The interwar years were filled with dramatic changes in America. The American people had experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows; film quickly became an outlet for these experiences. During the height of the Great Depression, feel-good comedies were trending. These comedies acted as a relief to the dreariness of everyday life. In 1937 the first comedy was released in full color, Nothing Sacred. The movie, starring Carole Lumbard and Frederic march, reveals a great deal about the society that led up to World War II both through what is explicitly displayed and what was clearly absent.
The comedy, Nothing Sacred, follows a star journalist, Wally, who has recently been demoted due to publishing false stories. Wally seeks out a woman who is said to be stricken with radiation poisoning in order to write a story which will hopefully rehash his career. The woman, Hazel, was actually misdiagnosed and was in fact healthy as can be. When she is approached by Wally to be involved in this story, though, she is dazzled by the possibility of fame and omits the fact that she is not ill at all. The irony of the situation is clear and propels the plot forward. Rather quickly, Hazel becomes New York’s it-girl who is praised by the entire city based off of her escapades presented in the newspaper by Wally.
Interestingly, the plot of the story is actually quite “meta” because it discusses the rise to fame that a young girl experiences simply because she was willing to be let into the spotlight, even if it involves an intricate lie that involves making herself look like a courageous hero. In her book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, Karen Sternheimer discusses how celebrity culture is propelled by the “American belief that both hard work and luck can lead anyone to rise above their beginnings” (8). In this movie, Hazel embodies this concept to the public which is why the city is so attracted to her. However, much can be said for the fact that the plot is driven by a series of lies and exaggerations in the newspaper. Just like Americans now must sift through “fake news” on Facebook, Americans in the early 20th century were presented with propaganda to popularize specific ideals.
Just as the more obvious aspects of the film shine a light on the issues of the 1930s, what is missing from the film also speaks loudly about the culture of the time. For instance, the only people of color in the film was a black man who lies in the beginning of the film causing Wally’s career to be at stake and his family. The man reappears again in the film and each time is presented as an unintelligent, crooked character who lies and steels. The character was clearly created to be a source of comedic relief, which speaks volumes for the expectations that the consumers had for films of the time. The film also had an extremely distasteful scene in regards to women and various cultures globally. This scene takes place at a fancy restaurant that is honoring Hazel alongside other “Heroines of History” (Nothing Sacred). These women that were presented were each dressed scantily and in culturally insensitive garb. Aside from Hazel, the only women of not represented in the film were the women in this scene.
The film itself was not received necessarily well nor unwell upon release. Despite its rather average box office performance, the film clearly shows that the the media dictates what the society at the time appreciates and values. It is clear that the value is placed in heroism and courage, but only if those exhibiting these attributes are white. Although the women of the time did were considered and represented much less
than men, there was only place for white, sexually attractive women in film. This early 20th century comedy shed a light on the values of the people consuming such a comedy.
Film: Nothing Sacred
Director: William A. Wellman
Photo Sources: 1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nothing_Sacred_(film)
2. Screenshot from Kanopy
3.Screenshot from Kanopy
Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. Routledge, 2015.
“Nothing Sacred (1937) Starring: Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger – Three Movie Buffs Review.” ThreeMovieBuffs.com, 15 June 2010, http://www.threemoviebuffs.com/review/nothing-sacred.html.
Kanopy, 1937, sdsu.kanopy.com/video/nothing-sacred