The Wilde World of “Nothing Sacred”

Stephen Fry as Wilde

I like any chance I get to think about Oscar Wilde, and there are surprisingly frequent opportunities in life to do so:  Whenever one gives in to temptation, sees ghastly wallpaper, or greets a widow with newly blonded hair.  Anytime you encounter someone so improbably youthful that you assume they have a ghoulish self-portrait in their attic.  Whenever you write in a diary, or stay in a cheap hotel room in Paris, or leave your family to run across town to spend time with a pretty, mean-spirited young lover whose daddy is a Marquess and an inventor of boxing rules.  Whenever someone in this world cannot find it in their hearts to believe that small-minded people are out to destroy them, and ends up doomed by their optimism. 

But most often, and increasingly, one thinks of Wilde whenever brackened, unformed life lurches from the primordial mire and shapes itself. . .into an imitation of art.  As happened in New York recently.  (Ah!  New York–the place where Wilde, upon his first visit, informed customs officials that the only thing he had to declare was his genius.  See?  Dude’s everywhere.)

Anyway, on the churning and capricious B train to work this week, I read about a 25 year-old bride in New York State who claimed she was dying of leukemia in order to obtain the lavish wedding and Aruba honeymoon of her dreams.  Turned out the short-sighted darling had faked her doctor’s note and began soliciting donations for her “big day.”  (An aside:  I absolutely loathe that sad little phrase, and am always astonished that people aren’t embarrassed to use it.  Isn’t having just one big day setting your sights a little low in this kaleidoscopic circus that we call life? And don’t these people know they’re pawns of a silly industry that persuades them to overspend for something they can get from city hall for the price of a ham sammie?  Why not spend wedding money on six months of actual relationship time in Cornwall, digging mussels and quaintly arguing on hillsides?) 

But back to Jessica Vega.  Liar, wedding-industry pawn, and short-sighted non-leukemic.  She lives upstate, about 75 miles outside of Manhattan.  The local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record, had picked up her tragic tale and run it.  Donations came pouring in.  A $1000 meringue concoction was offered to the tragic bride as a wedding dress, and dollars began raining down upon her stout shoulders.  But then, according to Metro New York:

After the wedding, Vega’s husband — they have since reportedly divorced — confessed the scam to the Times Herald-Record, which had also covered her “illness” before their wedding.

Michael O’Connell said he was preparing for his wedding and his wife’s death, but later found out the preparations for her funeral were no longer necessary. He told the newspaper that a doctor’s note was faked.

As I read this I gasped, and it wasn’t because of the lady on the B train who’d just carefully rested her full body weight on the toes of my Vanessa Bruno boots:  No.  What I gasped aloud was, It’s Nothing Sacred!”  Fabulous.  Fabulous.

Because Jessica Vega had just given me a link between Oscar Wilde and the eternally marvellous Carole Lombard.  It's a Headache being This Fricking Cool Lombard began in the silents and did well throughout the early 30s–but it wasn’t until screwball comedy that people realized she was a casually brilliant comedienne who could bring a sort of exuberant desperation to her characters.  Lombard was hugely popular with people in the business (except Dietrich, who was contemptuous of her for being so “palsy” with the crew and “cutesy-poo” with the Paramount costumer, Travis Banton, who Dietrich considered her personal dressmaker).  Lombard briefly married William Powell and also bedded Barrymore and Victor Fleming, but the man who loved her most was Clark Gable, who she married during the filming of a little picture known as Gone with the Wind.  Snap! 

Two years earlier Lombard had starred in another David O’Selzinick picture–one of the first in Technicolor.  The film was written by Ben Hecht, just a little casual virtuosity he jotted down during a two-week train ride, and it was called Nothing Sacred.  I’d rather watch this than sit through GWTW’s bloated longeurs any day.  In Nothing Sacred Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a girl from the small grim town of Warsaw, Vermont, who receives a diagnosis of a terminal blood disease.  She is given a couple of months to live.  Hazel bears this news with equanimity, and adds to it a truly Lombardian twist: She finds she enjoys being the center of attention, and actually doesn’t much mind the certainty of getting the hell out of Warsaw, even if it’ll be in a coffin.  The glorious shades of early Technicolor work beautifully with this film’s dark themes–so much pastel beauty is unnatural, almost unnerving. 

But another option opens up to Hazel:  The New York City papers have heard of her terminal diagnosis, and editors decide to offer brave Hazel Flagg the opportunity of going to Manhattan and living the high life until. . .well, until they’ve nursed her drama to the end.  And sold a lot of papers while they’re at it.  Hazel is given this offer by Wally Cook, a cynical journalist who’s glad to finally get a chance to work with someone who’s not a phony.

Except.  Well, Hazel’s just found out that her drunk of a doctor made a mistake with the tests.  So she’s not sick.  She’s just fine. . .but she’s not so happy about one thing:  “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice–and each time in Warsaw.”  Since it’s the kind of town where children bite people out of sheer boredom, you can see her point.  Just then she meets Wally, who tells her his newspaper will put her up in New York.  “You’ll be a sensation!  The whole town will take you to its heart. . .You’ll be a symbol of courage and heroism.” 

So she says Yes.  And goes to NYC, where people pay top dollar to look at a brave, dying girl.  She also falls for Frederic March in true screwball style (which means a love larded with profound irritation), at one point begging him, “Lemme hit ya just once–just once on the jaw!”  The screenplay is profoundly, enliveningly cynical, but the whirling joyous center of it all is Lombard, eyes glassy with determination to enjoy every minute in New York City.  Just as she’s beginning to believe her own press–though she tends to forget that all this high living is about her imminent death– someone finds out about her real test results.

Just once, on the Jaw.

So thank you, silly Jessica Vega, for showing us again how life imitates art and for reminding me of this cynical little diamond of a movie.  I hope you see it one day, and take note of how Lombard dealt with the situation.  Oscar Wilde would salute your embrace of Hecht’s dark scenario.  But I don’t think he’d want to know you. 

Nothing’s Sacred, 1937, Produced by Selznick International Pictures and Distributed by United Artists. Dir. William Wellman.  Written by Ben Hecht.