Comedy

Carole Lombard takes on the High-Profile Illness

Carol Lombard is under the weather.
Carol Lombard is, uh, under the weather.

Spoiler Alert

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 SacredFredric 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.

Lombard and March go sailing because they can. Image: otsoNY.com
Lombard and March go sailing, because they can. Image: otsoNY.com

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.

Lombard and March duke it out. Image: Tales of a Madcap Heiress
Lombard and March duke it out. Image: Tales of a Madcap Heiress

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.

  • This is part of the Carole Lombard Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.

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47 thoughts on “Carole Lombard takes on the High-Profile Illness

  1. A lovely writeup, Ruth, and some great screengrabs.

    That’s a lie and you know it. Why, right now millions of people are crying just thinking about me.

    Okay, so I fell around laughing. What a wonderful selection.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is one I really need to revisit. I didn’t like it very much when I first saw it because of something I read about March. Now that it’s old news to me now I’m sure I’ll enjoy it a lot more.

    Thanks so much for joining Crystal and I in celebrating Carole’s life!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh now I can’t wait to see this movie – Carole Lombard in colour? I should cocoa! Your background regarding the Radium Girls is really useful – chimes a lot with environmental controversies today. I consider myself fortunate as there’s so many of Carole’s films I am yet to see – I am one lucky lady!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good use of real-life radiation poisoning as a connection. Some of the stories of early 20th century worker conditions are beyond shocking.

    I remember marveling at the way Carole looked in this film. It’s a shame she didn’t do more in color.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Carole Lombard looks STUNNING in colour. Like you said, it is a shame she didn’t do more.

      Yes, some of the working conditions in the early 20th century were appalling. Those poor women, ingesting all that radium! It’s a wonder they all didn’t die.

      Like

  5. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t charmed by this film when I saw it. I can’t even remember why, so maybe it’s time I give it another shot. Really interesting info re: the Radium Girls! I also enjoyed what you had to say about screwball comedies. Well-done, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like you, I was kind of “meh” the first time I saw this film, but I enjoyed it much more this time around. And yes, the Radium Girls – what a sad story about those women. Thankfully workplace safety practices have come a long way since then!

      Like

  6. It was fascinating to learn about the real cases of radiation poisoning…and appalling to think about what it did to those women. Though, as you wrote, it is hilarious that Carole Lombard would be posing as someone mortally ill while looking so healthy.

    I’m not usually a huge Fredric March fan, but I really enjoyed him and Carole Lombard together in this one. You make me want to revisit this again!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Okay, so I’m reading along and am hit with the radium watch-making business. Which is horrific. I’m horrified. Then, next thing I know, I’m laughing my arse off reading an exchange between these two. This was an odd post. 😉 Well done and on my TBW list.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It sounds very witty. And also exposing (or goofing on?) something that was going on. And still is going on, really. “the hypocrisy that is created when the masses rally around a person suffering a grave illness.” Right?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think if you, Sarah, had been a writer kicking around Hollywood in the 1930s, you would have penned some very witty screwball comedies (maybe with a dark edge?) that would cleverly slip past the censors.

        Now all we need is a time machine to test out my theory.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The 1st screwball comedy made in Technicolor!!! I ought to check it out!!
    Sounds like a really interesting comedy, with a deep message!! I love the historical input, on Radium poisoning. So sad, so many young lives lost, due to it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This film is very good, and the subject is sooo modern. I really liked the dialogue you posted, and the last line is at the same time sad and hilarious. Great article!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon, and I’m sorry for the late reply. I haven’t been back for long after visiting family where I’m from, and while I away my auntie passed away on New Years Eve when I was in the room, so Its taking me a while to come to terms with what happened, but I’m starting to get back to the world of blogging. I hope your New Years was great. Anyway this was a wonderful post to welcome me back. I love Nothing Sacred, and only Carole could play this role to such perfect. I also found your bit on the radium poisoning very interesting.

    I also invite you to check out my contribution for the blogathon. It was written when I was away.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2017/01/21/carole-lombard-tribute/

    Liked by 1 person

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