TCM played Nothing’s Sacred the other week; I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s a fun 1937 comedy with Carole Lombard and Frederic March, in dazzling 1937 Technicolor.
The plot is that a New York reporter seeking a tear-jerking human interest story finds a young woman in rural Vermont who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning. She isn’t, of course; she was simply misdiagnosed by her alcoholic rural doctor (played by familiar character actor Charles Winninger), but she goes along with it to get a free trip to New York City on the newspaper’s tab. The city relishes mourning her, but hijinks ensue as it grows increasingly hard to fake her incurable fatal illness.
It’s a potentially dumb plot, but as with many potentially dumb plots, it’s all about the excution. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of little touches that are so thematically consistent that it all adds up to a pretty entertaining and smart satire. For example, at a night club event where Hazel, our heroine, is being feted as one of the great women of history (including a stage show with a parade of Catherine the Great, Lady Godiva, Pocohontas– all on horseback), an average film would have cut to shots of other clubgoers looking mournfully at her. But in this, there are little extra touches: one of the “mourners” makes sure her table companions are watching her before she begins weeping; Hazel says “look at how miserable that man in the toupeé looks” (it’s not enough for there to be a miserable man looking at her, he has to have fake hair). And these individual acts of personal hypocrisy all add directly up to individual acts of public hypocricy. When she’s exposed as a fake to a small group of government officials and “community organizers” they force her to go through with a fake funeral because they have each individually found ways to politically profit from public sympathies to Hazel’s bravery in the face of her illness.
The staging and cinematography are surprisingly avant garde. Several shots where key dialogue is happening are made where the speakers are completely offscreen (or are obscured by some large object, and you only see the speakers’ feet). In the opening montage, there’s a gorgeous rare color shot of Times Square ca. 1937 at night.
The final scene, on a boat, where Hazel and the reporter are in dark glasses, making a getaway after her fake funeral, the reporter is lecturing Hazel on how quickly the public will forget her. Suddenly, from below, a voice is crying out “Hazel! Hazel!”. You see the doctor’s panicky face through a porthole, then you see the ocean as he sees it, and then he’s scrambling to get out of his room. “Hazel, the whole city is drowning!” And then “The End”. Like much of the movie, it’s sort of a cheap gag, “haha, the drunk doctor thinks they’re still in the city”, but with the preceding dialog and the way that it is cut abruptly short, there is more than a little hint that it’s meant as a little commentary as well.