Blog Directory CineVerse: A sacred screwball

A sacred screwball

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

One of the screwballiest of comedies released in the 1930s is William Wellman’s sharp satire of the media and celebrity culture Nothing Sacred, starring Carol Lombard and Fredric March. Our CineVerse group fine-tooth-combed this film last week and came away with strong favorable impressions, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).

What emerges as unforeseen, enjoyable, offbeat, or noteworthy about Nothing Sacred?

  • Most of the comedy still works today, from slapstick moments like the kid biting Wally’s leg (which works as an in-joke about how a ‘man biting a dog’ is more newsworthy than a dog biting a man, in this case, a child biting a dog of a man) to the sexually-tinged quips delivered by the emcee during the “Heroines of History” floorshow to the running gag of the small-town folk saying only “yep” and “nope” when Wally asks them questions. The comedic lines are crackling and sharp throughout:
    • “You're a newspaperman. I can smell 'em. I've always been able to smell 'em. Excuse me while I open the window?”
    • "I'll tell you briefly what I think of newspapermen. The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn't elevate one of them to the depths of degradation."
    • “He's sort of a cross between a Ferris wheel and a werewolf. But with a lovable streak if you care to blast for it."
  • The film’s pedigree is impressive: Produced by David O Selznick; directed by Wellman; written by Ben Hecht (known for His Girl Friday, Scarface, Notorious, Spellbound, Kiss of Death, and countless other screenplays); polished by contributing writers Ring Lardner Jr., Budd Schulberg, Moss Hart, George S Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker; scored by Oscar Levant, Alfred Newman, and Max Steiner; and starring Lombard and March with a winning supporting cast.
  • There are some cringe-worthy non-PC moments, including racial stereotyping of a heavyset black man, use of the word “darkies,” and the punching of a woman in the face, that date this film and detract from the entertainment value.
  • This film falls firmly within the screwball comedy subgenre—movies that often featured:
    • Farcical stories and situations—where the film pokes fun at stereotypical characters, such as fatcat filthy rich fathers and spoiled rotten daughters (such as My Man Godfrey)
    • Fast pacing in the humor and repartee, direction, editing, and dialogue delivery (like His Girl Friday)
    • Physical humor, including slapstick (Bringing Up Baby), pratfalls (The Lady Eve), and sight gags (To Be Or Not To Be), often used to elicit major laughs and make dignified characters look ridiculous
    • A plot centered on courtship and marriage (The Philadelphia Story) or remarriage (The Awful Truth)
    • Themes highlighting the differences between upper and lower socioeconomic classes, with many of the settings taking place among the high society but involving a likable male love interest from the other side of the tracks (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night)
    • A female lead who is often strong-willed, determined, and sometimes tomboyish, commonly depicted as stronger and even smarter than her male counterpart (Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Eve)
    • A story involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding, or the keeping of an important secret, occasionally involving cross-dressing or masquerading (Some Like it Hot, Bringing Up Baby)
    • A classic battle of the sexes between a man and a woman, with the male lead’s masculinity often challenged by a strong female love interest (The Awful Truth)
    • Colorful supporting characters with quirky personalities (Barry Fitzgerald’s gardener in Bringing Up Baby, Mischa Auer’s protégé Carlo in My Man Godfrey)
    • Often a secondary character (such as a third wheel male suitor) who is more prim, proper, and boring (Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth)
    • The golden period of screwball comedies was between 1934 and 1944, bookended somewhat between It Happened One Night and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Major themes

  • Media sensationalism and yellow journalism. This movie satirizes the immoral and dishonest practices of newspapers and reporters, who would practically sell their souls to get a scoop on a hot story. The filmmakers also suggest how disposable and unpleasant the newspaper product is, as evidenced by how it is used to wrap dead fish.
  • The public’s fickle fascination with celebrity culture and human interest stories. Film reviewer Casey Broadwater wrote: “What stands out here is just how scathing (Ben) Hecht's script is when it comes to satirizing the muckraking, tragedy-mongering tendencies of newspapers and the disingenuous sympathy of their readers, who delusionally believe--as Oliver puts it--that their "phony hearts" are "dripping with the milk of human kindness." When, in actuality, of course, they just want to gawk and gossip and revel in another's misfortune.”
  • People are self-serving and materialistic everywhere – from the Big Apple to the small towns like Warsaw, Vermont. Film credit Emmanuel Levy wrote: “The movie presents a counter-view to Hollywood’s predominant imagery of small-town. Nothing Sacred is a rare film in that it suggests that there are no significant differences between small-town and big city’s folks since their conduct is shaped by similar (selfish) motivations.”

Similar works

  • It Happened One Night
  • Libeled Lady
  • The Talk of the Town
  • The Fortune Cookie
  • The Out-of-Towners
  • A Star Is Born
  • Screwball comedies like The Lady Eve, Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, and The Awful Truth

Other films by William Wellman

  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • A Star Is Born
  • The Public Enemy
  • Wings
  • Yellow Sky

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