We’re wrapping up our April of Barbara Stanwyck flicks with a look at one of my favorite pre-Codes, the 1931 drama Night Nurse, co-starring Joan Blondell and a villainous, non-mustachioed Clark Gable.
Stanwyck stars as Lora Hart, an aspiring nurse who finagles a probationary training position at a hospital after meeting the chief of staff, Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), when he inadvertently knocks her purse to the ground. She is partnered with wisecracking, no-nonsense fellow nurse Maloney (Blondell), and the two become fast friends despite their differing views on the nursing profession–Maloney is just working until she can entice a rich patient to marry her, while Lora truly believes in helping people. After being assigned to the night shift as punishment for missing curfew one night, Lora meets a charming bootlegger, Mortie (Ben Lyon), who comes in for treatment for a gunshot wound. Lora agrees not to report the incident to the police, gaining her an instant fan and admirer in Mortie (who calls her “my pal”).
After earning their nursing certification, Lora and Maloney are assigned to private nursing duty for two children, Nanny and Desney Ritchey, who are very sick and don’t seem to be getting any better. Maloney, who works the day shift, voices her suspicions that the children’s recovery is being deliberately impeded by their shady physician, Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde), and Lora herself becomes concerned when she realizes that all the children are being fed is milk. When she tries to talk to the children’s mother (Charlotte Merriam), she finds the woman is a perpetual drunk and unconcerned about her children’s well-being. Mrs. Ritchey’s equally drunken paramour, Mack (Walter McGrail), attacks Lora, and he is pulled off by Nick (Gable), Mrs. Ritchey’s animalistic chauffeur. Nick demands that Lora pump Mrs. Ritchey’s stomach, but when she tries to call a doctor to get approval for the procedure, he knocks her out with a sock to the jaw.
The next day, Lora tries to talk to Dr. Ranger about the children’s health and Nick’s brutality, but he brushes off her concerns. An enraged Lora quits; once she leaves his office, Dr. Ranger calls Nick, revealing that he has been conspiring with the chauffeur to kill the children (we later learn that Nick’s plan is to marry the children’s mother after their deaths and thus get access to their trust fund). Lora seeks advice from Dr. Bell, who advises her to get her job back so that she can be in the Ritchey house to better help save the children. She convinces Ranger to hire her back, but by this time, Nanny’s health has deteriorated to the point of near-death. Lora enlists the help of “old pal” Mortie to foil Nick’s plans, but will it be enough to save the children?
Night Nurse was directed by William A. Wellman, marking the first of five collaborations between Stanwyck and Wellman. The actress was inordinately fond of the sometimes temperamental director, and in later years she would remember him as one of the best directors she had worked with throughout her long career. As with much of Wellman’s body of work, Night Nurse is smartly paced from its opening scene (a point-of-view shot from the driver’s seat of a speeding ambulance, careening through the streets before screeching to a halt in front of the emergency room) through its book-ended conclusion of a similar scene (recreated with a body we know in tow). Though the film is rather noticeably split into two definitive sections–beginning with Lora’s training before sliding into the thriller/mystery that marks the second half–it works well as a whole, showing Lora’s progression from wannabe nurse to defiant savior.
At its heart, Night Nurse is an indictment of the excesses of the Jazz Age; in fact, all of the scenes in which Mrs. Ritchey appears are accompanied by loud jazz music in the background, as if to underscore the evils of the period. We never see Mrs. Ritchey sober, nor do we ever see her in the company of her daughters. Liquor is the devil, used to keep Mrs. Ritchey drunk and under Nick’s control, enabling her to forget her motherly duties. In a fit of self-pity, she claims Dr. Ranger told her that she makes the children “too nervous” and has therefore been forbidden from visiting them; whether this is true or not, our frustration with Mrs. Ritchey mirrors that of Lora, whom we cheer when she finally lashes out at the woman for her less-than-maternal behavior.
And yet Lora herself is guilty of less-than-seemly behavior. She readily agrees to forgo reporting Mortie’s gunshot wound to the police, and she appears to have no problem associating with a known bootlegger (so long as they aren’t going too public with their friendship). In the end, she even seems to accept Mortie’s inference about Nick’s “whereabouts” with nary a blink of an eye. She is far from an innocent figure, though the audience is conditioned to support her regardless … making us, thereby, implicit in her morally-questionable behavior. Interesting consideration, to say the least.
Though Stanwyck and Blondell play a pair of seasoned, worldly females and are far from victimized, there is nonetheless a sense that femininity is devalued throughout the film. The women are slapped around, brutalized, cowed, and used. Their opinions and concerns are cast as “hysterical” or ignorant. Lora fights back against this, and largely succeeds because she takes a more aggressive approach to her interactions with most of the other characters–she’s unafraid to raise her voice, use her fists, or get right up in Nick’s face and accuse him of attempted murder. In other words, because she takes on more traditionally “male” characteristics, Lora escapes the same level of treatment that the frightened housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Frederici) or Mrs. Ritchey are subjected to (for the most part). Despite this, all of the women of the film are, at times, treated as mere objects: stared at and lusted over not only by the men of the film, but by the audience as well, a sleazy note of voyeurism that is unavoidable considering the sheer number of scenes in which Wellman has his two leading ladies strip down to their undergarments. It’s titillation for titillation’s sake–seriously, is there any real reason for so many scenes in which the female characters disrobe?
Stanwyck’s typical film persona is that of the prototypical “tough broad,” and she takes that to new heights in this film. She is a smart-assed, take-no-crap dame who is determined to do what’s right regardless of the rules of “ethical” nursing (which would, in theory, prevent her from telling the full truth about what’s happening in the Ritchey household)–and it’s a shame that, by the end of the film, Lora is forced to choose between doing the right thing and the job that she has come to love and excel at. Lora’s confrontation with Mrs. Ritchey over the welfare of the children is perhaps the best scene in the entire film, a fiery burst of passion from Stanwyck that ends with her standing over Mrs. Ritchey’s prone body, muttering, “You mother.” Stanwyck delivers the line with a mix of sarcasm and derision–it’s an epithet, an ironic label, and an insult, all wrapped into one, and in her tone, you can just hear the implicit ” … fucker” added to the end of the phrase.
Though their scenes together are relatively few, Gable and Stanwyck demonstrate a potent chemistry in their moments of confrontation. Watching the movie now, it’s easy to see how and why Gable simply exploded into popularity in 1931. Night Nurse was released right on the heels of the film that arguably made Gable a star, A Free Soul, in which he appeared opposite Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore. Though Gable is mostly remembered for his more heroic or romantic film roles–let’s face it, to many film fans, he will always be the roguish Rhett Butler and nothing more–this movie presents Gable as an effectively chilling psychopath. He plays Nick as a sort of pit bull–always nipping and barking, exerting more muscle than brains, dangerously fueled by testosterone and coldblooded determination as opposed to logic and reason.
A potent mix of sex and violence, marked by strong performances and a relatively solid, entertaining plot, Night Nurse is one of the better melodramas to come out of the pre-Code period, and one I highly recommend.