by Jay Seaver
What is the minimum standard of reproductive faithfulness that should be met when you see (and, especially, review) a movie? I ask this because when Nothing Sacred was recently used as late-night filler on a Boston public TV station, it was in black-and-white, despite the prominent credits for Technicolor. Even in monochrome, it's still an eminently watchable, funny screwball comedy. I can certainly recommend it on that count, but that raises the question as to whether the movie I'm recommending is the movie you'd be seeing.The story comes through clear enough - after his most recent story as exposed as a fake, journalist Wally Cook (Fredric March) seeks to rehabilitate his career with a story on a woman in Vermont dying of radium poisoning. Just as he arrives, though, Miss Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) learns that her diagnosis was, in fact, a mistake, and she's in perfect health. But when the newsman offers to take her to New York City, she plays along, as does her doctor, who has his own grudge against this newspaper. But when New York pours its heart out to her, Hazel starts to feel a little guilty, while Wally starts to feel a little smitten.
"Comedy isn't really as easy as movies like this make it look."
This movie is a Carole Lombard vehicle, and she is an utter delight. Mention her name to most modern moviegoers and they'll probably say the name is familiar, but won't necessarily connect it to anything. Her comedies were huge hits, she had two famous husbands (William Powell and Clark Gable), and was much beloved by everyone she encountered. She doesn't have a single role or a single film that really survives in the popular lexicon seventy years later (Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey are the province of film lovers; Mr. & Mrs. Smith is considered one of Hitchcock's weaker movies). She was a rare thing - a beautiful woman who makes being funny seem effortless. She doesn't seem to be striving, or delivering jokes - she's just dotty enough to make the crazy situations she gets into believable.
Her co-star, Frederic Marsh, mostly plays the straight man. He gets to be a big-city guy bumping up against small-town New Englanders who are, to put it mildly, laconic. He is, throughout most of the movie, the guy who is sane and honest, which means he'll often get upstaged by other actors, whether they be Lombard, Charles Winninger as Flagg's fraud of a doctor, or Walter Connolly as his editor in chief, Oliver Stone, whose volcanic temper leads to some marvelously articulate threats. It's only in the end, when he knows that Hazel is lying and get gets in on the deception, that he really gets to flex his comedy muscles, including a hilarious comic fight with Hazel in her hotel room.
Of course, this fight is funny, but it's one of a few scenes that just doesn't seem right. In the middle of it, after she punches him, he pops her one back. The comic timing and slapstick of it are perfectly executed, and I'm not going to say it was acceptable to see a man hit a woman even then, but now, it's almost automatic - you can't look at a guy punch a woman and not be shocked and creeped out. It's one of the movie's big comic set pieces, on the cover of one DVD and referred to in the original tagline ("See the big fight! LOMBARD vs MARCH!"), but it may be obsolete. Similarly, Troy Brown Jr. has a couple pretty funny scenes himself, but he plays his part as a stupid, toadying black man, which unfortunately overshadows the legitimately good jokes he's given.
The movie, I think, looks good. I say "I think" because not only was WGBH's broadcast in black-and-white, but so dark I had to crank the brightness on my TV up to 100%. The production values are spiffy, though, with lots of busy sets and nice design. The satire is a bit gentler than it might be in a present-day remake - there's no viciousness in how it depicts the newspapermen deciding that they have to lie to preserve their reputation, and Marsh's comments about how fickle and phony the population are toward the latest cause célèbre actually come off as unduly cynical. So light a touch might not be possible today, while the plot would probably be needlessly complicated to make the movie run another half hour rather than stay at its natural length of 75 minutes.Nothing Sacred is a fun screwball comedy, a genre Lombard absolutely owned during her too-brief career. I'll probably be seeing it again, if only to see it in color.
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originally posted: 01/24/05 21:56:52