A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman, 1937)

It's a bit startling to see a classic screwball comedy like Nothing Sacred in color. We're used to movies from the 1930s in the crisp elegance of black and white, so if you came across this movie without knowing anything about it, you might think it was one of those films that Ted Turner tried to "colorize." Part of the problem is that the tones in early Technicolor films are so muted: Some have faded with age, but getting the true sharp color contrasts that we're used to was more difficult in these early films, especially since Technicolor had very conservative ideas about what could be done with the process, and its "consultants," like the oft-credited Natalie Kalmus, the wife of the company's founder, were there to peer over the cinematographer's shoulder at all times. In addition, one of the problems with the color on Nothing Sacred is that a lapse of copyright on the film allowed many inferior prints to circulate before it could be restored to its original version. To my way of thinking, color adds little to this particular film, except in the glimpses of New York City in 1937. Carole Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, who, through a misdiagnosis by her small-town Vermont physician, Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger), is thought to be dying of radium poisoning. A New York reporter, Wally Cook, reads a short item about Hazel in the newspaper and persuades his editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), that it has the makings of a circulation-building sob story. Although Hazel and her doctor have subsequently learned that she's perfectly healthy, they agree to go along with the scheme to celebrate her as a dying heroine in the big city. And so it goes, in a frequently deft skewering of high-pressure journalism -- the very thing you might expect from the screenwriter, Ben Hecht, a former newspaperman who did a similar skewering in his play The Front Page. After Hecht had a falling-out with the film's producer, David O. Selznick, the screenplay was worked over by a number of uncredited wits, including Dorothy Parker, Moss  Hart, George S. Kaufman, and Budd Schulberg. The film could have used a somewhat lighter hand at directing: William A. Wellman is best known as a tough guy -- his nickname was "Wild Bill" -- with credits like Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and Battleground (1949), but he does get to stage a very funny fight scene between Lombard and March.

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