That the press will do anything for a story is hardly news, even to the moviegoing public in 1937. To paraphrase a great line from a great movie, anything is grist for their mill. Then and now, there is nothing sacred for a story, no means too ridiculous to get that story, and there are no limits in skewing that ‘news’ in serving the needs of the owners, investors, and advertisers in your media network. The inherent falsehood in news is not limited to the press – everyone is complicit, from the businesses that profit off goods related to the story, to the ordinary reader who gets to feel patriotic, inspired, or disgusted from what little they understand about the facts. Everyone agrees to the affair, often because their worldview is supported. Ace in the Hole is the final word on the subject, but prior to that masterpiece came Nothing Sacred. An odd and cynical piece about the laughable bullshit shoveled hither and yon as a story gathers steam, it represents a lighthearted but accurate indictment of how a falsehood requires a conspiracy to exist – a conspiracy involving everyone.
New York City is introduced with emblazoned titles that joyfully shits on the affair we are about to see. “Skyscraper champion of the world! Where gold bricks are peddled, and truth is crushed to the earth, arising again more phony than a glass eye.” The Morning Star is not only an institution of the City, but is eager to support any source of news. The Sultan of Marzipan is hosted by the Morning Star to raise money for a new temple, or at least he was about to before his wife strolls in to bust him in a hilariously deadpan “Yeah, that’s him”, as if this happens now and again. After the public revelation that their friend the Sultan was actually shining shoes at the train station, the paper is humiliated, and the journalist who broke the story is demoted to obituaries. They all need a new project to regain their self respect, and what better way than to attach themselves like a remora to a girl irradiated in a factory accident?
Hazel Flagg is a patriotic name, and damn if she doesn’t signify the chance for a veteran journalist and his newspaper to redeem their good name with a heartfelt bit of popular sentimentality. She is dying of radium poisoning, and with a few weeks to live, journalist Wally Cook (Frederic March) journeys to her small town in Vermont to whisk her away to New York to write stories about her bravery straight from the heart, and make her the toast of the town. Hazel (Carole Lombard), however, is not sick, and as her incompetent drunk of a doctor breaks the news to her, she bursts out crying. She preferred death to living in a shithole of a town. Strangely, the entire town is tight-lipped about the accident that allowed the radium exposure in the first place; every business in town is owned by Paragon, where the accident occurred. There is a fascist element to this that is disturbing, as every citizen is hostile to anything that threatens the company, elevating the generally threatening nature of the usual small town bumpkin to Children of the Corn level. Hazel tries to tell Cook that she is unfortunately fine, but he is so possessed by the idea of resurrecting his career that he doesn’t hear a word, and promises her the fame and fortune of New York City. With that, she no longer has any reason to be honest.
From here, the screwball comedy takes over, and Lombard and March demonstrate their gifts for extracting humor from the ridiculous. What is striking is how everyone believes, and yet nobody could possibly be taking this seriously. The paper’s reporting is histrionic to a degree that would embarrass Tyler Perry. The mayor riders her fame for PR purposes, giving her the key to the city. Hazel is showered with excessive shows of adoration and gratitude that would not benefit a dying person – the people are performing for their own enjoyment. As Cook later notes, “We’ve been [the people’s] benefactor – we gave them a chance to pretend their phony hearts were dripping with the milk of human kindness.” Her town covered up a radiation accident by paying off the town, and everybody was quick to take the cash, more protective of the crooked company than their own people. Cook and the Morning Star used her to skyrocket their circulation, and did so on the cheap. All Hazel got was a trip to New York.
Nothing Sacred makes clear that news is entertainment first, and the source of the news is a liar. More importantly, the readers are even greater liars because their desire to believe makes the lie into the truth. When Hazel is about to be outed in a scandal, she tells the truth to key players who make it clear they have a stake in her eventual bloody demise. Of course, this would not be a truly cynical work of art if any redemption inadvertently occurred. Everyone agrees to keep the ruse alive, from the newspaper who pays for the tropical disappearance of Hazel Flagg to the readers who blubbered unconvincingly about this inspiring whomever they will never meet or care about. Nothing Sacred lacks some of the acerbic wit of Billy Wilder’s best movies, but none of their entertainment value, from the sharp dialogue to great visuals (like fawning newspaper stories about Hazel being used to wrap fish, or a restaurant advertising “Hazel dined here! – All kinds of cheese and baloney: our specialty). And of course nothing quite equals Frederic March punching a woman dead in the face.
From IMDB trivia:
To discourage March’s attentions, Carold Lombard invited him to her dressing room one night; after preliminary fumbling, March discovered to his disgust that she was wearing a rubber dildo. He never bothered her again.