|Night Nurse Stanwyck holds her own against thug Gable|
|These images from NIGHT NURSE|
clearly provide many good reasons
as to why the pre-Code period in old
Hollywood had a whole lot going for it.
Dir. William A. Wellman
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable, Charles Winninger, Ralf Harolde
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Things are tough for a young lady in the big city. They're especially difficult for a night nurse. If you're Barbara Stanwyck, things tend to be a little easier, but still mighty challenging. William A. Wellman's 1931 pre-Code (when Hollywood was at its most provocative) melodrama Night Nurse, crackles with wit, sex, sentiment and thrills, serving up a genuine minor classic reflecting the age of gangsters, bootleggers and single, young women trying to make a way for themselves in the world, whilst making the world a better place for others. The picture blisters with a zippy pace, entertaining us and delivering a sophisticated window into a bygone era, feeling as fresh and resonant today as it must have felt in the 30s.
After a rip-snorting ambulance P.O.V. ride through the city during the opening titles, Oliver H.P. Garrett's screenplay (along with Charles Kenyon's razor-sharp additional dialogue) doesn't waste any time plunging us into the world of the hospital via Lora Hart's (Barbara Stanwyck) perspective. She applies unsuccessfully for a position as a student nurse to a nasty old harridan who chides the lass over her lack of education. Luckily, on her way out, Lora collides with kindly, old Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) who dives to the floor to retrieve all of our heroine's personal goods which spilled out of her purse. This allows the codger a good view of Stanwyck's gams which, is not lost on our gal at all. One friendly, provocative smile in the doc's direction is all it takes to get Lora back in the hospital and hired.
Lora is hooked up with wisecracking Nurse Maloney (Joan "Hubba Hubba" Blondell) who'll be her roommate in the weird hospital boarding rooms for nursing students (a hint of orphanage and/or women's prison here). Maloney gives Lora the lay of the land, including a tip or two about how to make the job work to her best advantage. First and foremost, Maloney warns against taking-up with the drooling, always-on-the-prowl interns. "Take my tip, sister and stay away from them," she cracks. "They're like cancer. The disease is known but not the cure." However, Maloney's most cogent advice to Lora is thus:
"There's only one guy in the world that can do a nurse any good and that's a patient with dough! Just catch one of them with a high fever and a low pulse and make him think you saved his life. Trust me, sister, you'll be gettin' somewhere."
Lora, however, connects with Mortie (Ben Lyon) a friendly bootlegger with a gun wound that she patches up without reporting it to the police. This endears him to her immediately and he becomes a helpful ally when she finds herself in a jam with some seedy criminal types.
Lora lands what should be a coveted spot as a private night nurse offsite. Unfortunately, she finds herself helplessly watching over two children being intentionally starved to death (for a whopping trust fund) by their alcoholic mother in cahoots with her seedy chauffeur lover (Clark Gable) and presided over by the sleazy quack Dr. Milton A. Ranger (a brilliant Ralf Harolde who not only oozes slime, but twitches ever-so madly with an obvious cocaine addiction). Lora tries to appeal to Ranger by threatening to go to the authorities, but he snidely reminds her she'll be washed up if she does.
"The successful nurse is one who keeps her mouth shut," he intones menacingly.
Even kindly old Dr. Bell can't help, citing "ethics" as being in the way of his interfering with another doctor's case. She fires back, as ONLY Barbara Stanwyck can with that unique blend of vulnerability and tough, no-nonsense moxie: "Oh, ethics... ethics... ethics! That's all I've heard. Isn't there any ethics about letting poor little babies be murdered?"
Poor Lora's in a major bind: a drunken gangster has tried to rape her, the children's mother lollygags about in a drunken stupor, the nasty chauffeur belts her out cold and, adding to her frustration, she's forced to stand by idly as murder is being committed before her very eyes.
"I'll kill the next person that says 'ethics' to me," she says to Maloney (again, as only Stanwyck can).
Her wiseacre pal retorts, as only Joan Blondell can, "Hah! Says you!"
But then, tweaking on to the notion that she's the only one who can take charge and make things right, Lora fires back (with Stanwyck's distinctive Brooklyn twang), "Yeah, SAYS ME, in a BIG WAY, sister."
Lora grabs the reins with a vengeance.
A big storm's a brewing and she's the one brewing it. Along the way, though, she does get some help from her friendly bootlegger pal. Burgeoning romance and rescuing children make for perfect bedfellows.
The film ends with another rip-snorting ambulance ride through the city, depositing a stiff for the morgue. It turns out, the stiff's been hit by some thugs, but happily we learn it's a thoroughly justifiable homicide.
Stanwyck gloriously delivers a final hardy-har over that news and we're all the better for it. Both her performance and the film have us soaring in a movie that provocatively and joyously kicks the kind of butt only a 30s pre-code picture can. Night Nurse is a glorious blend of melodrama, social consciousness and heroism against the biggest odds of all. It extols the virtues of ordinary folk over high society and places more ethics in the hearts and minds of a dame who never finished high school and her good-hearted bootlegger boyfriend over all those who had the money and opportunities to move up the ladder of success and where reaching the top only really meant adhering to ethics supporting an old boy's club over those who do most of the real living and dying.
It's impossible to argue with.
Night Nurse plays Saturday, February 7 at 3:30 p.m. at TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX in James Quandt's amazing series "Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck". The film is presented in GLORIOUS 35MM. For further info, visit the TIFF website HERE. As well, there are many Barbara Stanwyck films from this TIFF series which can be ordered directly from the following links: Buy Barbara Stanwyck movies in Canada HERE and/or Buy Barbara Stanwyck movies in the USA or from anywhere in the world HERE. You can even click on any of these links and order ANY movie you want so long as you keep clicking through to whatever you want to order. By doing so, you'll be contributing to the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner.