There are 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 creating tension, drama, and true suspense. I was engrossed in Night Nurse throughout its 72-minute runtime, 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 discovers 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 make Lora a disreputable figure seeking redemption. She’s not educated enough to be a nurse but her job involves being a comfort to others, as opposed to actually nursing. The narrative is already so thin, adding a storyline about poisoned children could have been drug out to an hour and a half, but Wellman and crew know to give the basics and not much else. Night Nurse follows a simple three-act structure from beginning to end that works! There’s no set gimmick or attempts at scandalizing events because the tension is built up with the dying children. Aside from the undressing scenes featuring Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, and a risqué line of dialogue, there’s nothing 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 fatales or wanton women, although she played both in her time. I half expected this to be a re-tread of Baby Face, but Stanwyck shows her strength beyond being a sexually adventurous woman. From the minute you meet her character, Lora Hart, you know she’s no-nonsense. When a guy runs into her outside the hospital and knocks over her belongings, she simply looks at the man before he drops to his knees and starts picking up her things. Her toe tapping is the icing on the cake! Her dominance and sexual power ends up getting her the job as the proverbial “night nurse” despite her lack of qualifications. It’s a case of “right place right time,” and Stanwyck doesn’t sleep her way to the top presenting a breath of fresh air. Lora’s also a woman who takes comfort and joy in helping others. When a man comes in and needs stitches, she provides a hand to hold. When someone dies, Lora 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). She’s not Florence Nightingale, more a comforting maternal presence to people in pain; a relief for fans used to watching Stanwyck play a cold-hearted woman.
The script and direction elevate the material above the typical tawdry boundaries 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 already, and this is probably my favorite (the other two being The Public Enemy and Midnight Mary). 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. (He did uncredited work on Gone With the Wind.) The characters all talk intelligently and Garrett doesn’t devolve into double entendres, although a male nurses presents 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 shows about women. It’s obvious he’s put women into the role of maternal caregivers, the nurse metaphor the key example. When Lora discovers her charges are in danger she’s thrust firmly into the mother role, something she’s shied away from by her unattached status and aloof nature to the bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon). Lora gets the chance to be the mother she’s always wanted to be without the baggage of having to redeem for past sins. She walks into a house of horrors where a wealthy mother, the aforementioned Mrs. Ritchey, spends her days getting drunk and waiting for her lover Nick to bump off her kids and gain their trust funds. Mrs. Ritchey is a woman obsessed with pleasing a man, making her both an unfit mother and human being! She shouldn’t be blessed with children, and yet the world is cruel enough to give them to her. Mrs. Ritchey is the pre-Code wanton woman indiscriminately having sex, boozing, and bringing children into this world she doesn’t care for! She’s everything the Legion of Decency rails against, and this film, appropriately, makes her the villain. The men in this tale, both the wealthy and those in the medical community, all exploit or disrespect women, right down to one attempting an assault on 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 sees 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. If anything she embodies the representation of the 1930s pre-Code actress, but she never veers into being unlikable or a “bad girl.” She’s the girl next door who sneaks a cigarette or two. We’re introduced to her character, oddly enough known only as Maloney, as she rolls her eyes at being stuck with Lora. Joan Blondell always plays the adult rebellious teenager of certain films. If she doesn’t want to do something she’s going to make it loudly apparent, evidenced by her outrageously chomping on gum during her graduation from nursing school! Once her and Lora become friends they’re sisters in arms. Maloney dispenses pearls of wisdom for Lora, “for a beginner you’re not doing so bad.” Blondell gets the humorous bits of the film cementing her as the sidekick/comic relief. Hell, she throws a shoe at a woman! Unfortunately, Malone shows up at the end, but considering the friendship between her and Stanwyck at the beginning she becomes a throwaway character, abandoned by story’s end.
While not as lurid as other pre-Code’s the film hits its stride once Lora works for 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 I already find awesome) it’s pre-Code Clark Gable! He’s not sexual like in Red Dust; he’s just an ass who wants to kill little children and beat on women! He’s an intimidating figure, especially when he’s dressed in the crisp, all-black chauffeur outfit looking like a weird undertaker. Stanwyck gets slapped around by him in the beginning, but when she’s got to save the little girl shes on equal footing with Nick and turns into a bona fide gangster. Gable’s in about three scenes total, and isn’t even given a proper send-off. Much like Joan Blondell he’s thrown away by story’s end.
Night Nurse isn’t perfect; it’s got its share of ridiculous plot turns, such as the entire climax hinging on getting milk, or having one character 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 the film would have been better without it. While not as shocking as other pre-Codes, 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.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.