The BFI Southbank's latest season, Screwball!, covers the madcap Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, those "irrepressibly gag-greased explorations of America’s great divides", so I took the opportunity to go along and take in one of the less well-known examples of the subgenre, William A. Wellman's Nothing Sacred. An incredibly prophetic and acidic media satire shot in Technicolor, the film stars Fredric March as Wally Cook, a hack with the New York Morning Star recently demoted to the obituary column following a scandal, who seizes upon the story of Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a Vermont woman diagnosed (incorrectly) with radium poisoning by a quack local doctor (Charles Winninger), as his ticket back to the top. Flagg knows she's not really sick but plays along as Cook's unscrupulous editor ("a cross between a Ferris wheel and a werewolf" played by Walter Connolly and hilariously named Oliver Stone) flies her to the Big Apple to shamelessly exploit her terminal condition and sell newspapers, winning the hearts of all and sundry before the inconvenient truth begins to get in the way of a good story.
There's some nice chemistry between the leads, notable in the really rather shocking scene in which Cook goads Hazel into a fist fight in order to raise her heart rate and help her work up a sweat to convince a team of European physicians that she's in a state of high fever. Both March and Lombard handle parts skilfully that could have been repellent in the wrong hands. The incident in which Lombard drinks herself unconscious with embarrassment at being asked to join a gaudy night club act showcasing the greatest women in history is especially pleasing, with Catherine the Great, Lady Godiva and Pocahontas among those appearing scantily clad on horseback for an audience of braying punters. Wellman meanwhile martials a first-rate supporting cast headed by the amusingly exasperated Connolly and also featuring Sig Ruman, Margaret Hamilton and Hattie McDaniel in tiny roles plus John Qualen as a kindly Swedish fireman ("Yumpin' Yimminy!"). The script was written by Ben Hecht, author of both The Front Page (1934) and His Girl Friday (1940), for David O. Selznick after the latter's financier, John Hay "Jock" Whitney, took a shine to My Man Godfrey (1936) and became convinced that comedy was the future. Hecht based his screenplay on a James H. Street story that had recently appeared in Cosmopolitan, but his first two drafts, "written on trains between New York and Los Angeles" over a two week period, were deemed far too cynical for public consumption and Selznick was forced to bring in a number of script doctors to make adjustments, including Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner Jr, Budd Schulberg, Robert Carson and George S. Kaufman.
It's hard to better the conclusions of critic Ed Sikov, who wrote in his 1989 book on screwball comedy that, "There's a deeper biliousness to Nothing Sacred, a belly-clenching sense of amused disgust... For Hecht, all newspapermen are invidious liars. Star reporters crank out stories simply to make a buck, and publishers print them simply to make millions. And because Nothing Sacred is set in New York, the level of fearless self-interest is even higher than usual. This is a world oversaturated by false claims, cheap scoops, and fraud". In my experience (I qualified as a journalist myself three years ago), Hecht is pretty much on the money. What struck me most watching Nothing Sacred was the amazing parallel between the Hazel Flagg case and that of the late Jade Goody, a British Big Brother contestant routinely ridiculed for her pig ignorance and casual racism by the tabloids before being swiftly rebranded as a tragic dying swan when she was suddenly diagnosed with cervical cancer. The very same jobbing writers who had once cruelly dissected her every silly utterance and fashion blunder competed fiercely with one another to be the most gushing in praising this poor, talentless fool. Her death in 2009, aged just 27, was met with a veritable flood of crocodile tears.