Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- Poop jokes. Yeah, you won’t see that in Mrs. Miniver!
- There are still title cards that crop up every so often. For the record, this flick from 1930 is only three years after The Jazz Singer‘s box office numbers began the talkie revolution.
- More women bouncing all about in lingerie.
- Premarital sex aplenty, including a pretty nice euphemism about it from one woman to another: “You can have the orange blossoms, I’ll take the dandelions.”
- Women fretting about sexual harassment.
- War is bloody, grim, desperate, and unending. A lot of people, innocent or not, die violently.
World War I is the forgotten war. Painstakingly waged between the greatest armies mankind had created with the epitome of violent destructive technology, we are most certainly still living in the repercussions of a war that happened long before a majority of the world’s population existed. It’s a shunned war, one that gets a half second clip on American history specials far more interested in the more inherently patriotic and necessarily more simplistic second war. You know, the one with the Nazis.
Made only 12 years after World War I, War Nurse still aches with the pains of what was still then known as The Great War. A generation of American men and women had gone “over there” in the country’s first full blown military conflict in five decades and come back shell shocked and traumatized. This is what our movie is about: it’s a World War I movie where the enemy isn’t the Germans, it’s the war itself.
The film opens at the beginning of America’s involvement with the Great War. We follow a series of volunteers as each woman decides to enlist for her own reason, whether it be for men, a chance to see the world, or a fleeting sense of patriotism. We get to follow a small corps of nurses, most inexperienced but all optimistic both of the virtue of their cause.
That doesn’t last very long. Sixteen hour work days leaves all of the women exhausted and miserable. A never ending stream of the injured and dying leave them distraught.
I suppose I’m romanticizing my description of the film a bit, so let me step back. The plot is on the surface a simple affair, a Big Red One with women testing to see how long they’ll survive in a damning situation. Most of the film also concerns the romantic liaisons of two of the women, Joy and Babs. To be honest, they may have as well been called Goofus and Gallant.
Joy falls for a soldier who is injured and goes out with him dancing several times. After he promises to marry her, she readily sleeps with him, only to quickly realize that “I’ll marry you” is not legally binding. Pregnant, she has to hide her child away until she gives birth and can put it up for adoption.
Bab’s storyline is far more sympathetic but hits a lot of the same notes. Whether this is condoning Bab’s more sensible pessimism or is random luck, the film refuses to comment on. She’s accosted early on by a hotshot pilot, and through a mutual sense of rivalry (including one amusing sequence where the pilot runs over a goose on his motorcycle and just continues to go about his business), they end up at the end of one date with the pilot propositioning her. She angrily refuses him and he turns the tables on her. “If I’d promised to marry you, you’d already be in the bed!” Babs and the pilot both have a point– in a situation like this, who is playing who and to what ends?
War Nurse is a hell of an anomaly. Made before the Depression got hold, it’s a melancholy tribute before the nation found a new tragedy to mire itself in.
But, deep down, War Nurse is still a testament to a maternal sisterhood that suffered together. It’s a story about not just the unsung support of the heroes, but the unsung support of the unsung heroes. It bobs and weaves through cliches, and daringly tells a story about people who enfold themselves in self deception to survive.