I was lucky to find the complete second volume of the Forbidden Hollywood collection so the next few reviews will be from that collection. Let’s start with the first film I watched, 1931′s Night Nurse. There’s several bloggers I know who aren’t fans of pre-Code films since the gimmick of such scandalous content tends to overtake the plot and acting, which I’ve seen happen in several films. Thankfully for Night Nurse it has director William Wellman, screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett and star Barbara Stanwyck to create tension, drama, and true suspense. I was engrossed in Night Nurse all through its 72 minute runtime which is just long enough for the story to not feel convoluted.
Nurse Lora Hart (Stanwyck) works her way up through the ranks before finally securing a job looking after two sick children. When she starts to discover that the children are being starved by the villainous chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable), it’s up to Lora to save the day!
See why I mentioned the benefits of that 72 minute runtime? Night Nurse doesn’t waste time with exposition or making Lora a disreputable figure seeking redemption. Sure she’s not educated enough to be a nurse (which I’d probably be scared of) but really her job involves being a comfort to others as opposed to actually nursing. Not to mention the plot is already so thin to add a storyline about poisoned children could have been drug out to an hour and a half but thankfully Wellman and crew know to give the basics and not much else. From beginning to end it has a simple three-act structure that works! There’s no set gimmick or attempts to scandalize. In fact aside from the undressing scenes featuring Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, and one risqué line of dialogue there’s nothing all that shocking in here (unless you count the drunken idiots in the third act and the bootlegger character).
I loved that Stanwyck didn’t play the typical femme fatale or wanton woman. I half expected this to be a re-tread of Baby Face but Stanwyck shows her strength in this film. From the minute you meet her she’s no-nonsense. When a guy runs into her outside the hospital and knocks over her belongings, she just has to look at the man before he drops to his knees and starts picking up her things. Her toe tapping is the icing on the cake! It is this dominance and sexual power that does end up getting her the job as the nurse despite her lack of qualifications. It’s a case of “right place right time” but Stanwyck definitely doesn’t sleep her way to the top which I thought was a breath of fresh air. With the character of Lora herself, she’s a woman who takes comfort and joy in helping others. When a man comes in and needs stitches she provides a hand to hold. Again, she’s not really a nurse but a comforting maternal presence to people in pain which is a relief for fans who are used to Stanwyck playing a cold-hearted woman. For all Lora’s strength though she does have a soft side. When someone dies she can’t handle it upping the stakes when she’s put in the position to save a little girl’s life (although the way she takes charge so quickly feels a tad false at the end). In case you’re curious Stanwyck is one film away from entering my Hall of Fame.
I mentioned the script and direction above which elevates the material above the typical tawdry lines of other pre-Code films. Director William Wellman is best known for helming the first Best Picture winner Wings. I’ve seen three of his films and this is probably my favorite (the other two being The Public Enemy and Midnight Mary). Oddly enough I have several other Wellman films I’d planned on seeing so I might be looking at a new favorite director. Wellman does a great job elevating the material to where it needs to be and creating a simple suspense/mystery. Screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett hasn’t written much I’ve seen outside of this and doing uncredited work on Gone With the Wind but I enjoyed his script. The characters all talk intelligently and he doesn’t devolve into double-entendres although one of the male nurses does get the line heavily used in pre-Code documentaries about not having Stanwyck cover up while changing, “You can’t show me one thing. I just came from the delivery room!” Garrett also gives Stanwyck an amazingly impassioned speech when she confronts the children’s mother Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam) and yells “Why do children have to be born to women like you?”
The strongest element of Garrett’s script is what he’s showing about women. It’s obviously that he’s put women into the role of maternal caregivers, the nurse metaphor being the key example. When Lora discovers that her charges are in danger she’s firmly thrust into the mother role, something she’s shied away from by her unattached status and aloof nature to the bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon). She gets the chance to be the mother she’s always wanted to be (without the baggage of having to redeem for past sins which is a great change). In the world of the wealthy she walks into a house of horrors where a mother, the aforementioned Mrs. Ritchey, spends her days getting drunk and waiting for her lover Nick to bump off her kids to gain their trust funds. Mrs. Ritchey is a woman obsessed with pleasing a man and in that she’s an unfit mother and human being! She shouldn’t be blessed with children and yet the world is cruel enough to give them to women like her. If anything Mrs. Ritchey is the pre-Code wanton woman indiscriminately having sex, boozing, and bringing children into this world she doesn’t care for! The men in this tale, the wealthy ones or ones in the doctor community, all exploit or disrespect women with one trying to assault Lora. One of the evil doctors gives Lora advice that a good nurse “is one who keeps her mouth shut,” a quote reminiscent of the views on women at the time, that wives should be silent and dutiful. The argument could be made that Garrett’s script places the audience into the role of seeing Lora as a stand-in for the American wife at the time. A woman who can’t keep her mouth shut about the injustices done to innocent children and takes a stand against it. All of this in a film where women undress and a girl falls in love with a bootlegger!
I’d be remiss in not giving a moment to my rising favorite star Joan Blondell. Joan is also one film away from securing a place in my Actress Hall of Fame and I continue to love her! If anything she places the representation of the 1930s pre-Code actress in this film, but she never veers into being unlikable or a “bad girl.” She’s the girl next door who likes to sneak a cigarette or two if you want a metaphor. We’re introduced to her character, oddly enough known only as Maloney (I totally didn’t intend for that to rhyme), as she rolls her eyes and doesn’t want to be stuck with Lora. Joan Blondell always plays that girl who could be a rebellious teenager if she was younger. If she doesn’t want to do something or she’s bored she’s going to make it loudly apparent as evidenced by her outrageously chomping on gum during her graduation from nursing school! Once her and Lora become friends they’re sisters in arms telling Lora “for a beginner you’re not doing so bad.” Blondell gets the humorous bits of the film cementing, from what I’ve seen of her work, her as the sidekick/comic relief. Hell she gets to throw a shoe at a woman, that’s funny! Or at least it is when Joan Blondell does it. Sadly Maloney’s abandoned in the third act. Sure she shows up at the end but considering the friendship between her and Stanwyck at the beginning it’s sad to see her become a throwaway character by story’s end.
While not as lurid as other pre-Code’s the film hits its stride once Lora goes to watch the Ritchey children. That’s when we get pre-Code Clark Gable….bum, bum, bum! If there’s one thing I find awesome (out of the millions of things that I already find awesome) it’s pre-Code Clark Gable! He’s not sexual like in Red Dust, here he’s just an ass who wants to kill little children and beat on women! He’s a pretty intimidating figure, especially when he’s dressed in the crisp, all-black chauffeur outfit making him look like a weird undertaker or something out of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Stanwyck does get slapped around by him in the beginning but when she’s gotta save the little girl she gets on equal footing with him and turns into a bona fide gangster, although Stanwyck does go into Edward G. Robinson mode as every sentence seems to end with “ya see.” Gable’s only in about three scenes all total and isn’t even given a proper send-off. Much like Joan Blondell he’s kind of thrown away by story’s end.
I can’t lie and say Night Nurse is perfect; it’s got its share of ridiculous plot turns like the entire climax hinging on getting milk. Or having one character who was set up to be an evil spy turning into a sobbing caregiver for no reason. I also didn’t connect with the love story between Lora and Mortie and really the film would have been better without it entirely. While not as shocking as other pre-Codes…probably not as shocking as other films in this set, Night Nurse is a solid mystery/suspense thriller. It’s got amazing acting from Stanwyck, Gable, and Blondell and it doesn’t sacrifice the story for cheap titillation.