Nothing Sacred is arguably the most audacious screwball film of the 1930s. I’ve described previously it as a screwball-slapstick hybrid, combining the full-bodied physicality of the silent era with the madcap sparring typical of classical Hollywood (click here for a plot summary). The significance of Nothing Sacred‘s physical comedy is two-fold, informed by the material reality of the Production Code, as well as the weight of Carole Lombard’s star persona. Nothing Sacred‘s production history illustrates how Hollywood grappled with physical comedy in the 1930s, and the ideological constrictions imposed upon the “unruly” female body.
The history of Hollywood censorship is far too complex to outline here, but it is important to remember that the Production Code was industry self-regulation. In 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not granted free speech protection under the U.S. Constitution on the basis that they had the “capacity for evil”(Jowett 2000, pg. 16). This ruling was devastating for the U.S. film industry, and gave state and local censor boards across the country the legal authority to censor films as they saw fit. After years of public pressure and scandals, the Code was formally created in March 1930 by the MPPDA chairman William Hays, the studios heads, and two high-profile religious figures, Martin Quigley and Daniel A. Lord, in order to appease social and religious conservatives, many of whom believed Hollywood was a hotbed of immorality. Both the Code – and the 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list that preceded it – aimed to ease the pressure that the industry was facing, and make the state and municipal censorship processes less contentious for the studios. Of course, the process wasn’t always smooth, and filmmakers often clashed with overzealous censors. But by regulating film form and content during the production phase, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was attempting to limit outside influence on Hollywood products by anticipating how state and local censors might object to a film once it was distributed.
Viewing the PCA and its key players as bogeymen is simplistic, and ignores the fraught socio-political climate of the studio era. Understanding the history of the Code and why it was created in the first place helps inform our understanding of the specific provisions, and the language in the PCA’s correspondence with filmmakers. For example, under the Code’s “sex” provisions, scenes depicting explicit sexual passion were prohibited. Sex could not be represented graphically, and only abstractly if it was “essential to the plot” of a film. Even then, sex had to be portrayed in such a way as to “not stimulate the lower or base elements.”
As I discussed in a previous post, to work around the Code, classical Hollywood era films conveyed sexual tension through abstraction, and filmmakers often relied on innuendo and double-entendres to work around the Code’s guidelines. In Nothing Sacred, physicality illuminates the contours of Hazel and Wally’s complicated relationship, and through roughhousing comes a manifestation of their repressed sexual feelings. In that same post, I pointed to the film’s climax, in which Hazel and Wally are faced with the prospect of having her lie exposed. Wally’s boss, Oliver Stone, has invited renowned European doctors to New York to examine Hazel. The scene begins with Hazel lying in bed with a hangover, stewing in the guilt of her deceit. Wally arrives and tells her they are minutes away from her hotel room. He says, “We gotta raise your pulse to 160, quick! We gotta have you gasping, panting and covered with a cold sweat inside of five minutes.”
He pulls her limp body out of bed, kicks her butt, and baits her to punch him. As she rises from her comatose state, Hazel’s adrenaline kicks in. She screams, “I just hate you! Let me hit you just once!” The physical barrage is too much for Hazel and she slinks to the floor. Wally holds her by her robe collar, pulls her to her feet, and tells her that he’s going to knock her out. Hazel replies deliriously, “what do you mean come to?…what are you going to do?” In a long shot, we see Wally take a step backwards from Hazel and punch her chin. Immediately after contact, the film cuts to a close-up of Hazel’s face as she mumbles incoherently under her breath. It cuts back to the same long shot, and we see Hazel standing motionless, as if her body doesn’t know how to react to the blow it has just received. Wally pokes her chest delicately, and Hazel falls backwards onto the hotel bed, knocked out cold. The play-fighting is an obvious allusion to sex, and although the scene adheres to the Code technically, the sexual subtext is undeniable. Put another way, this scene is not sexy, but it is all about sex.
Wally and Hazel’s roughhousing was the cause of some consternation for the PCA, particularly because of the intertwined violent and sexual undertones. Take, for example, this excerpt from a June 8, 1937 letter from PCA head, Joseph Breen, to producer, David O. Selznick:
The note for page 107 indicates that the PCA was concerned that the play-fighting might be misconstrued by some censor boards as legitimate violence against Hazel, and that Wally (and, by extension, Fredric March) would be perceived as an unsympathetic lead. Similar comments about the play-fight can found throughout the film’s PCA file, which suggests that David O. Selznick, director William Wellman, and screenwriter Ben Hecht were hesitant to alter the scene. In one of the final letters from Breen to Selznick prior to the film’s PCA certification, Breen explains that he would reluctantly approve the film because of the shot of Wally kicking Hazel’s butt. He goes on to explain that he is issuing a PCA seal simply because “deleting the shot” would cause “great difficulty” (see below). In short, without the shot the scene wouldn’t make sense structurally, but re-shooting it would be too costly.
The PCA censorship process was often tense, but their mandate was to eliminate problematic content from Hollywood films before they were distributed nationally (and internationally). We can therefore contextualize Breen’s cautious certification as a warning to Selznick: he was taking a risk with the scene as-is, and his film might be altered beyond the PCA’s control. Selznick and Wellman obviously saw the bankability of Wally and Hazel’s play-fight, and ignored. the PCA’s warming. In fact, they made physicality the center point of the film’s extensive publicity campaign leading up to its November 1937 release. The poster art alludes to a boxing match notice, with Lombard and March in sparring poses and “see the big fight!” in bold capital letters. Likewise, the Nothing Sacred press book (which was distributed to exhibitors across the country) suggested several wacky promotional tie-ins that centered on the roughhousing scene. SIP even encouraged theaters to set up punching bags with Lombard’s and March’s pictures on them. They also distributed cartoon advertisements that compare the Flagg-Cook fight to a Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard boxing match.
A promotional suggestion for theater owners from the Nothing Sacred press book.
A promotional advertisement for theater owners from the Nothing Sacred press book.
In a similar vein, the page 109 note warns Selznick that “political censor boards” might remove a shot of Wally and Hazel “rolling over and over on the floor” because of its obvious sexual undertones. That was not an uncommon practice, and because films went through independent evaluations in individual states and cities after PCA certification, sometimes audiences in New York would see a slightly different version of a film from people in Detroit. In Nothing Sacred‘s case, Hecht deleted the objectionable content noted on page 109. Luckily too, the film’s centerpiece – the play-fighting scene – was also a non-issue, and Nothing Sacred was approved unilaterally by various state and municipal censor boards without any eliminations.
That said, Selznick did receive some pushback about the film’s physical comedy. Nothing Sacred‘s PCA file contains a disgruntled viewer letter from a person named John Stiller, who complains that the roughhouse comedy is “brutality, not humor” (see below). This letter harkens back to the PCA memo cited earlier; they practically anticipated type of criticism Selznick would receive from his most conservative viewers. Still, such feedback did not dissuade Selznick, and in a December 9, 1937 memo to Breen, he dismisses Stiller’s critique as an anomaly (below right).
Despite the publicity build-up, stellar performances from lead and supporting actors, and stunning Technicolor visuals, Nothing Sacred was commercial flop, and Selznick International reported a loss of nearly $350, 000 (Carman 2016, pg. 184). However, the film was a critical darling, with one Photoplay review calling it “among the ranking laugh-films of all time” (February 1938, pg. 55). That said, the New York Times film critic (and perpetual curmudgeon) Bosley Crowther penned a tongue-in-cheek review declaring that Nothing Sacred brought about the “demise of fragile femininity” in Hollywood cinema.
A viewer letter complaining about the film’s violence.
Crowther makes the case that Lombard’s performance would inspire an industry-wide trend of female physicality, even from “the most carefully restrained damsel, Jeanette MacDonald.” His facetious review alludes to the widely-held cultural assumptions about the incongruity between physical prowess and conventional femininity. The “pretty/funny” juxtaposition that continues to plague contemporaneous discourse about female comedians has larger implications beyond Nothing Sacred, and informs how we as a culture negotiate gender and performance in “relation to ideal versions of femininity” (Mizejewski 2014, pg. 5). The presumption that “women are fragile” and thus can’t perform comedy on par with men is not only historically inaccurate, but it also implies that “unruliness” – or a defiance of conventional notions of feminine behavior and appearance – is inherently bad. What Nothing Sacred‘s fight scene does – briefly and, albiet, unintentionally – is strip away Carole Lombard’s “sex appeal” (literally, with her shapeless full-length robe and mussed hair) and allows her to side-step the expectations put upon female physical comedians. As I’ve previously argued, “physical comedy offers a negotiation, not a negation, of femininity” (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 114) and her rough-and-tumble performance aptly refutes the idea of the “fragile female body” that Crowther cheekily identifies in his review.
Carole Lombard’s star persona and proximity to slapstick adds a final layer to our understanding of the physical comedy elements in Nothing Sacred. As the unofficial “Queen” of screwball comedy, Lombard personified the boisterous, independent screwball woman, and her early career in Mack Sennett’s slapstick films was often cited by contemporaneous writers as rationale for her so-called “natural” physical comedy skills. Life magazine journalist Noel Busch once wrote that Lombard’s tenure with Sennett was educational, and provided her with the “magnificent sense of comedic timing” that she demonstrates in such films as Nothing Sacred (1938, pg 63). But such a perspective ignores the fundamental differences between slapstick and screwball comedies, as well as the nearly 5 years between her post-slapstick and pre-screwball eras in which she was considered one of Hollywood’s top glamour girls.
Hollywood deliberately blurred the line between a star’s reel and “real” identities. After all, it’s easier to “sell” a star when there’s some cohesion between their screen image and star persona. In Lombard’s case, her “screwy” persona was thought to be an extension of her off-screen self. Take, for example, the evocative article “The Utterly Balmy Home Life of Carole Lombard.” Columnist Harry Lang paints a detailed portrait of Lombard as a kooky, energetic, and eccentric woman who answers her phone with different accents, throws wild house parties, and keeps a menage of unusual pets. Summing up his experience at Lombard’s house, he writes:
Does all this sound absolutely batty? Screwy? Insane? Balmy?—okay, then, make the most of it. I simply can’t help it. I’m going to tell you about Carole Lombard’s home life, and that’s all there is to it. You can take it or leave it. All I’ve got to say is this—when it comes to the business of getting the most downright, sheer fun out of this usually drab business of living, then I had all prizes unreservedly to Carole Lombard.
Similarly, columnist Gladys Hall once described that Lombard allegedly arrived at her studio bungalow by “executing a few spirals and curves and a leap upon her scooter-bike…” (Hall 1938, pg. 35). Such characterizations propose that Lombard’s screwball comedy persona was “authentic,” and that characters like Hazel Flagg, Irene Bullock, or Lily Garland were simply variations of Lombard the person. In tone, they also verify the sentiment in Crowther’s review: Lombard’s boisterous off-screen personality represented an altogether unorthodox version of modern femininity. The alleged verisimilitude between her star and screen images also grounds her physical comedy – a recurring performative trait in virtually all of her screwball films – in her off-screen persona. In terms of the gender politics of Nothing Sacred, these descriptions validate Hazel’s “unruly” behavior as being “true” to Lombard’s nature.
Despite the fact that Carole Lombard made more non-screwball films than screwball comedies and had a constantly evolving public image, her screwball identity was, and still is, the primary means by which scholars and historians assess her star persona (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 73). While I don’t doubt that she had a larger-than-life personality, she was also not Hazel Flagg. History views Lombard as the embodiment of screwball’s madcap spirit, but she was also more than the sum of her screwball characters. The “queen” of screwball title, and all that it represents, helps us understand how comedy and stardom in the studio era were shaped by the prevailing ideological, moral, and cultural positions about gender.
Busch, Noel. “A Loud Cheer for the Screwball Girl.” Life, October 13, 1938: 48-50, 63.
Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.
Crowther, Bosley. “Females of the Species.” New York Times, January 16, 1938, X5.
Hall, Gladys. “Lombard — As She Sees Herself.” Motion Picture, November 1938, 38.
Jowett, Garth S. “‘A Capacity for Evil’: The 1915 Supreme Court Mutual Decision.” In Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. Ed. Matthew Bernstein, 16 – 40. London: The Athlone Press, 2000.
Karnick, Kristine Brunovska. “Community of Unruly Women: Female Comedy Teams in the Early Sound Era.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1999): 77-95.
Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Woman Comedians and Body Politics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.
Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
“The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay, February 1938: 54-55.