Journalists who bemoan the public’s low opinion of their profession should watch “Nothing Sacred,” a 1937 comedy showing that scorn for the press is hardly new.
Restored in its original Technicolor on a Kino DVD, the film is one of Hollywood’s funniest putdowns of the Fourth Estate.
Fredric March plays Wally Cook, a shady New York City reporter who visits a small Vermont town to interview Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a local woman supposedly dying of radium poisoning. He wants to bring Hazel back to the big city, where he plans to serialize her story for his daily rag, The Morning Star.
Unbeknown to Wally, Hazel has just been told by her soused doctor (Charles Winninger) that she’s been misdiagnosed and isn’t dying, after all. When the physician finds out Wally is snooping around town, he delivers this scathing appraisal of reporters.
“The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of degradation,” he bellows.
Wally is no less cynical, calling his editor “sort of a cross between a Ferris wheel and a werewolf.”
Indeed, nothing is sacred in this tiny town filled with narrow-minded nasties who won’t even talk to Wally without being paid.
Screenwriter Ben Hecht, a colorful former Chicago journalist who also co-wrote the classic newsroom comedy “The Front Page” with Charles MacArthur, obviously knew the subject he was lampooning.
But director William Wellman, known as “Wild Bill” from his days as a World War I fighter pilot, seemed like an odd choice for a screwball comedy.
At the time, Wellman was best known as the director of “Wings” (1927), the first film to win a best-picture Oscar, and “The Public Enemy” (1931), which made Jimmy Cagney a star. (He later directed two of the best 1940s dramas, “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Story of G.I. Joe.”)
Still, Wellman had a great sense of timing and relished the man-versus-woman high jinks that are the prerequisite for this kind of comedy. In the most famous scene in “Nothing Sacred,” Wally and Hazel go toe-to-toe, semi-affectionately slugging each other.
Wellman demonstrated his comic flair again in 1942, when he directed Ginger Rogers in the Roaring Twenties spoof “Roxie Hart,” which became the basis for the stage and movie musical “Chicago.”
March’s best-known work was in serious films like “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Inherit the Wind.” In “Nothing Sacred,” he relishes the opportunity to act goofy.
Yet the film belongs to Lombard. She was a rarity -- a truly beautiful woman who was also a great comedienne.
Five years after “Nothing Sacred” was released and three years after marrying Clark Gable, Lombard was killed in a plane crash in Nevada while returning home from a war bond rally. She was 33.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).