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Blu-ray Review: Nothing Sacred (1937)

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The Film

Brevity is a severely undervalued trait in film — and in film comedy in particular. Witness the succinct hilarity in William Wellman’s 1937 screwball feature Nothing Sacred. Clocking in at a perfectly pitched 73 minutes, the film features a tight-as-a-drum script from Ben Hecht and speedy but not frantic pacing from Wellman. It nails a bull’s-eye on its satiric targets and doesn’t stick around in an attempt to pad out its stats.

Fredric March stars as Wally Cook, a reporter for the New York Morning Star in hot water after his story about a wealthy visiting African nobleman turns out to be less than accurate. In an attempt to stave off demotion and disgrace, he digs up the story of a girl in a nearby small town, doomed to die shortly of radium poisoning. Persuading his crotchety — and let’s face it, incredibly ineffectual — editor (Walter Connolly) to let him pursue the story, he tracks down the girl in an unfriendly Vermont hamlet.

Only one problem — it turns out the afflicted, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard, in all her gawky charm) isn’t so sick after all. But Hazel is desperate for any opportunity to escape her small-town doldrums, and she doesn’t contradict Wally’s assumptions about her condition, leading to an outpouring of mass adulation and grief for the condemned soul as she enjoys an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City.

Hecht’s script hides its bitter barbs inside a series of breezy comic setpieces. There’s a pleasant corniness to a number of the jokes, but the film’s implicit condemnation of the toxically symbiotic relationship between sensationalistic mass media and tragedy-hungry public is severe. Each front-page headline detailing Hazel’s final days is reciprocated by absurd public demonstrations — lavish parties, weeping strangers, a key to the city — and it’s almost enough to make one forget that as soon as the next news cycle begins, there better be fresh fodder.

Nothing Sacred isn’t even necessarily a media satire primarily, although it’s as prescient as more traditional examples of the form, like Network. It’s nearly impossible not to think of the film’s anticipation of modern morbid curiosities like Laci Peterson, Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox — all grist for the mill in the public grief machine. Rather, it follows the great screwball tradition of unlikely romance, as Wally discovers he has feelings for Hazel that extend beyond the reporter-source connection. Even here, Hecht and Wellman’s approach feels fresh, and a climactic fistfight wraps their relationship up in a nice, cockeyed bow.

The Blu-ray Disc

Long relegated to public domain hell, Nothing Sacred hasn’t had much luck in the home video market. This 1080p high definition transfer, mastered from a George Eastman House-preserved 35mm nitrate print, certainly rectifies many of those problems, presenting solid image clarity and sharpness. Colors tend to be pretty faded — sometimes looking quite lovely and other times looking afflicted with a sickly greenish pallor. There’s some debate as to the intended look of this early three-strip Technicolor, and it doesn’t seem conclusive as to whether more vibrant tones would’ve been seen originally. As it stands, the digital transfer looks pretty nice, and this is an obvious upgrade over current discs on the market.

The 2.0 mono track can be a little uneven, with music occasionally mixed a lot louder than the dialogue, but despite intermittent bouts of background fuzziness, clarity is still more than adequate.

Special Features

Only a handful of trailers for other Kino releases, including the trailer for another upcoming Wellman Blu-ray, 1937’s A Star is Born, which is out in early February.

The Bottom Line

This is perhaps not a perfect Blu-ray, but it’s a vast upgrade over the current market, and an excellent way to get acquainted with the film.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.