lives and thrives all too well!