The concept of 15 minutes of fame didn't begin with the O.J. Simpson trial (remember Kato Kaelin?) or reality TV. As long as there's been media and a public eager to worship celebrities, there have been opportunists looking to seize the spotlight, bask in adoration, and revel in the perks of notoriety. The press - the nasty, heartless fourth estate - fuels and feeds the fire, exploiting its willing subjects to a fare-thee-well, all in the name of increased circulation and profits. It's a codependent, love-hate relationship, and few movies explore it with more bite than 'Nothing Sacred.' William Wellman's classic film may be approaching its 75th birthday, but its themes are as relevant and true today as they were back in 1937.
At the time of its release and for many years afterward, 'Nothing Sacred' was not only regarded as a searing attack on our society's preoccupation with celebrity and insatiable hunger for scandal, but also a supremely funny screwball comedy filled with daffy characters, clever repartee, and slapstick situations. The laugh quotient, for whatever reason, has waned over the past few decades, but the message remains potent. In fact, if ever a motion picture put its finger on one of America's raw nerves, it's 'Nothing Sacred.'
Wally Cook (Fredric March) was once the ace reporter for the New York Morning Star, but after his plan to pass off a shoeshiner as a sultan is exposed as a hoax, he's demoted to the obituary desk. In a last ditch effort to return to the limelight, he convinces his editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) - yes, Oliver Stone! - to let him pursue (exploit?) the tragic story of Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a young woman from Warsaw, Vermont afflicted with terminal radium poisoning (yes, terminal radium poisoning!). Wally wants to bring the girl to New York, spread her sad, sad story across the paper's front pages, and ride the tidal wave of sympathy back to the apex of the business. And his editor is only too willing to endorse the scheme.
Unbeknownst to Wally, however, Hazel discovers right before his arrival that she's been misdiagnosed by her doctor (Charles Winninger), and is as healthy as a horse. But the sheltered Hazel has never traveled beyond Warsaw's bucolic meadows, and deeply desires a trip to the Big Apple. So just as Wally uses Hazel as a comeback vehicle, she sees him as her ticket out of town. And when she arrives in New York along with her doctor, who helps her perpetuate the masquerade (how's that for ethics?), she takes the city by storm, becoming a tragic figure of epic proportions. Even the jaded Wally gets sucked into the hype, as pity turns to love. Yet after an initial honeymoon period, New York's dying darling soon succumbs to celebrity fatigue, unable to handle the demands of the public, lack of privacy, and constant risk of exposure. Hazel wants out, but quickly discovers getting out of a jam isn't nearly as easy - or as fun - as getting into one.
The cynical edge of Ben Hecht's screenplay remains its greatest asset. Almost every character has an agenda, no matter how good-hearted they seem on the surface, and they don't hesitate to use others to achieve their goals. And when and if they're found out, they don't care who they've hurt or hoodwinked as long as they got what they set out to achieve. It's not a pretty portrait of humanity, but it's a true one, and Hecht paints it with relish. The humor, however, now feels dated and forced; even the famous scene where March and Lombard take swings at each other has lost its comic zing. The script still provokes some chuckles, but doesn't produce the belly laughs it surely inspired decades ago.
Lombard was one of the most gifted comic actresses ever to grace the screen, and her portrayal of Hazel, along with her madcap turn as Irene Bullock in 'My Man Godfrey' the previous year, stands as her most noteworthy work. Her vivacity, impeccable timing, and affinity for the ridiculous - not to mention her palpable beauty - make Lombard both a riveting presence and approachable personality, and her death in a plane crash a mere five years later at the tender age of 33 remains one of Hollywood's most devastating tragedies. (Her husband at the time, Clark Gable, reportedly never got over it.) Hazel may be naive, but she's not stupid, and Lombard nails the dichotomy, playing her with a wonderful mix of innocence and calculation, so it's difficult to gauge her level of sincerity at any given moment. Yet despite her duplicity, Lombard makes Hazel so adorable, we continually root for her to escape retribution.
The Oscar-winning March (who won Best Actor awards for the original 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and classic post-war drama 'The Best Years of Our Lives') only performed in a handful of comedies during his long career, so it's a treat to see him kick up his heels here. His deadpan performance is surprisingly funny, and he and Lombard enjoy a comfortable chemistry that makes their peculiar romance believable. A top-flight supporting cast, led by the always hilarious Connolly and featuring bits by a pre-Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton, a pre-Mammy Hattie McDaniel (blink and you'll miss her), Hedda Hopper, and a pre-Sheridan Whiteside Monty Woolley (who's little more than an extra and doesn't speak a single line), also enliven the proceedings.
At 73 minutes, 'Nothing Sacred' breezes by, but it's got some meat on its bones, and its substance far outweighs its gags. As an indictment of America's shallow nature, gullibility, and the media's willingness to manipulate and exploit for monetary gain, as well as a send-up of small-town bigotry, Wellman's film hits the bull's-eye. And in this age of Kardashians, Snooki, and real housewives galore, it remains an accurate portrait of the celebrity circus that continues to rule our culture. In our current world, nothing indeed is sacred, and this classic satire proves maybe it was always that way.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nothing Sacred' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is English LPCM 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Nothing Sacred' has languished in the public domain for decades, so when Kino announced its Blu-ray release in an authorized edition from the estate of producer David O. Selznick, I had high hopes for the video quality. Those hopes were further buoyed by the claim on the packaging that the movie was "mastered in HD from an original Technicolor nitrate 35mm print, preserved by George Eastman House Motion Picture Department." I wasn't expecting a restoartion by any means, but anticipated something better than I might see were I to watch the film for free on the Internet. Unfortunately, the quality of Kino's transfer doesn't measure up.
Let's start with the good news. 'Nothing Sacred' sports fine clarity and well-modulated contrast. Close-ups exude a lovely level of detail and background elements are fairly easy to discern. Grain is present, but rarely overpowers the image, lending the movie a natural film-like feel. Any digital doctoring escapes notice, making this a straightforward, faithful presentation of a 1930s film.
The bad news is all about the shabby source material, making diehard Golden Age film buffs like myself rue the shoddy treatment classics like 'Nothing Sacred' have received over the past several decades. This print is littered with almost every imperfection imaginable. A barrage of specks and marks, ranging from black, white, blue, and green, continually crop up; vertical lines rain down with alarming frequency; there are missing frames, reel change markers, and ragged transitions. Most distressing of all is how anemic the Technicolor looks. Lush hues and intense saturation are distinguishing elements of early color films, but 'Nothing Sacred' appears faded and washed out; even Lombard's blonde locks lack depth and vibrancy.
The transfer is far from unwatchable, but all the nagging issues steer our attention away from the on-screen action and keep us fantasizing about how good the picture could look were it given the proper restoration and refurbishment it so desperately needs and deserves.
An LPCM 2.0 mono track provides passable sound, but it's immediately apparent little or no clean-up work was performed on the audio. Light surface noise and a healthy smattering of pops occur constantly throughout the film, and the tinny quality that's a hallmark of vintage soundtracks often lends voices an unwelcome shrillness. Dynamic range remains limited throughout, with a few instances of distortion on the high end and not much weight on the low scale. Dialogue is the essential aural element, and the exchanges are generally clear and easy to comprehend.
For a 75-year-old film that hasn't been restored, this is pretty typical audio. Unfortunately, bigger studios have spoiled us with impressive restorations of movie soundtracks from the same vintage, so it's difficult not to be disappointed here.
Not much in the way of supplements adorn the disc. A featurette chronicling the film's production and examining its consistently relatable subject matter would have been a welcome addition to the package, but no such luck.
'Nothing Sacred' may not be as funny as it once was, but it's still relevant. As long as there's media scrambling for a story and a society that exalts celebrity, there will be self-centered subjects all too eager to manipulate the process. William Wellman's screwball farce takes the bull by the horns and depicts the crazy circus with surprising acuity. Unfortunately, this public domain title has been through the ringer, and even a preserved print doesn't make the grade. Banged up video, mediocre audio, and virtually no supplements drag down this disc's appeal, but the film is still worth a look for its performances and potent statements about our heartless, selfish society.