Tough broads, bootleggers, drug-abusing doctors, debauched rich people, and Barbara Stanwyck – William A. Wellman’s NIGHT NURSE (1931) has everything I love about Pre-Code movies.
Stanwyck is Lora Hart, a determined young nursing student in a busy metropolitan hospital in this lurid melodrama, released by Warner Bros. in 1931. Joan Blondell is Maloney, her wise-cracking, gum-snapping partner in mischief (think Lucy and Ethel, only sexier). And Clark Gable is Nick, a murderous chauffeur who will stop at nothing to get his boss’ money, including killing her children.
High school-dropout Lora sweet talks her way into nursing school where she meets Maloney, an old pro who knows how to game the system– and fight off the amorous orderlies. Their lives are complicated by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the sourpuss head nurse who lies in wait for the pretty young things to slip up. And speaking of slips, Stanwyck and Blondell strip down to their skivvies so frequently it’s hard to keep count. Not that I’m complaining, because half-naked women bucking authority is what Pre-Code film is all about.
After graduation, Lora gets her eponymous assignment: caring for the inexplicably ill children (Marcia Mae Jones and Betty Jane Graham) of wealthy Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). There she meets Nick (Gable), who’s keeping his boss permanently plastered in hopes of killing off her kids and making off with her dough. (Another child has already died in a hit and run accident, and it’s strongly suggested that Nick is responsible.)
Lora fights to save the children, with the help of Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she rescued when he stumbled into the E.R. with a bullet wound. But will it be too late?
5 REASONS TO WATCH:
Unlike some other directors of the early Talkie Era, “Wild Bill” Wellman didn’t let the limitations of unwieldy sound recording technology get in the way of storytelling. His camera is remarkably fluid in NIGHT NURSE, in a year when many films were static and stagy. Wellman was one of the early proponents of the boom mic, and makes ample use of it here, tracking along with dialogue scenes. If you don’t believe me, look for the boom shadow in a wide shot of Stanwyck and Blondell running through a hospital hallway.
That’s another thing I love about Pre-Code films: lack of polish. The studios were figuring out how to navigate a paradigm shift in the industry, and the obvious experimentation on-screen and off- can be exhilarating, even when it doesn’t work (and there are plenty of Pre-Codes that don’t).
Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, Stanwyck represents everything I love about liberated Pre-Code women. As both the title character and hero(ine) of NIGHT NURSE, she dominates the film with street-smart moxie and an unglamorous sexuality that reached its apex two years later in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933), the prototypical Pre-Code.
And speaking of lack of polish, I’ll watch anything with Stanwyck, but if her teeth are still crooked, it’s a must.
If you only know Gable as the charming cad in iconic films like GONE WITH THE WIND, NIGHT NURSE will be an education. Here he’s an unapologetic child murderer, throwing punches at Stanwyck and staring down the camera with a feral ferocity that is genuinely frightening. Had the 30-year-old Ohio native been a Warner Bros. contractee, would the studio have allowed him to play such a villain? He wasn’t, of course, and within a year he was well on his way to name-above-the-title stardom at MGM.
Charlotte Merriam as the wealthy and dissolute Mrs. Ritchey has two great moments in NIGHT NURSE. When Lora reports to work on for the first time to care for little Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), she discovers their mom (Merriam) passed out drunk on a bearskin rug, an empty champagne glass dangling from her hand. Later, when Lora confronts her, Mrs. Ritchey shrieks one of the most memorable lines in in Pre-Code film:
“I’m a dipsomaniac, and I’m proud of it! Ya hear?” she slurs. “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it! I like it!”
5. The End
I’m not going to spoil it, but the happy ending of NIGHT NURSE involves a character’s murder. That’s the kind of thing you didn’t see anymore when enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934. And movies were the worse for it.