Before Martin & Lewis – there was March & Lombard.
NOTHING SACRED is the original 1937 screwball comedy that inspired the Martin and Lewis remake, LIVING IT UP in 1954.
Vermont smalltown girl, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard, extra cute, extra red), has fatal “radium poisoning” and receives a hefty sum from her employer, with which she plans to visit New York for the first time. When she discovers her quack doctor misdiagnosed her, she is heartbroken, because she would have to return the money. Enter reporter Wally Cook (dashing Fredric March), from New York’s Morning Star newspaper, who offers to take what he thinks is dying Hazel to New York on the paper’s dime. Both parties think they’re benefitting: Wally gets an exclusive human interest story on Hazel’s last days, while Hazel and her doctor (Charles Winninger), by keeping mum about her health, get a free trip to New York.
When Hazel and Wally fall in love in the Big Apple, and Wally proposes, Hazel must find a way to tell Wally her impending death is a hoax. But the Morning Star editor who is footing Hazel’s gargantuan bill, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), finds out first, via a battery of European doctors led by Viennese Dr. Eggelhoffer (Sig Ruman); apoplectic, Stone hatches a more concrete-shoes demise for Hazel…
It is interesting enough to discover late in life that LIVING IT UP is a remake, but then to also discover that this precursor, NOTHING SACRED, holds up on its own merits when placed alongside the more frenetic Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin vehicle, as a riotous comedy and a dig at the corruption inherent in all strata of society. It’s the era of people-talking-fast, men-wearing-hats, trousers-up-to-nipples, and women-in-soft-focus, yet even when it tips into “theatrical acting,” the premise lends itself to big cheese, so we give it a pass.
And the filmmaking is pretty creative as well. Ben Hecht (who won the very first screenwriting Oscar in 1929) shotguns some choice dialogue (“Oliver Stone is a cross between a ferris wheel and a werewolf”; Stone himself declaring Hazel has “the soul of an eel and the brain of a tarantula”) and director William A. Wellman (soon to win Best Director 1938 for A STAR IS BORN) making interesting visual choices (two characters walk and talk, pausing behind a tree which obscures their faces during an exclamation point; two characters kiss unexpectedly while lying behind crates, and all we see are their legs reacting…). The production is engaging as well, the intro titles featuring tiny cartoon characters next to each name, even the smaller credits. And the bravery of including a scene where Wally must make Hazel emulate a coma, so roughs her up in an all-out well-intentioned brawl and then actually socks her on the jaw! It’s simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.
And not only is this the first comedy filmed in color (Technicolor), it is the first color film to use process shots (the sky-writing) and rear projections (when they’re in a boat, or on the plane).
Then there is the amusing detail of the editor’s name being Oliver Stone (not the conspiracy theorist filmmaker, just an arbitrary name back then). I guess names just repeat until someone hits it big with one and then it can’t be used anymore without some sniggering – like Raymond Burr’s Steve Martin character in 1954’s GODZILLA. Speaking of Godzilla, and hilarious and disturbing – Margaret Hamilton in a small scene (the Wicked Witch in THE WIZARD OF OZ).
This movie’s title, NOTHING SACRED, seeks to remind us of the ethical bankruptcy of all the players involved, from the editor (who would commit murder) to the female antagonist (committing fraud) to the doctor (complicit in the fraud) and the newsman who marries her (while aware of her crime). Every character tramps all over their supposed morals with nary a twinge of guilt. While the remake, LIVING IT UP, follows almost the exact same plot, its focus is more on the singular crime of the antagonists duping the newspaper.
NOTHING SACRED would give us a subtle moral dig when Hazel asks proposing Wally, “You mean you like me because I’m dying?” while LIVING IT UP would play that same dynamic for love-triangle laughs between Dean, Jerry and Janet Leigh.
In the end, Hazel must resort to suicide – or at least faking her suicide – to escape Oliver Stone’s “sluggers” and the loathing of New York City. There’s something here for modern audiences to take away: we might think that only recent orange politicians created the ethos of distracting from one hoax by creating another, but here it is on bold display from the 1930s. Is nothing sacred?
Well, the title always was a statement, not a question.