|Lora Hart …
|Dr. Bell …
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Hoo boy. How long have you got?
- One orderly snipes at a nurse, “Don’t forget to wash that bedpan, and make it shiny!”
- In one of the most wonderful moments of implication, standing over a drunken rich widow, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) mutters, “You mother.” The rest of that is implied, but, man, what an implication.
- Rye is apparently “swell for cleaning teeth”.
- Though never stated in the movie, one of the doctors displays tics that seem to indicate the use of dope.
- Women get smacked around, including a scene where our hero is knocked unconcious (after an attempted rape!). However, this also happens. It’s a very big .gif, but it’s one of many great moments in the film:
- As Lora is undressing, she catches an intern ogling her. He very joyously notes, “You can’t show me a thing I ain’t seen, I just got out of the delivery room!”
- The bootlegger is the hero, the chauffer the villain, medical ethics are treated as inhumane, up is down, left is right, dogs and cats sleeping together!
- Look, one of the film’s major plot points involves starving and murdering children.
- And as many have noted, this film like few others incorporates our heroines getting undressed or dressed multiple times in the film. You even have Blondell and Stanwyck helping each other out in this process, in case you, uh, ever wanted to see that for some reason.
Night Nurse: The Maternal Instinct Goes Rogue
I’ve seen a lot of movies (I have!), and I wholly believe there are few I’ve seen that are as infectiously fun and crazy as 1931’s Night Nurse. It’s a deceptively tight B-movie, filled to the brim with everything that makes pre-Code fun while toying with social issues and never losing an ounce of momentum. Starring young Barbara Stanwyck, young Joan Blondell, and incredibly young Clark Gable, director William A. Wellman has concocted a roller coaster for the ages.
Being a roller coaster, things start with a brief lull, but ramp up as soon as the credits end. From a driver’s perspective, we race through the city’s streets in an ambulance. It arrives at the hospital, and almost immediately we’re presented with a case of reversed expectations. The man brought to the hospital was driving a cement truck, while the driver a smaller car escaped uninjured.
The camera floats through the hospital until we reach a young recruit, Lora Hart, trying to talk the head nurse into accepting her into the trainee program. This scene encompasses the entirety of Hart’s backstory, explaining a lot in just a few offhand questions. She dropped out of high school to care for her dying mother and now, feeling that taking care of others is her calling, she wants to go the professional route.
Unfortunately, real nursing involves a lot less loving and caring and a lot more dirty work. After a run in with the kind Dr. Bell gets her the position, she’s teamed up with the wiseacre nurse Maloney (Joan Blondell), who detests every part of the business that Hart reveres. Maloney soon realizes that Hart’s, uh, heart is in the right place, and that she can give as sure as she can get; they become fast friends.
The chemistry between Stanwyck and Blondell is a hell of a thing. Female friendships, often portrayed in film’s as full of backstabbing and bickering, here is cordial and playful. The two had previously appeared together as best pals in Illicit, and again bounce off one another with ease. Stanwyck is the heart and brains, Blondell is the wit and the bluster. Other than this film and Illicit, though, their only other pairing would be in an episode of Stanwyck’s titular show in 1961. That’s what we reviewers like to call ‘a damn shame’.
The two go through their training by doing different jobs around the hospital, each book ended by a work card, telling them where to report. One great segment has the duo working the maternity ward; Hart’s affection for the babies she cares for radiates, and we get a wholly democratic view of the ward: no matter what your station in life, no matter what the color of your skin, we’re all born and begin the same way.
Other sequences involve observing a surgery or helping in the emergency room for a night. That’s where Lora meets Mortie, a bootlegger with a gunshot wound. She decides to dress him up because he seems like a sweet guy, and even Maloney helps keep Lora out of trouble for deciding not to report the wound to the authorities. As the saying goes, friendleggers before bootleggers. Or something.
The two graduate as full fledged nurses, which ends the first half of an already hectic movie. We’ve seen the medical community and how it works within the walls of the hospital: pragmatic discipline. Now it’s time to see what’s outside, and, brother, it ain’t pretty.
Maloney is the day shift nurse for a pair of young girls who were recently in the hospital for starvation. Their house is upscale, with suites of bedrooms and parlors behind every door, making the symptoms worrying. Maloney gets Lora onto the job as the night nurse, and warns her about a mysterious, brutal man named Nick. Lora’s natural love of children shines through, and her empathy radiates.
So when the kids start describing how one of their sisters met a nasty end– run over by a car over and over again– Lora is revolted. After being called to check in on the girls’ mother, Miss Ritchey, she discovers that the woman is a lush and has passed out. She has the daughters ruled over by a strict nanny, and spends most of her time with another drunk, one whom immediately tries to make time with Lora.
In enters Nick, who knocks out the drunk man with one punch, and, as soon as Lora demands to call a doctor to help Ritchey, he knocks her out in one punch too. Notable is Nick’s outfit– a silk robe with dragon’s on the back. It’s indicative of a man who is a lot more to the lady of the house than just the chauffeur.
Speaking of his job as chauffeur, remember how the other kid in the family was killed? Yeah. He’s trouble.
Hart confronts the doctor in charge of the case, who shrugs her off and displays enough tics to scare anyone. She turns to her mentor, Dr. Bell, who surprisingly also shrugs. Because of the profession, he can’t help out unless there’s proof of wrongdoing. Hart agrees to go back into the hornet’s nest and bring back the proof she needs.
Well, she doesn’t have to wait long. That night sees things go from bad to worse, and it comes down to Lora, Mortie, and Nick having a showdown to see whether the kids survive the night. Nick is a one dimensional brute, but Gable radiates a nasty intensity; one of Stanwyck’s gifts is her ability to stand up to him, who is at least a foot taller, and still stare him down. They have good chemistry, and would be teamed up as romantic rivals about two decades in To Please a Lady (1950); it’s a shame it wasn’t sooner, because they’re magnificent as good versus evil here.
The movie’s resolution involves a couple of fists, guns shot, and two of the characters sharing a laugh over the third’s death. Oh, and some phallic gear shifting for good measure. Part of the fun of Night Nurse is in how unquestionably good our two heroes are in spite of their stations in life. The poor, orphaned nurse and the criminal bootlegger reveal what a debauched fraud upper society is and how a medical code of ethics will sometimes put children’s lives in danger. They ride off into the sunset together, with Lora too good and pure for the restrictive world of nursing.
With that in mind, Night Nurse weirdly fits in the same realms of medical dramas like Arrowsmith and Men in White in their observations of the medical community, but still functioning as a comedy/thriller hybrid.
But even without the subtext, there’s so much going on in Night Nurse that fluctuates between sweet, nasty, and good humor. While we watch Hart learn about the world and embracing her better part, we too can join in that feeling of knowing that the good people in life have to stick together, against the rules, against the money, and work towards making the world a better place, consequences be damned.
And, in case my grandiose moralizing is turning you off the picture, again, there is a lot of undressing in the film. Just sayin’.
Trivia & Links
- If you pick this up in the second Forbidden Hollywood collection, the movie comes with a commentary track by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. The two start off pretty stiff, but loosen up as the movie gets going. They relate a lot of the trivia you’ll see at most of the links below, but I liked their observation about how Hart and Maloney represent different sides of the same coin: dark and light, caring and smart, and both actresses make a pair of perfect foils and great friends.
- The movie makes several references to a dipsomaniac, which is “a person with an irresistible craving for alcohol.” The more you know!
- I’ve seen a couple of viewers baffled over the idea of giving the starving child a milk bath. I think the point is that Hart, for all her training, needs a doctor to tell her what to do in this situation, and is willing to do anything– even the completely ridiculous milk bath suggestion from a drunk nanny– to help the poor girl. If you came away from this film thinking it’s a glowing endorsement of using milk baths as a cure all… uh, watch the movie better.
- Another Cinema Blog discusses the film’s subtext, vis a vis the way in which the film promotes rote attention to rules and regulations rather than the moral need to help someone. The review concludes:
Director William Wellman has hoodwinked us into laughing at an irreverent amoral conspiracy. Great cinema and an unflinching critique of the zeitgeist.
- Pre-Code dog watch: the dipsomaniac Miss Ritchey has a little Pekinese that she holds onto while bribing Lora.
- Judy at Movie Classics compares this to other films, and points out the following about the director’s filmic choices:
In the Wellman films I’ve seen so far, he often shows the dangers of drunkenness, how vulnerable it can make someone, and this is one of the starkest portraits. There is very little sympathy for Mrs Ritchey, as compared to, say, the portrayal of Grant Withers’ drunken railway worker in Other Men’s Women – I’ll be interested to see if there are more sympathetic women drinkers in other Wellman films, or if he is harder on women in this area than on men.
- Karen at Shadows and Satin has a lot of unique trivia for this one, and breaks down her favorite scene in the film. She also has this great trivia tidbit:
There is a scene in the film where a practical-joking intern, Eagan (Edward Nugent), places a skeleton in Lora’s bed. In the original draft of the screenplay, Eagan had put the skeleton in a baby carriage, which so startled Lora that she dropped the baby she was holding. Presumably, the baby died, and Eagan was subsequently fired. (I guess that was a bit too much, even for pre-Code!)
- Dear Mr. Gable, besides talking about the man’s career and what led him to making this film, also had an interesting point about the film’s end:
The ending is rather a cop-out–I’m still not sure who exactly is going to look after these children now? Their father is dead and their mother is still a ditzy drunk who couldn’t care less.
- Glenn Erickson has some things to say about this one, if you scroll past all of his other reviews for the Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 2 DVD set. He spends most of the review complaining about how MGM’s films were too safe, and really dotes on the Warner Brothers selections. He finishes his take on Night Nurse as such:
The flippant, amoral finale condones a convenient murder that bothers Lora not one whit. It’s all so casual that it makes us think the whole movie was a joke by the filmmakers, to prove what they could get away with!
- More screenshots of this over at DVD Beaver if that suits your fancy.
- Funny note on the DVD menu: the image displayed is actually from Illicit rather than Night Nurse. Don’t ask me why, but, hey, it’s hard to hate on random appearances of Ricardo Cortez.
- TCM’s article implies that Nick actually rapes Lora in the course of the film, but I have no idea where they get that from; we clearly see him put her on the sofa and leave. Anyone else catch that?
- There’s no name on the New York Times review for this one, though I’d bet it’s Andre Sennwald. Either way, it’s a measured but positive review. He notes:
Barbara Stanwyck has the part of the night nurse and Ben Lyon is the bootlegger. Joan Blondell is another nurse, and Clark Gable is the villain. The last-named seems to undertake his role with considerable enthusiasm. […] And, finally, last night’s audience seemed to like parts of “Night Nurse.” At times it is exciting.
- Edward Copeland goes on a tangent with this one, explaining the movie in great detail. He also has the nice observation that the film’s portrayals seems to indicate, “[t]he bootlegger would be more ethical than the doctors.”
- Mondo 70 talks quite a bit about the film’s take on ethics, as well as how well Stanwyck works here:
Stanwyck may not be able to match Joan Blondell’s hard-boiled attitude, but she radiates a raw power that completely eclipses her sidekick. She’s utterly unintimidated by Gable, but she also sells his brute force by taking a hard shove into a door. It’s not necessary for her to go toe-to-toe physically with Gable (as she might if Night Nurse were made today) since the moral of the movie requires the “good bad man” bootlegger to do the right thing at the crucial moment. By that point, Stanwyck has more than established her tough-chick credentials.
- Trouble in Paradise calls it ‘a fetishists paradise’ and has plenty of screen caps of undressing, slapping, and more. What more can you ask for from one of these links?
- The movie poster for this one is pretty cool:
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is available in the Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 2 collection, which can be purchased via Amazon. Night Nurse can also be streamed from Warner Archive Instant, and can be rented from Classicflix.
Comment below or join our email subscription list on the sidebar!