(director: William Wellman; screenwriters: Ben Hecht/Ring Lardner Jr./Budd Schulberg/from the short story “Letter to the Editor” byJames H. Street; cinematographer: Howard Greene; editors: Hal Kern/James Newcom; music: Oscar Levant; cast: Carole Lombard (Hazel Flagg), Fredric March (Wally Cook), Charles Winninger (Dr. Enoch Downer), Walter Connolly (Oliver Stone), Sig Rumann (Dr. Emile Egglehoffer); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; Alpha; 1937)
“Sophisticated, well-oiled 1930s screwball comedy.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Sophisticated, well-oiled 1930s screwball comedy written by Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr. and Budd Schulberg, and ably helmed by William Wellman (“Roxie Hart”/”Beau Geste”/”Wings”). The story was inspired by a short story, “Letter to the Editor,” by James Street, from Lumberton, Mississippi who changed careers from a Baptist minister in St. Charles, Missouri to a reporter for the New York World-Telegram. It was in the early fifties adapted into a Broadway musical, Hazel Flagg, and was remade in 1954 as Living It Up starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis–with Lewis in the Carole Lombard role and Martin in the Charles Winninger role. It has the turnabout of city slickers taken in by country bumpkins. Though the Technicolor comedy, a rarity at the time, was fresh when released, today it has lost some of its snap.
Wally Cook (Fredric March) is the hotshot reporter for The New York Morning Star, who goofs up when it’s discovered that he’s trying to pass off a Harlem bootblack as the “Sultan of Mazipan” at a charity event. The paper becomes the laughing stock of the city and the irate editor, Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly), demotes Wally to a desk by the water-cooler to write obituary columns. There he learns about a young woman in Warsaw, Vermont named Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) who has contacted an incurable radium poisoning. Since the paper’s circulation is in decline, the editor agrees to give Wally another chance to redeem himself. Wally treks to the dull town of Warsaw, and tracks down Hazel in the office of Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger). What he doesn’t know is that the doctor just told the pretty Hazel that he made a mistaken diagnosis and that she’s as fit as a fiddle. He also tells her that he could lose his license and therefore she should keep it a secret.
Wally senses a great news story, and as a newspaper circulation stunt invites Hazel to the Big Apple where he guarantees her the city will pour out its heart for her and make her a national celebrity. Hazel is willing to get out of the drab Warsaw, which is just as crooked as the big city only much duller. Dr. Downer, who is not as honest as he looks, goes along as a chaperone. The two are wined and dined, and are set up in a luxury hotel. The city goes bananas for the dying girl, opening up their hearts for this good sob story. The fun begins when it’s learned by the newspaper that she’s a fraud.
Lombard gives a fantastic performance as the small-town gal who is out to grab all she can from life before returning to her dead-end existence in her hayseed town. Hecht’s script stretches between bitter satire and soppy romance, and though not always working does work most of the time; when it works the film is brilliant. It points its finger at the media and the public for buying into fake sob stories. When Hecht refused to work in a happy ending to his black comedy, the studio called in Ring Lardner, Jr. and Budd Schulberg to give them what they wanted.
REVIEWED ON 5/31/2007 GRADE: A-