Frederick March is a reporter on a New York paper, desperate for a feature story. He digs up a notice of a young woman in Vermont, Carole Lombard, who has been diagnosed as terminally ill with radium poisoning. Not knowing the diagnosis was a mistake made by a bibulous rural doctor, March rushes to Vermont and offers the "dying" woman a trip to New York, all expenses paid, for a last fling. Lombard has discovered the mistaken diagnosis but, in thrall to the prospect of a vacation in the Big Apple, agrees to go along.
She's exploited by the newspaper and becomes a celebrity. She gets the keys to the city for her bravery. People weep at her name. The governor endorses a "Hazel Flagg Day." Everything Lombard does -- such as getting drunk and passing out at a big affair in her honor -- is interpreted as a sign of her mysterious but debilitating illness.
A quartet of European doctors finally uncover her real state, which has more to do with radiance than radium. She and March have fallen in love. Lombard leaves a farewell note to the city, claiming she is going off to die alone ("like an elephant") and the couple escape on a ship.
I'd heard this was an outstanding screwball comedy of the sort common in the mid and late 30s, so the first time I saw it, years ago, I thought I had caught the wrong movie because it wasn't very funny. I've just seen it again and it's still not funny.
It's rushed, yes, and sometimes a little hysterical, and everyone involved tries for boffo laughs, but it doesn't clear the bar set by such other examples of the genre as "Bringing up Baby" or "It Happened One Night" or "The Palm Beach Story." I hate to say it, because so much effort is on display and because Carole Lombard scintillates in the role of the deceptive but fundamentally decent Hazel Flagg. But Frederick March, a fine actor in serious parts, is miscast. Somebody like Clark Gable or Cary Grant is called for -- an earnest extrovert. The funniest scene, I gather, is when March knocks Lombard unconscious in the bedroom. Maybe I'm becoming patriarchal but it doesn't make me laugh to see a woman punched in the jaw. Well, maybe my ex wife. As it is, the funniest scenes involve ancillary characters like German doctors and Scandinavian firemen, who are on screen collectively for about ten minutes.
The plot itself has a lot of built-in tension because, after all, both Lombard and the audience know she isn't sick. So how and when will the charade be brought to a finish? Actually, it leaves a thoughtful person a little uncomfortable because what we have here is an example of an aborted rite of passage. A rite of passage marks the transition of the subject from one status to another. The ceremonies, large and small, surrounding a death are part of a rite of passage, a shift from the status of "living" to that of "dead." People go to a lot of trouble to prepare for an impending death. And when the doomed person refuses to die -- maybe perks up and remits -- the ritual is aborted. The same thing happens when one of the parties cancels a wedding at the last minute, after the invitations have been sent out and the presents have arrived. It leaves a hole in the scenario. It's like watching a Charlie Chan movie with the last ten minutes missing. The audience is, of course, happy that Hazel Flagg is alive and well in Tahiti, and yet underneath it all they feel a little CHEATED.
Anyway, I understand that many viewers enjoyed this immensely and don't want to discourage anyone from watching it, but I thought it was interminable instead of terminal. Not a laugh in a cartload.
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