“The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of ’em to the depths of degradation.”
— A small-town doctor about the worth of newspaper reporters in “Nothing Sacred”.
Certainly, William Wellman’s “Nothing Sacred” (1937) is one of his best films, and one of the better screwball comedies of the era. It’s not as good as films like Howard Hawks’ sublimely zany “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, or “His Girl Friday” (1940), Ernst Lubitch’s “Trouble In Paradise” (1932), “My Man Godfrey” (1936) or “Twentieth Century” (1934) — but it is quality, largely because of a witty script and the personalities of its leading actors, Fredric March and the underrated Carole Lombard.
As with most screwball comedies, the plot is unbelievable hijinks. Lombard is Hazel Flagg, a small-town girl who mistakenly believes she’s dying of radium poisoning. Seeing a human-interest story that will help sell newspapers, exploitative The New York Morning Star journalist Wally Cook (March) heads to the town of Warsaw, Vermont, to bring Hazel to New York City and turn her into a media darling. Problem is, her drunken doctor tells her he is mistaken, and she really isn’t dying. Wanting a free trip to New York, Hazel decides to let Cook believe she is still truly dying. Cook is in the doghouse already with his newspaper, after trying to pass off a phony story about an ordinary black man from Harlem.
He claims the man is the “Sultan of Mazipan” (a nominal piece of genius), and with the help of the newspaper, hosts a charity event where the fraud pledges to match every dollar the attendees give with 10 of his own. Of course, the man is really a shoe-shiner and huckster, and later Cook is demoted to writing obituaries. Unluckily for Cook (or perhaps it’s just deserts), the story he chooses to cover to get back in good standing also happens to be fraudulent. He gets hoodwinked just as he’s tried to fool others. And that’s where the main part of the comedy begins. Hazel takes a plane to New York, looks out the window and sees a plane scripting a welcome to her in the sky, courtesy of the city. She attends lavish shows, is put up at the Ritz, and is lauded as a hero by the city, for braving her fate with one last gay hurrah. The city is taken in by her story, and a wave of sympathy sweeps New York.
As much fun as this film is, there’s a dark cynical thread running underneath it. It presents a world where everyone is a fraud. It’s a world where a newspaper pretends to care about a dying girl in order to print a story that sells. Where a girl lies just to get a vacation. Where an ever-tantalized public latches onto a story, more for the sorry details than real sympathy. Even the doctors who find Hazel out in the end, swear to the newspaper editor never to tell anyone the truth of their findings. It’s difficult to tell just how much of this script Ben Hecht wrote. The story is that Hecht (a former Chicago newspaper man also prone to inventing stories) wrote a part in the film for friend Lionel Barrymore, which upset producer David O. Selznick, because Barrymore had a severe drinking problem at the time. The final straw for Hecht was Selznick demanding a happy ending, in what was meant to be a scathing comedy about lies and falsity. In the end, Hecht walked off the set and apparently Selznick worked on the screenplay himself a little, but it was largely finished by Budd Schulberg, Dorothy Parker, Wellman, Ring Lardner, Jr., George S. Kaufman, Sidney Howard, Moss Hart, and Robert Carson.
Whatever the case, the true hero of this film is the dialogue, and the joyously funny last quarter of the film. The newspaper finds out that Hazel is a fraud and she then begins to fake sickness again. This time, she has pneumonia. Cook, who at this point has fallen in love with her, rushes to her side, to help her carry off the ruse. The clock is ticking before the doctors are to arrive to examine Hazel yet again. Cook says Hazel should fight with him and wrestle around in order to get her heart racing, put her into sweats, and give her the appearance of being tired out. She resists, until Cook baits her by calling her a big phony as he mentions all the bad things he’s going to do to pay her back when they’re married. Hazel tires from trying to punch Cook before he tells her not to forget to put the thermometer in her mouth when she regains consciousness. A second before she realizes just what that means, he socks her one in the jaw. It’s a classic scene, that by itself might seem misogynistic, until Cook also gets rattled with Hazel’s best uppercut. It’s hard not to imagine the first punch being Wellman’s, followed by a stiff Parker rebuttal to the chin.