You have to hand it to 1930s screwball comedies.
They are, in part, a response to the Production Code (c.a. 1930-67), a set of rules about What Was Allowed in the movies. Screwball comedies wink at audiences while madly skidding around these rules. In a screwball comedy, the question is: See what we did there?
But 1930s comedies also scrutinize society – and still do today. Our Man Godfrey, for example, skewers class differences in America. His Girl Friday observes political interference in the justice system. And here’s Nothing Sacred (1937), a film that tackles the celebrity of the high-profile illness.
In Nothing Sacred, Fredric March stars as a celebrated Manhattan journalist who’s been demoted because he allowed a con artist to embarrass his newspaper. He’s desperate to find a human interest story that will resurrect his career.
The luminous Carole Lombard stars as a small-town woman who’s been misdiagnosed with radium poisoning. When she learns she’s not going to die, she’s faced with one question: Now What?
Happily, March has learned about her initial devastating diagnosis and, when he tracks her down, he invites her to New York City.
March, the poor slob, doesn’t know Lombard is perfectly healthy, and Lombard ain’t telling him. The one place she’s always wanted to visit is New York, and here’s her chance to go for Free.
Radiation poisoning made headlines in 1920s America when it afflicted female employees of the U.S. Radium Corp. of New Jersey. These women were hired to paint numbers onto wristwatch faces using glow-in-the-dark paint containing radium.
“After painting each number,” says npr.org, “they were to put the tip of the paintbrush between their lips to sharpen it.”
This is how the radium was ingested, at the rate of over 200 watches per person, per day. By the mid-1920s, several women had fallen ill and died. One woman’s jawbone became so riddled with holes from the radium, it looked like a honeycomb. When another woman had a tooth extracted, part of her jaw came with it.
These women became known as the Radium Girls.
So, in Nothing Sacred, when Lombard’s character arrives in New York, sponsored by a newspaper publicizing her radium illness, the city opens its arms (and wallets) to embrace her, the poor thing.
Carole Lombard is the perfect actress to orchestrate this con. She portrays the type of person who convinces you of one thing when your eyes tell you another. The lively and robust Lombard has radiation poisoning? Not a chance! But – if the newspaper says it’s true, well, it must be so.
The film also picks an odd fight with public sentiment, namely the hypocrisy that is created when the masses rally around a person suffering a grave illness.
After the newspaper uncovers Lombard’s deception, a conspicuous Disappearance is staged. Lombard is sad about leaving New York, but March insists collective memory is short lived.
Lombard: You’re forgetting that everybody in New York knew me and loved me….After all, I was a pretty important person.
March: Just a flash in the pan… They were beginning to get pretty impatient at the way you were dragging this thing out.
Lombard: That’s a lie and you know it. Why, right now millions of people are crying just thinking about me.
March: Why don’t you get wise to yourself. You were just another freak, like the bearded lady or Jojo the dog-faced boy.
While March’s statements may or may not be true, this conversation is pretty harsh coming from a pair who depended upon this reaction from New Yorkers to get what they wanted, e.g. prestige and free travel. They knew a dying woman would rally the city – and sell a lot of newspapers besides.
Nothing Sacred was the first screwball comedy shot in Technicolor, and it’s a Must See for Carole Lombard fans. If you’re new to her films, we recommend you track this down.
Nothing Sacred: starring Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Ben Hecht. Selznick International Pictures, 1937, Technicolor, 77 mins.