'Nothing Sacred' In Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the 1937 film "Nothing Sacred," a William Wellman-directed screwball comedy starring Fredric March as a go-getting New York newspaper reporter and Carole Lombard as his top story -- a young Vermonter who supposedly has only weeks to live. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Nothing Sacred" back on November 25, 1937.

With "Nothing Sacred," Wellman crafted a stylish screwball classic laced with scathing satire of journalistic sensationalism. Ahead of its time, the film lampooned the press's power to create instant celebrities. It begins with Fredric March's character
condemned to a post as the obituaries editor after he unwittingly sold a shoeshine man as the "Sultan of Marzipan" in the pages of the Morning Star newspaper. He decides to redeem himself with the next "big story"--introducing celeb-hungry New Yorkers to
Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a pretty girl who claims to be dying of radium poisoning. As you can see in the trailer below, "Nothing Sacred" owes most of its charm to leading lady Carole Lombard.

Lombard had proven her comedy chops in other screwball classics like "Twentieth Century" in 1934 and "My Man Godfrey" in 1936. She was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s, before she died in a plane crash en route from a World War II bond tour in 1942.

"Nothing Sacred" is among the most celebrated works of director William Wellman -- a diverse portfolio of films that includes 1931 crime film "The Public Enemy," 1937 romantic drama "A Star Is Born" and 1943 western "The Ox-Bow Incident." Wellman hit it big
a decade before "Nothing Sacred," with 1927's silent World War I film "Wings," which won the first ever Best Picture Academy Award. For 85 years, Wellman's "Wings" was the only silent film to take the top prize at the Oscars, until "The Artist" won earlier this year. Check out the "Wings" trailer to see what all the fuss was about.

Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood's most prolific screenwriters, penned the "Nothing Sacred" screenplay with help from his past experience as a Chicago newspaperman. The fake sultan gag, for example, was one of many blatant acts of yellow journalism he himself had pulled while a reporter, according to TV Guide's Film & Video Companion. Others included reports of fake earthquakes and fires.

Hecht's sharp wit pervades the film's script. When asked what his opinion of newspapermen, one character replies, "The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn't elevate one of them to the depths of degradation!" While thousands of films about journalism have come and gone, Hecht's writing established "Nothing Sacred" as a standout satire of the fourth estate -- alongside films like 1941's "Citizen Kane" and 1976's "Network."

The film was even remade as Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy in 1954. See the trailer for "Living It Up" below. And for more on the Martin and Lewis pairing, read last week's Classic Cool Context.

Take a Closer Look Back

As "Nothing Sacred" mocked trumped up headlines, what were the real front-page stories in Los Angeles and around the world at the time? While the U.S. was in the interwar period, President Roosevelt was worried about U.S. security. Watch this 1937 newsreel, where FDR tells a Chicago crowd, "I hate war":

Also in Chicago, policemen shot and killed 10 unarmed steel union protestors in May -- in an event dubbed the "Memorial Day massacre."

The Chicago Memorial Day incident, May 30, 1937. Via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikipedia.

With some stories in the U.S. press, it seemed that truth was stranger than fiction. In July 1937, celebrity aviatrix Amelia Earhart mysteriously disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world. Her body was never recovered, and theories and conspiracies about her vanishing persist today.

Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, Oakland, California, 17 March 1937. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Here's some footage of Earhart just before she attempted the fateful flight:

In the first major catastrophe covered by on-the-spot broadcast reporting, the German airship Hindenburg caught fire and crashed to the ground as it attempted to dock in New Jersey, killing dozens of passengers. Here's audio from Herb Morrison's chilling eyewitness report accompanied by newsreel footage of the disaster:

Los Angeles in this era is remembered for its dirty politics. In 1937, Angelenos began a recall campaign against Mayor Frank Shaw, who became the first U.S. mayor of a major city to be thrown out of office. Most historians credit Shaw with leading the most corrupt city administration in L.A. history. The final straw for many came when police were implicated in the bombing of the home of anti-corruption crusader and Clifton's Cafeteria founder Clifford Clinton. Clinton had investigated City Hall and reported thousands of gambling and prostitution rackets run under Shaw's protection. Read these KCET posts to learn more about both Clinton's crusade and his cafeteria.

There were some important transportation developments brewing on the west coast. San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge opened in May. And just a few months earlier, Los Angeles was stirring up publicity for the unveiling of a brand new fleet of sleek
streetcars.

Crowd at City Hall watching unveiling of new Los Angeles Railway streetcars at Transportation Week celebration, 1937. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

City officials even got child star Shirley Temple in on the transportation festivities. Here she is with Mayor Shaw.

In the early 1930s, Downtown L.A.'s Olvera Street was opened as a colorful Mexican market and tourist attraction in celebration of old Mexico. Check out this delightful tour of Olvera Street in 1937:

And here's actor Leo Carillo visiting Olvera Street on Thanksgiving Day, 1937: Actor Leo Carrillo hosting Thanksgiving dinner for Mexican American children at La Golondrina restaurant in Los Angeles, Calif., 1937. Via the Los Angeles Times photo archive.

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