“There she is, in all her beads and ribbons!”
How Manhattan is Nothing Sacred? To be more Manhattan, it would have to be Manhattan. Because once more we’re on that magical isle, where everyone’s a wiseguy, everything’s a hustle, every heart gets broken, and every dream comes true.
Everything about Nothing Sacred shrieks “Algonquin Round Table,” but as is so often the case in New York, appearances are deceiving. The script for this 1937 screwball classic, one of the first comedies shot in Technicolor, was written by Round Table habitué Ben Hecht, but it was based on a short story, “Letter to the Editor,” by James Street, a serious out of towner from Lumberton, Mississippi who somehow made a career change from Baptist minister in St. Charles, Missouri to reporter for the New York World-Telegram.1
The twist in Nothing Sacred is that the rubes are hustling the slickers. Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a sweet young thing in Warsaw, Vermont, works in a watch factory and is dying of radium poisoning.2 Two-fisted reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) of the Morning Star is in the doghouse with his two-fisted editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly).3 He figures that bringing poor Hazel to the Big Apple for one taste of real life before falling prey to the Grim Reaper would be a great promotional stunt for the Star.
Warsaw turns out to be a microcosm, or maybe macrocosm, of everything everyone in New York ever left home to get away from. The place is more corrupt than Chicago and less exciting than Dullsville, Ohio. The Paragon Watch Company has no interest in any New York reporter snooping around and puts out the word to give Wally the cold shoulder (and, in a famous scene, a bitten leg).
Wally, searching for Hazel, can’t wait to get out of town. Neither, it turns out, can Hazel. In fact, she’s ready to go out feet first. When she learns from boozy Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) that she’s not sick after all but sound as a dollar, she’s fit to be tied. Death was looking pretty good, compared to another thirty years painting watch dials. When Wally tracks her down at the doc’s place and explains his plan to bring her to Gotham, Hazel decides to forget all about her most recent diagnosis. She’ll get a free trip to civilization, and, when the hubbub dies down, she can slip back to Warsaw and “die.”
To make things even more exciting, and to ensure that Hazel is still breathing when she hits New York, the Star decides to fly her down. Technicolor aerial shots of the Manhattan skyline were a big deal back in 1937, and the film gives us a generous serving. When he sees the Bride of the Hudson, tough guy Wally can’t contain himself. “There she is,” he cries, “in all her beads and ribbons!”
New York takes Hazel to its heart, and she loves it. She’s got a deluxe hotel suite and all the champagne she can drink. The only problem is, she’s not dying, and Wally’s falling in love with her. She’s so pure and brave, not like the big-city phonies he’s been wasting his time with, the kind of big-city phony he used to be. He wants to dedicate his life to her memory.
Hazel hates to see the poor guy suffer. She’d like to give him the good news, except that then he wouldn’t love her any more. It’s a very nice comic conundrum, and Lombard and March milk it for all it’s worth.
Although Nothing Sacred was never a Broadway play, it has the sort of tableaux that were big on thirties Broadway. Hazel goes to a nightclub whose floorshow features “Heroines of History” riding onstage on horseback. (Broads on horses were always box office.) Later, there is a classic “chaos” sequence when a hung-over Hazel has to listen to an elementary school glee club sing a “We’re sorry you’re dying, Hazel” song dedicated to her. While the club sings, Hazel gets bitten by a freckle-faced kid’s pet squirrel.4 Finally, and most famously, Lombard and March take turns punching each other out.5
Some delicate souls might consider Nothing Sacred racist, because it depicts black men (or at least one black man) as fat, ignorant, and promiscuous (but good-natured withal). Well, maybe it is racist.
In the early fifties, a musical version of Nothing Sacred called Hazel Flagg played on Broadway. In 1954 it was turned into the film Living It Up, with Jerry Lewis taking over Lombard’s role and Dean Martin as the drinking doc. Janet Leigh became Wally Cook, and fell in love with Dean instead of Jerry. Unfortunately (or not), the film isn’t available on video.
It appears that the copyright has expired on Nothing Sacred and it’s floating around in a variety of formats. The Slingshot DVD I have has not-bad color (though I wonder if it couldn’t be better), with the nice bonus of two funny Mack Sennett one-reelers from the twenties that feature Lombard as a blonde bad girl. In both Campus Vamp and Matchmaking Mama she struggles unsuccessfully to woo pretty boy Matty Kemp away from sensible brunette Sally Eilers. Overall, picture quality for the two shorts is quite good, although both have strange, brief sequences featuring the Sennett bathing beauties in less than living color. In addition, there are short home movies featuring Lombard and hubby Clark Gable.
- You can read an online bio of Street courtesy of The Mississippi Writers and Musicians Project of Starkville High School in Starkville, Mississippi. The bio was written by Lindsay Roberts, who, one must say, is as cute as a button. [↩]
- Back in the good old days, the modern miracle of radium paint was used to paint watch hands and dials, so that you could read the time in the dark. Young women who did this on the assembly line would lick their brushes to maintain a tip on the brush. Unlike Hazel Flagg, some of them really did get radium poisoning and some of them did die. [↩]
- Hecht more or less invented the two-fisted reporter/editor genre when he wrote The Front Page with Charles MacArthur in 1928. Since I haven’t been able to find a copy of Street’s short story, I don’t know how much is Hecht and how much is Street. [↩]
- The Man Who Came to Dinner features a similar sequence in which a nurse is bitten by a penguin. Funny stuff! [↩]
- A year later, Ginger Rogers got punched out by Ralph Bellamy in Carefree (Fred wanted to do it but didn’t have the nerve). And of course Cary Grant knocked Katherine Hepburn down in The Philadelphia Story. [↩]