Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Nothing Sacred"- run, don't walk, to see it.

I watched the movie “Nothing Sacred” in my continuing quest to understand what it must have been like in an earlier America. This movie, starring Carole Lombard and Frederic March was made in 1937. Here is a plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

“New York newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) tries to pass off an ordinary African-American (Troy Brown) as an African nobleman hosting a charity event. Wally Cook is demoted to writing obituaries. He begs his boss Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for another chance. Wally is sent to Warsaw, a fictional town in Vermont, to interview Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a woman supposedly dying of radium poisoning. When Cook finally locates Hazel, she is crying because her doctor has told her that she is not dying. Unaware of this, he invites her to New York as the guest of the Morning Star newspaper. The newspaper uses her story to increase its circulation. She receives a ticker tape parade and the key to the city, and becomes an inspiration to many. In addition, she and Wally fall in love. When it is finally discovered that Hazel is not really dying, city officials decide that it would be better to avoid embarrassment by having it seem that she committed suicide. Hazel and Wally get married and quietly set sail for the tropics.”

It doesn’t seem like a great plot but then many movies do not have a great plot (think “Transformers,” anything with Ryan Reynolds or Jennifer Anniston). Nevertheless, this movie was thoroughly enjoyable and maybe verged on greatness, mostly because of Lombard.

Again from Wikipedia:

“Carole Lombard (October 6, 1908 – January 16, 1942) was an American actress. She was particularly noted for her comedic roles in several classic films of the 1930s, most notably in the 1936 film My Man Godfrey. She is listed as one of the American Film Institute's greatest stars of all time and was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s, earning around $500,000 per year (more than five times the salary of the US President). Lombard's career was cut short when she died at the age of 33 in the crash of TWA Flight 3.”

This is the first time I saw Lombard in a movie. She was an incredible comedic actress. She was delicately beautiful with a beautiful pale complexion. She was great in the role of Hazel because she did not have to act funny. She simply was. She read funny lines with an earnestness that she probably would also have used for Shakespeare. I think she was a comedic genius. She was such a contrast to the strident, mugging, and dim-witted Lucille Ball. She also was a great contrast to Rosalind Russell who morphed from a fashion model, to “tough broad”, to someone who calls everyone “dahling” to Auntie Mame , a model for every drag queen. Lombard was light, not prone to pratfalls or overacting. She always kept control of her character so that it did not stoop to become a cartoon or a parody. This makes her early death all the sadder. Her personal life was interesting. Her first marriage, which ended in divorce, was to William Powell. Gun She then has a relationship with Russ Columbo, who died in a gun accident. She later said that Columbo was the love of her life. Her last husband was Clark Gable, who called her the love of his life. My fantasy is that she would be a person with whom I would enjoy spending time. Her easy going style must have captivated those around her.

Frederic March was a very competent actor and played a good straight man to Lombard’s Hazel.

There are several other things about the movie that were noteworthy:

1. This was the only Technicolor film that Lombard made. In the print that I saw, the colors were muted and not highly saturated. I liked the effect.

2. Shots of New York were all rear projections, which were not always successful. There is an interesting flyover of Manhattan when Hazel and Wally fly to New York. The city view out of the airplane window was obviously a special effect but lower Manhattan, with its mostly pre-modernism buildings, was impressive. The city had many neo-classic skyscrapers that today probably look dated but in 1937 they looked grand.

3. Most of the interiors were in the Art Moderne or Streamline Moderne style that was a late branch of the Art Deco design style. Its architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements (such as railings and porthole windows). It reached its height in 1937. Art Moderne seemed to be lost in comparison to the more widely known Deco and Bauhaus styles. There is a night club in “Nothing Sacred”, called Club Moderne, which is a perfect example of this style. There were round lights, sitting on round columns with Deco-inspired lighting. Banisters along the various levels of the club were long metal railings that gently curved toward the ground when they ended. These movie night clubs were always large and elegant. People sat at tables and the dance floor, at least in Club Moderne, was on a stage. People dressed formally and no one seemed to break a sweat. The movie nightclubs of this period were always elegant. My guess is that the clubs of Hollywood legend, e.g., Ciro’s and Mocambo (both opened shortly after the making of “Nothing Sacred”), may have been something like Club Moderne, although in a different architectural style.

4. No one smoked in “Nothing Sacred.”

5. There were fresh flowers in every scene, which added even more glamour to the Moderne style.

6. The movie was a critique of newspapers that made-up news to increase circulation. Sound familiar? (Look up Fox news, CNN, or CNBC if you aren’t familiar with this concept.) You may remember newspapers-they were awkwardly sized pieces of paper with news stories printed on them. In the past nearly every major city had at least two. Today, the internet-based “Huffington Post” fulfills that function for some cities, such as Denver. Many papers are dying today because their leadership did not learn the lesson of the music industry’s demise in the digital age. Too bad- so sad.

If you ever have the chance, spend the 90 minutes it takes to watch “Nothing Sacred.” It is a classy and funny movie, with a magical leading lady, that provides a friendly glimpse into the late 1930s.

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