Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #34: "Nothing Sacred" (1937)

That means The Merry Suicide. The French really know how to sell a picture, huh?

The flick: Nothing Sacred (Selznick International Pictures, distributed by United Artists, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.3

Director: William A. Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Public Enemy, A Star is Born [1937, won Oscars for writing and directing]; known as a hell-raiser who hated actors; married four times; made 83 movies in 38 years)

Margaret Hamilton; Billy Barty
Actors of note
  • Carole Lombard (aka "the Profane Angel"; starred in To Be or Not to Be, My Man Godfrey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, much more; died in a plane crash at age 33)
  • Fredric March (Oscar winner for The Best Years of our Lives and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; nominated three more times; starred in Inherit the Wind, Seven Days in May, a great deal more)
  • Charles Winninger (Destry Rides Again, State Fair, Show Boat)
  • Walter Connolly (It Happened One Night, Libeled Lady)
  • Sig Ruman (Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 and The Fortune Cookie, the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and A Night in Casablanca
  • Frank Fay (Vaudeville star; was married to Barbara Stanwyck)
  • "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom (Boxing Hall of Fame inductee; appeared in The Bellboy, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, etc.)
  • Margaret Hamilton (two years from playing The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz; appeared in Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud, William Castle's 13 Ghosts, much more)
  • Raymond Scott and his Quintette (TV's Your Hit Parade; recorded "Powerhouse" and other music featured in Warner Brothers cartoons and The Ren & Stimpy Show)
  • Billy Barty (Willow, Legend, UHF, The Bride of Frankenstein, Foul Play, too much more to mention)
  • Troy Brown, Sr. (The Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races)
  • Hedda Hopper (B-movie actress turned infamous gossip columnist; known as "Queen of the Quickies")

Other notables: Original music by Oscar Levant (eccentric pianist, composer, noted wit, and member the Algonquin Round Table). Among those who contributed to the screenplay: Ben Hecht (so-called "Shakespere of Hollywood" and the credited screenwriter), James H. Street (given a "story by" credit), Moss Hart, Ring Lardner, Jr. (member of the Hollywood 10), George S. Kaufman, Budd Schulberg, George Oppenheimer, plus Wellman himself and producer David O. Selznick.

Big faker Carole Lombard
The gist of it: Hotshot Morning Star reporter Wally Cook (March) is in the doghouse with his temperamental editor, Oliver Stone (Connolly) after his latest discovery, a supposedly wealthy Eastern "potentate," turns out to be a plain old shoe shiner named Ernest Walker (Brown). Wally, Oliver, and the Star are the laughingstock of New York. But Wally promises his boss he's found his next great story -- a young Vermont woman named Hazel Flagg (Lombard) who's dying of "radium poisoning" from the local factory. Wally takes the first train to Hazel's hometown, Warsaw, to meet her in person. Meanwhile, Hazel's frequently-soused doctor, Enoch Downer (Winninger), has made a terrible discovery: Hazel isn't dying of anything. This upsets Hazel greatly, since she was looking forward to spend her life savings to finally get out of Warsaw on a big farewell spree.

Unaware of this new diagnosis, Wally catches Hazel as she emerges in tears from Dr. Downer's office and vows to take her and the good doctor back with him to New York. They agree, and soon Hazel is the toast of New York, gracing the cover of the Morning Star every day with gigantic headlines and inspiring tributes from all corners. Everywhere she goes, Hazel is treated as one of the greatest heroes in American history for her bravery in the face of death... even though she's not actually dying. Everything is going swimmingly until Wally, who has fallen in love with Hazel, brings in another doctor, the eminent medico Emil Eggelhoffer (Ruman), to examine the supposedly doomed girl. Desperate to keep her secret, Hazel will try anything, including faking her own suicide or feigning the symptoms of pneumonia, to keep from being exposed as a fraud. And once he learns the truth, Wally has no choice but to assist Hazel in perpetrating a public fraud.

Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole
My take: A comedy about the phoniness of the newspaper industry in particular and fraudulent media sensations in general, Nothing Sacred reminded me a bit of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas's unscrupulous reporter needlessly prolongs the rescue of a man trapped in a mine simply for the publicity and money it's generating. But Wilder's film, which was remade on The Simpsons as "Radio Bart," is much darker and is genuinely dismayed at human nature, while Wellman's film takes mankind's dishonesty as a given and cheerfully shrugs it off. Many tears are shed in this film over Hazel Flagg, and Nothing Sacred scoffs at every last one of them. On The Simpsons, fictional urchin "Timmy O'Toole" (actually Bart playing a prank) is treated like a hero simply for falling in a well, just as Hazel is elevated to the status of a goddess for contracting "radium poisoning."

In an incredible bit of timing, the previous article I wrote for this blog discusses "Hearts and Flowers," the song used in movies and television to denote false sympathy or mock tragedy. And, sure enough, that very tune plays on the soundtrack when a weepy Ernest, a fraud himself, reads Hazel's phony suicide note -- a document he discovered while ransacking her hotel room! The movie tells us that we pretend to mourn for public figures because it makes us feel better about ourselves, not because we really care about them. The closest this movie comes to sentimentality is in its depiction of Wally and Hazel's improbable love for one another, but even here, Wellman does not overplay his hand. Our lovebirds are never allowed to get cozy and romantic, at least not for long, before some new calamity arises. Besides, both characters are such utter goofballs that we don't really take them seriously as romantic figures.

Drew Friedman''s portrait of Raymond Scott
Beyond its parody of media sensationalism, Nothing Sacred is mainly interested in being a non-stop three-ring circus of entertainment. This is zany, fast-paced, sketch-comedy style humor which leans toward cartoon-like exaggeration rather than naturalism. The tone is set during the opening credits, which feature hand-painted, three-dimensional caricatures of the movie's four main actors. These grotesque figures are not unlike the Spitting Image puppets of the 1980s. It's no surprise to learn that the film's daffy, anything-goes script was used as the basis of a Martin and Lewis remake, Living It Up, seventeen years later.

While there's an escalating narrative throughout the entire film, Nothing Sacred also works as a series of vignettes, as when Wally arrives in Warsaw and is given the cold shoulder there by the tight-lipped townsfolk (including Margaret Hamilton) who mainly limit their responses to "yep" and "nope" and expect to be paid for their time. Then, there's a scene at a wrestling match (featuring Rosenbloom) which satirizes the staged phoniness of the sport -- tame by today's standards but ridiculous nevertheless. At one point, the wrestlers stop what they're doing for a ten-second moment of silence in Hazel's honor and then pick right back up again where they left off, which is to say knotted up in a human pretzel with the referee!

Possibly the most bizarre sequence is one set at a nightclub, where there is a musical tribute to the greatest women of history in Hazel's honor. While Raymond Scott and his band, unseen but unmistakable, play "novelty swing" arrangements of songs like "Yankee Doodle" and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," showgirls dressed as Lady Godiva, Catherine the Great, and Pocahontas parade across the stage in a garish, tasteless spectacle. Honestly, the participation of Raymond Scott in this movie excited me more than that of Carole Lombard or Fredric March. Though I'd been unwittingly exposed to his melodies for years thanks to Warner Brothers cartoons, I truly learned to appreciate Scott's oddball style of jazz through The Ren & Stimpy Show, which employed Scott's original recordings. It's nice that this eccentric musical innovator was able to enjoy a resurgence in popularity (including CD reissues of his work) before he died in 1994.

More troubling, though, is the fate of Carole Lombard, who died only five years after this movie. The whole plot is predicated upon the fact that Ms. Lombard has a long, healthy life ahead of her. Unfortunately, we in the audience know otherwise.

The 3D caricatures from Nothing Sacred. Compare these to the Spitting Image puppets.

Is it funny: Yes, for the most part. This is one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink movies, so some scenes are bound to work better than others for you as a viewer depending on what you find funny. For instance, I found it quite amusing when a group of schoolchildren gather outside Hazel's hotel room door while she's terribly hungover and serenade her with a rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," whose lyrics have been changed in her honor. But the ending of that scene, in which a squirrel crawls out of one boy's pocket and finds its way into Hazel's bed, didn't work for me. I tend to enjoy fast-paced newspaper comedies with cranky editors, so I got a lot of laughs out of Walter Connolly's character, Oliver, who is so fed up with Wally that he threatens to remove him "from the land of the living" and reassigns him to the obituary department.

Then again, some Swedish dialect comedy with a fireman (actually played by Canadian John Qualen) who comes to rescue the faux-suicidal Hazel didn't even raise a smile out of me. As for the film's violent comedic climax... well, it's tough to say. Without spoiling anything, I can say that I was genuinely surprised by it, possibly too shocked to actually laugh. It's a joke you'd never see in a modern live-action comedy, but it would be par for the course on Family Guy or an Adult Swim series. It's no coincidence that I keep making references to animation in this article. Nothing Sacred is that kind of movie.

My grade: A-

P.S. - This film starts with a heaping helping of racial stereotypes in the form of "shoeshine boy" Ernest Walker, whom Wally once refers to as "Old Black Joe" and whose exposure as a fraud causes Oliver to be serenaded with "Dixie" wherever he goes. Hattie McDaniel, two years from her Oscar-winning role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, plays Mrs.Walker, who shows up with her children at a gala event where her husband is pretending to be a foreign dignitary and shouts, "That's my husband!" as he bestows his benevolent blessing on the crowd. Later, Ernest will attempt to steal flowers from Hazel's hotel room to bring back to his wife. (He tells her he's getting the flowers "wholesale.") To be fair to Ernest, he does experience genuine sorrow when he discovers what he believes to be Hazel's suicide note. But for the most part, this is a dishonest, slow-witted, and buffoonish character.

And it doesn't end with Ernest. There's an Uncle Tom's Cabin joke, too, and a rendition of "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground." So maybe this isn't one to play during Black History Month.