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BFI Screwball! Season: 'Nothing Sacred' review

★★★★★
Legendary producer David Selznick was urged by financier John Hay 'Jock' Whitney to make a "cock-eyed comedy" when Whitney saw and fell in love with George La Cava's seminal screwball My Man Godfrey (1936). After being hired by Selznick against the backers' wishes, Ben Hecht wrote the majority of 1937 classic Nothing Sacred in four days, as he travelled on trains between New York and Los Angeles. This sense of haste is evident in the film's frantic frivolousness. While it may lack the tonal and structural elegance of the more famous screwball comedies of the 30s, it's a deliciously acerbic piece which excels in its brisk cynicism and absence of phony moralising.

Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a resident of a sleepy Vermont town, receives news that her terminal case of radium poisoning was actually a misdiagnosis. Though delighted not to be dying, Hazel is still disappointed due to the fact that she was going to use the compensation money from her workplace to visit New York. Meanwhile, journalist Wally Cook (Fredric March) believes Hazel's struggle with her impending death is just the story he needs to rescue his career after a recent scandal that resulted in his demotion at the Morning Star newspaper. Unaware of Hazel's true circumstances, he takes her to New York to report her story and ensure her final days and luxurious and happy ones.

In many ways, Nothing Sacred is a curious outlier in the world of screwball. Filmed in Technicolor (on Whitney's request), it replaces the graceful technical compositions of Hawks and Lubitsch with a brasher aesthetic quality, drastically switching between bombastic pans and restrained intimacy; it's surely one of the only American films of the era to draw on both broad slapstick and poetic realism. This go-for-broke scrappiness is also gloriously present in the electrifying script. The dialogue is gleefully nasty, so much so that Selznick was apparently furious at Hecht's unsparing portrayal of journalism (the producer had many friends in the profession).

But despite its grotesque shooting gallery of the corrupt and the foolish, the film is never mean-spirited. Indeed, beneath Nothing Sacred's flippant disgust and acidic pessimism, there's real heart. Wellman struck gold with Lombard and March, two actors who could capture the capriciousness of the times while retaining a sense of breezy romanticism. It may not have the social relevance of Sullivan's Travels (1941) or the gentle charm of Bringing Up Baby (1938), but for prickly cynicism and choppy one-liners, Nothing Sacred is simply unbeatable.

The BFI's Screwball! season runs up until 31 January, 2013. For more info and to book tickets, visit whatson.bfi.org.uk.

Craig Williams

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