Thursday, April 07, 2011

Romance Isn't Sacred

Nothing Sacred is an odd film. Although it's not particularly unusual for a pre-1940s film to be as short as this - a spry 77 minutes - there's a strong feeling that things have been cut out here, whether that's actually the case or not. It's more a satire than a screwball, and the odd moments don't feel intentionally kooky and offbeat, merely mysterious, like a character used as a plot device at the film's start suddenly reappearing to be a plot device in a completely different place. Strangely, given the script by Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood's great screenwriters, and the charismatic leads Carole Lombard and Fredric March, it takes until the final scenes to reach the expected plane of hilarity, though it's never less than watch-able thanks to the mere presence of Lombard and March, sparkling individually as ever even as their pairing seems underdeveloped. Similarly, there's some punch in the idea of the city taking in the fradulent Lombard as their dying heroine, but it never lands the blow. As it is, this all feels a little rough around the edges, but it makes for an interesting curio rather than something that might just have faded into obscurity. In particular, there's a few strikingly diffident shot choices.

As March's Wally Cook invites Lombard's Hazel Flagg to New York, making her keep the truth about her (lack of) illness a secret, they walk under a tree and proceed to have a large part of their conversation hidden by a branch. It's so outrageously noticeable, and director William A. Wellman even emphasizes it by giving them a mere one second on the other side of the branch.

Later, Wellman makes a similar, and more crucial, choice. This is the scene of Wally and Hazel's first kiss, in most movies, the 'money shot' of sorts, but here it's hidden inside a wooden crate! The expected, if sudden moment of only hearing the kiss keeps the scene in the realms of humour rather than straight romance, as we imagine what Lombard's shocked little noise might look like. It makes it a little more erotic, illicit, but also more sardonic - tradition romantic union is eschewed by covering both possible directions.

The camera then pans around the box, with the expectation that we'll land on the traditional mid-shot of the clandestine pair. Only we get there, and there are planks in our way. Their conversation, and their kisses, are still hidden in shadow. Throughout, Nothing Sacred deliberately shys away from indulging in a properly romantic plot, from the possibility of a delirious reunion kiss in the frenetic boxing climax - the scene cuts instead - to the coda, where the plot necessitates them being hidden by both costume and shadow. And even then, with the pair alone, together, in love, romance capitulates to a completely bizarre comedic ending. Is nothing sacred?

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