Nothing Sacred (1937), gender, and physical comedy

Nothing Sacred is arguably one of the most provocative of the 1930s screwball comedies, largely due to the way it foregrounds physical comedy. I describe the film as a screwball-slapstick hybrid, since it combines both the physicality of the silent era and the zany, fast-paced banter typical of classical Hollywood comedies (click here for a plot summary). The significance of physical comedy in Nothing Sacred is informed by both the material reality of the Production Code, and the history of Carole Lombard’s comedic star persona. Nothing Sacred‘s production history bring into focus the limits of physical comedy in Code-era Hollywood, and since its release, the film has continued to engender a critical debate about the intersection of gender, comedy, and Hollywood stardom.

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 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.

To be clear: I’m against film censorship and believe it hampers a filmmaker’s artistic freedom. However, 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 circumvent 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 physical expression 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, and they are minutes away from her hotel room. The scene begins with Hazel lying in bed with a hangover, stewing in the guilt of her deceit. Wally arrives to inform her of the doctors’ impending visit, and tells her, “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 encourages her to punch him. As she does, Hazel’s adrenaline rises, and 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 relies 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 something inaudible. It cuts again 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 obvious. 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:

As the note for page 107 makes clear, 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 seen 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 Joseph 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 granting the film a PCA seal only because “deleting the shot” would cause “great difficulty” (see below). In short, the scene wouldn’t make sense structurally without the shot, and re-shooting it entirely would be too costly.

As I mentioned earlier, 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). In that light, we can view Breen’s cautious certification as a warning to Selznick that he was taking a risk with the scene as-is, and that his film might be altered beyond the PCA’s control. Despite the PCA’s warning and the potential for controversy, Selznick and Wellman obviously saw the bankability of Wally and Hazel’s play-fight, and made it the focal point of the film’s publicity campaign for its November 1937 release. The poster art mimics a boxing match notice, with 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 around that single play-fight scene, including encouraging theaters to set up a punching bag with Lombard’s and March’s pictures on them, and a cartoon advertisement that compares the fight to a Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard boxing match.

Dated October 21, 1937.

A promotional suggestion for theater owners from the Nothing Sacred press book.

A Nothing Sacred film poster.

A promotional advertisement for theater owners from the Nothing Sacred press book.

In a similar vein as the violence, the page 109 note acknowledges the sexual innuendo of Wally and Hazel “rolling over and over on the floor,” and how “political censor boards” might remove the shots completely. The latter was process not uncommon, and because films went through independent evaluations in individual states and cities, it was not uncommon that an audience in New York might see a slightly different version of a film than people in Detroit. In the case of Nothing Sacred, the objectionable content noted on page 109 was likely removed from the script during production (since no such scene appears in the film). Luckily too, the play-fighting 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” (below left). This letter harkens back to the PCA’s memo cited earlier, as they practically anticipated type of feedback Selznick would receive from some conservative viewers. Still, such feedback did not dissuade Selznick, and in a December 9, 1937 memo to PCA head, Joseph Breen, he dismisses Stiller’s critique as an anomaly (below right).

Despite the publicity build-up, stellar performances from lead and supporting actors, and Technicolor appeal, 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 published a review declaring that Nothing Sacred brought about the “demise of fragile femininity” in Hollywood cinema. He wrote that prior to the film’s release, “…the very thought of a gentlewoman being struck by a gentleman was beyond comprehension of the most ungenerate script writers…” (Crowther 1938, X5).

A viewer letter complaining about the film’s violence.

David O. Selznick’s response to the negative fan letter.

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 review, while tongue-in-cheek, ignores the long history of female physical comedy in the late-20s and early-30s from the likes of Polly Moran, Winnie Lightner, Anita Garvin and Marian Byron, and the proliferation of images of strong, independent women on stages and film screens “opened up a space for transgression…and exposed the mask of femininity” (Brunovska Karnick 1999, pg. 77). Crowther’s critique points 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).

However, 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 problematic. 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 transgress 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 identifies in his review.

Carole Lombard’s star persona and history with slapstick comedy adds a final layer to our understanding of the physical comedy elements in Nothing Sacred. As the unofficial “queen of screwball comedy,” Lombard’s boisterous, independent star image embodied the characteristics that were emblematic of the 1930s screwball woman, and her early career in Mack Sennett’s slapstick comedies 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 extended period of time between her post-slapstick and pre-screwball eras in which she was considered one of Hollywood’s top glamour girls.

Carole Lombard and Daphne Pollard in a still from the Mack Sennett slapstick comedy Run, Girl, Run (1928).

Of course, the conflation of reel and real identities is not uncommon in star discourse, and helps to “sell” a star’s public image and films. In Lombard’s case, the “screwy” persona that appears on screen was thought to be an extension of her real-life persona. 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.

Carole Lombard on the Selznick International Pictures lot, c. 1938.

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 is “authentic,” and that characters like Hazel Flagg, Irene Bullock, or Lily Garland are simply variations of her “real” self. 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 journalistic descriptions of Lombard’s kinetic energy validate Hazel’s “unruly” behavior.

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 her screen characters. Therefore, while it is easy to view Lombard’s performance history through the lens of screwball comedy, she was also more multidimensional than “the queen of screwball comedy.” Nevertheless, this title, and all of the weight that comes with it, helps us understand how comedy and stardom in the studio era were shaped by the prevailing ideological, moral, and cultural positions about gender.

WORKS CITED

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.

“The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay, February 1938: 54-55.

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