I find classic movies very interesting, and have not watched nearly enough of them. I was delighted when a friend bought me Nothing Sacred, a 1937 comedy starring Carole Lombard.
The thing is, having watched it, I cannot review it in the classical sense. The tone and pacing and style of humor were completely different from modern movies. Trying to rate how good it is becomes an apples and oranges issue.
Instead, I thought I would talk about those apples-to-oranges issues. Cultural differences interest me, and 1937 vs 2014 is like two different countries. Ostensibly we share the same language, but the basic understandings have changed.
The first thing that struck me is that the movie is in color. I tried to find the setting to watch it in the original black and white, only to find out that it was filmed in Technicolor, which was invented in 1932. I really should have known that, but I didn't. It's a peculiar washed-out color, but it's color. I hadn't realized that films like Casablanca (1942) chose to be in black and white. Given the quality of the early Technicolor experience, that was probably for the best.
Racism tends to leap to the fore in old movies. A black actor (Troy Brown) had a major role, and while his picture in the opening credits was a classic fat-lipped negro stereotype, all of the actors were featured in similarly unflattering ways. I was deeply surprised to see him in the very first scene as a respected and respectable king from the mysterious Orient. No, not so much. Turned out he was a bumbling petty crook, with a thick 'Yessuh Massa' type accent, very friendly but not bright, cheerfully dishonest on the level of swaggering and singing as he stole a few flowers for his girlfriend from someone else's bouquet. Not only was he a racist stereotype, he was the stereotype of racist stereotypes. Also, notice that a very black man could believably pose to be an 'Oriental' ruler. Part of that was a joke, I'm sure, but it still reveals a deep 'Everything but Europe is the same' attitude.
Fair enough, this was a 30s film and that opinion of racism, however offensive we know it to be now, was normal. The subtlety that I thought really reflected the difference in racial attitudes came later. A model class of school children are featured briefly. They are clearly meant to represent the diversity of America, and even include two black children at the front. The rest, ranging from Tom Sawyer rough clothes to neat little suits, are different European descent stereotypes. I don't know enough of those old stereotypes to tell you who was who, but the camera lingered closely on different individuals of such wildly different clothing, facial shape, and hair type that this scene was clearly meant to celebrate American diversity.
The movie treats us to interesting internal USA stereotypes as well. A heavily used joke is that everyone in Vermont expects to be paid, even for being unhelpful. The lack of a telephone in the Vermont town we might expect from our modern concept of those days, and also horses being the only vehicles in this backwoods town. What I was not expecting is that it was a 'company town'. Everyone in town worked for one company, and was absolutely loyal, to the point of refusing to talk to outsiders. That's a concept that has almost disappeared in our time.
Carole Lombard as the choice of lead actress struck me with how much Hollywood tastes have changed. She had a delicate and beautiful face, but was as flat as a board. These days, bust size is much more important when Hollywood picks beautiful actresses. Advertisements for the movie feature a lot of close-ups of her face. Her beauty was clearly a selling point.
At the time, I was struck by how small the airplane they took to get to New York was. It didn't hit me until later that it had to be small. This movie was pre-WWII, and there were no jet planes.
New York's reputation for gaudy cynicism, corruption, and crowded streets has not changed in 80 years.
I have saved the most important issue for last. It is hard for me to be absolutely sure about any of these judgments, because the nature of comedy itself has changed. The humor in this movie was very sly. It was almost all about exaggerated representations of people or clever filming. The hostile Vermont townfolk refuse to speak in more than one word sentences. In one scene a very serious - even grim - conversation is held between two characters with a large potted plant between them, and for every line they have to lean forward to talk past it, then sit back. When the doctor goes on his ranting lectures, he leans forward a little more and a little more, gradually, until whoever he's yelling at has to push him back upright. Given the worst job in the newspaper building, the shamed lead sits at his desk as people back into his space to access drawers, or lean ladders right over him, dropping occasional files on his head. It's all continuous, with no sharp beats. Very unlike modern comedy.
I should have saved something clever for the end of this review, but I didn't. To sum up, I found Nothing Sacred very interesting and clever, but not exactly funny. Comedy has changed too much. I certainly enjoyed watching it.