The Fortune Cookie
(Not rated; MGM/UA Home Video)
(Not rated; Kino Video)
A happy coincidence brings home-video watchers two classic comedies that deal with strikingly similar themes, even though they were produced 30 years apart by different filmmakers. Both are sharp-witted satires focusing on characters who fake an injury or illness in order to bamboozle money or fame out of the American business system.
Nothing Sacred, made in 1937, stars Carole Lombard as a young woman who becomes a tabloid-newspaper sensation when apparently dosed with radioactivity. She then conspires with a jaded reporter (Fredric March) to hide the fact that she's still perfectly healthy, pulling the wool over an entire nation's eyes. The Fortune Cookie, made in 1966, centers on a TV technician and an attorney - played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, before they entered grumpy old manhood - pulling an elaborate scam to cheat a high-powered insurance company.
The most sweeping parallel between these pictures is their tough-minded refusal to find any of their characters completely free of greed, selfishness, and a regrettable tendency to place their own interests over everything else in sight. Fortunately, ingenious acting and deftly written dialogue keep the movies from sinking into cynicism for its own sake, although both flirt with this possibility more than Hollywood farces usually dare.
Matthau won an Academy Award as the larcenous lawyer of "The Fortune Cookie," which was directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder from a script he wrote with I.A.L. Diamond, his frequent partner. The versatile William A. Wellman directed "Nothing Sacred" from Ben Hecht's screenplay.
Additional coincidence department: Both movies have subplots dealing with race, handled much more sensitively in "The Fortune Cookie," which is also superior to its twin in most other respects. In one more bit of happenstance, the slick attorney in "Cookie" is named Gingrich and the hard-boiled editor in "Sacred" is named Oliver Stone - surely no relations to the famous politician and moviemaker of later years!