Nothing Sacred (1937) is a film born of haste. Legend has it that legendary producer David Selznick was urged to make the film after his financing partner saw and fell in love with George La Cava’s seminal screwball My Man Godfrey (1936). Screwball was the genre of scrappers; rough, rowdy and always a step ahead. It made perfect sense for the film to be penned in a rush – quite literally. Acerbic screenwriting genius Ben Hecht claims he wrote the majority of the picture in four days, as he travelled on trains between New York and Los Angeles.
Nothing Sacred is an unstoppable force of brisk cynicism; a quickie that eschewed the tonal and structural elegance of its more celebrated contemporaries, resulting in a raucous, vivacious work of surprising stylistic innovation. Screwball queen Carole Lombard stars as Hazel Flagg, a resident of a sleepy Vermont town who receives news that her terminal case of radium poisoning was actually a misdiagnosis. Though delighted not to be dying, Hazel is still disappointed due to the fact that she was going to use the compensation money from her workplace to visit New York. Meanwhile, journalist Wally Cook (Fredric March) believes Hazel’s struggle with her impending death is just the story he needs to rescue his career after a recent scandal that resulted in his demotion at the Morning Star newspaper. Unaware of Hazel’s true circumstances, he takes her to New York to report her story and ensure her final days and luxurious and happy ones.
In many ways, Nothing Sacred is a curious outlier in the world of screwball. Filmed in Technicolor on the financier’s request (he was a stockholder in the company), it occupies a curious position; a subversive studio number that found new possibilities in its uncharacteristically brash aesthetics. It is surely one of the only American films of the era to draw on both broad slapstick and poetic realism. This amorphous approach to form is dynamite for cinephiles; we feel like we’re witnessing an alternative narrative for the classical American cinema. But the picture is elevated to true greatness by Hecht’s typically electrifying script that’s rich in deliciously barbed witticisms.The usual Hecht shooting gallery of the corrupt and the foolish are all present and correct, but beneath Nothing Sacred’s flippant disgust and pessimism, there’s a beating heart.
Wellman struck gold with Lombard and March, two actors who could capture the capriciousness of the times while retaining a sense of breezy romanticism. Lombard letting loose was always something to behold, but March helped coax the firecracker in Nothing Sacred; she simply dazzles. It may not have the social relevance of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) or the gentle charm of Bringing Up Baby (1938), but for prickly cynicism and choppy one-liners, Nothing Sacred is simply unbeatable.
The BFI’s Screwball! season runs up until 31 January, 2013. For more info and to book tickets, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.