March in March Blogathon: Nothing Sacred (1937)



This post is part of the March-in-March blog event at Sittin' On a Backyard Fence. Check out the rest of the entries here.
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Though I love Fredric March in dramas, his comedies usually leave me kind of ‘eh.’ He tends to be a bit wooden in these roles, as if he doesn’t quite know how to loosen up. The way he sort of announces his lines in that barky tone makes it seem like he’s reading them off cue cards.

As I’ve long been aware of this aversion, my adoration of March in Nothing Sacred (1937) has confused me. Why does his performance in this movie charm me so much when there are Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly and Charles Winninger to overshadow him? Not to mention all those silly bit parts.

I’ve decided it’s got to be the slapstick. I love the way March moves in this movie. He’s goofy, but precise. While his motions are nearly always exaggerated, he never seems to lose control. For this reason, I think this is one of the best March performances to watch (I’m still not fond of the way he speaks).

I tested this theory by playing the movie without sound, and I thought he was even funnier. His double-takes, raised eyebrows and generally baffled reactions play out like a screwball ballet.

March plays Wally Cook, a newspaper reporter who is on the hunt for a new sensation to bring him back from the scandal of a faked story and demotion to the obituary department. He thinks he’s found his way back to the top with a sob story about Hazel Flagg (Lombard), a small town girl who appears to be dying of radium poisoning. Wally whisks her from her wretchedly peaceful Vermont hometown to New York, where she becomes a celebrity for facing her sure to be painful death with cheerful bravery. Hazel isn’t really sick, but she can’t resist a free trip to the big city. Wally is doomed.

Some of March’s funniest slapstick is in the scenes set in Hazel’s hometown. As he moves among the hostile and suspicious townspeople, their constant insults inspire a flurry of flinches and grimaces. It is as if these small town folks are shooting at him with tiny arrows and he’s an angry giant stomping in the main square, grunting like Frankenstein’s monster. An exchange of unintended spittle bombs between March and a huffy store keeper played by Margaret Hamilton has got to be rare if not unique in the history of the movies. Though he reacts in the exaggerated style of a silent movie actor, he somehow isn’t overacting.

When a little boy actually bites March in the leg, you can see him almost give up. He rips his hat off his head and flings it to the ground. He doesn’t just toss it, he lifts it way over his head and gives it a good slam. I think part of the reason this is so funny is that he puts so much more energy into that than he does tending to his leg.

 March uses his arms enthusiastically in Sacred. He swings them energetically when he walks and he often holds them up to protect himself. It’s as if he thinks that if he is handy enough with those appendages, he can protect himself from the insanity around him. Several times he is literally holding characters back at arm’s length, as they lean towards him menacingly, or even try to take a swing at him.

Nothing Sacred is probably most famous for a big fight scene between Lombard and March at the climax of the film. As much as I love March’s flailing in the rest of the movie, Lombard kicks his behind in this scene, at least for laughs. Her frantic puffing and uninhibited swings would overshadow anyone. Still, he makes his mark in the scene. He is an honorable straight man when Lombard has him beat.

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 I like the big-headed figurines in the opening credits, but what the heck? Does this look at all like March?

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9 comments:

thingy said...

Yes, nothing is sacred. I'm interrupting this fine post to inform you that I've been tagged, and have in turn, tagged you. Stop by my blog if you want to play. Bring Fredric with you. : )

grandoldmovies said...

Love your take on the physicality of March's performance in this film. Usually viewers focus on dialogue exchanges in screwball comedies; but what's of equal importance is, as you point out, the slapstick. Great descriptions of how March uses his body here for comic effects; it's something I'll look for next time I watch the film - thanks!

kittenbiscuits said...

KC,

I have been really excited about your entry for March-in-March. You did not disappoint!

Nothing Sacred has never been a favorite of mine, but that's not to say I don't like it. I agree with you that March was much better in drama and even action/adventure. That said, I really love him in Design for Living.

I've been meaning to buy the Kino release of this film. It is supposed to be a nice restoration. Do you have it?

I love how you muted the sound and watched his movements. Way to research!

Thanks a million.

Karen said...

I really loved your post, and as many times as I've seen and enjoyed Nothing Sacred, you've made me want to view it again, just to watch for all that you've pointed out about Fredric March. (geez, run-on sentence, anyone?) Great post!

silverscreenings.org said...

I've never seen this movie, but it looks like a lot of fun! Thanks for recommending.

journeysinclassicfilm.com said...

Don't know much about March but reading all these posts has made me interested! Thanks for the recommendation!

KC said...

That was fun game thingy! Thanks for inviting me.

Grandoldmovies--I have noticed that about screwball movie reviews, and while the dialogue is important, those physical moments are equally, and sometimes more, memorable. Thanks for dropping by.

Jill--Thanks so much! It was fun to join in. Well I can't say I watched the whole movie on mute, but I did end up watching more scenes than I'd planned. It was mesmerizing once I got into seeing it that way. I haven't seen the Kino version, but it would be nice to watch a decent print someday. Everything I've seen is sort of shabby.

Thanks Karen! I hope you do check it out again. There's always something new to see in a good movie.

Silverscreenings--I hope you check it out. It has a lot of crazy energy.

Journeysinclassicfilm--I know what you mean, this event has been a great way to learn more about him. No matter how much I think about a subject, a blogathon will always show me how much more there is to know.

Rachel said...

I love the way you zeroed in on March's physical acting. Actually I find it kind of funny since I just did a review of Death Takes a Holiday where I rated the vocal acting way, way above the physical. But then, it's hard not to look stiff with a monocle. I think Nothing Sacred is certainly one of March's most enjoyable performances. Hell, just holding your own against Carole Lombard is an achievement. And yeah, that statue looks nothing like March.

KC said...

Rachel--I had to go check out your post before I responded. It's bummed me out not to have time to read everything for this blogathon, because that's what I usually like to do if I participate. Anyway, it is funny that we picked opposite attributes to praise! I do agree that getting any attention at all with Ms. Lombard presence is an astonishing feat. That tells you right there how well he does in this role. I do think that March tends to be stiff overall, sometimes physically, sometimes vocally and on some occasions, in every way. It's weird how he can be either one of the best actors or one of the worst. He's a tough one to figure out.

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