Scen.: Ben Hecht. F.: W. Howard Greene. M.: James E. Newcom. Scgf.: Lyle Wheeler. Mus.: Oscar Levant. Int.: Carole Lombard (Hazel Flagg), Fredric March (Wally Cook), Walter Connolly (Oliver Stone), Charles Winninger (Dr. Downer), Sig Ruman (Dr. Eggelhoffer), Frank Fay (maestro di cerimonie), Margaret Hamilton (donna nel drugstore), Olin Howland (facchino alla stazione), Billy Barty (bambino che morde). Prod.: David O. Selznick per Selznick International Pictures. 35mm.
A “screwball satire” (Pauline Kael) and a biting comedy about journalism, Nothing Sacred is one of Wellman’s most celebrated films and one of the least related to his own canon. Comedy was not his terrain – this film rips right through the delicate fabric of the Thirties’ genre variations (sophisticated, screwball, romantic). It remains a black-tinged comedy even if we know right from the start Nothing Sacred that Hazel Flagg’s illness is first an incorrect diagnosis, and then a hype; but dark tension fills the air, the verb to die mercilessly drops from mouth to mouth, doc- tors show up like crows and journalists like vultures, and flowers colored with the pastel of early Technicolor are strewn about the shots, imbuing them with a sense of decay. There is nothing sacred to console us, not even love: “Do you love me?” asks Carole Lombard. “It isn’t love. It’s an abnormal interest in criminals”, answers Fredric March. That line does not actually appear in the film. It is in an early draft of Ben Hecht’s screenplay (cf. Giaime Alonge, Scrivere per Hollywood, where we discover that Dorothy Parker was called on “to clean up the dialogue”), but it captures the film’s anti-sentimental and defiant mood. Muckraking journalists, newspaper editors who are the comic, ulcerous version of gangsters, front pages used for wrapping fish, all set in a New York ready to applaud the entertainment provided by a photogenic dying girl (are we in a Guy Debordian farce?) – who in turn is a small time crook. James Harvey perceptively observed that this city is not so much subject to moral satire as it is to a vision like Holden Caulfield’s: as for Salinger’s character, New York is above all a place full of phonies. New York, however, is also a dream, Hazel Flagg’s dream, the dream that only death can buy. Wellman uses his masterful ability with aerial shots to reveal thrilling city views, the skyscrapers’ pattern of stone and glass, the Hudson River and the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty right outside the plane window… The pure and raw satire of Nothing Sacred is concentrated in the film’s first fifteen minutes, between the heights of Wellman’s cinema and American film of the 1930s, and its target is rural life. Just barely escaping a career in the obituaries, reporter Wally takes a train to Vermont and finds himself in a sinister afterworld, a step-back-in-time fantasy with grim and misshapen passers-by,blunt distrust, yep and nope, broods of kids biting the calves of intruders. Grotesque and stifling provincial life figures frequently in American comedies of the 1930s (e.g. in Boleslawski’s Theodora Goes Wild or even in some of Frank Capra’s works): but here we stand – even if only for a moment – on the threshold of horror, as if Grant Wood’s American Gothic all of a sudden started moving… The film was one of David O. Selznick’s first independent productions: his Vermont is also a bit like a hallucinatory color version of the Wizard of Oz‘s Kansas, and it features Margaret Hamilton, soon-to-be the Wicked Witch of the West.