Pre-Code Stanwyck: Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)

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Night Nurse is a Pre-Code black comedy that’s primarily of interest for its display of just how much Hollywood could get away with in the early 1930s. It follows Lora (Barbara Stanwyck) through her nurse’s training, as she faces poverty, medical horrors, an overbearing matron, and one-track mind student doctors, all with the help of roommate Maloney (Joan Blondell). After graduating, her troubles grow exponentially as she comes to suspect that the children in her care are being slowly starved by their wealthy mother’s chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable).

This film is better enjoyed for its standout moments than as a whole. Part of this is because it has two fairly disjointed sections, the first of which resembles a series of sketches. Another part is that the dialogue is repetitive and often uninspired, and the directing unremarkable (perhaps the sometimes-brilliant Wellman felt uninspired too). The plot gains traction in the second section, but the film has the unmistakeable aimlessness of many early Talkies.

Night Nurse can be truly appreciated, however, for just how far it takes its lack of censorship. Much of it would be impossible to show within just a few years, from its occasional attempts at cynical realism to its frequent sexual humour. Ribald lines abound, and Lora and Maloney seem to be perpetually stripping down to their underwear. In one scene, Lora is almost raped and then slugged unconscious by her seeming rescuer. Bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon) is something of a hero, and by the film’s end he’s getting away with murder for the greater good.

The film also has a reasonably nuanced take on women – more so than many later Hollywood films, at least. Lora uses her looks for her own benefit, but only on a doctor, as Maloney has warned her that this behaviour is wasted on the students, who have no money for the time being and won’t marry nurses in the end. Lora’s no hard-hearted Lily from Baby Face, however; she does want to help people, and truly cares about her job, even though she’s seen the worst of what happens behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the children’s mother is a useless lush who can’t do much more than shriek “I’m a dipsomaniac!” when criticised. Post-Code, motherhood was more likely to be venerated and sexual opportunism punished.

Stanwyck doesn’t peform with much subtlety here, but she does manage to show her burgeoning ability to be both sympathetic and tough. She also has what is arguably one of her best all-time scenes, in which she tries to persuade the children’s mother that one of the girls is on the brink of death. When the mother’s boyfriend (also Lora’s attempted rapist) gets handsy again, Lora responds by punching him to the floor and scaring him enough that he crawls behind the bar. The mother won’t wake up even after Lora drags her across the carpet and drenches her with water. Lora growls, “You mother,” and goes off to save the kid herself.

Gable was not yet an established actor and feels a little odd in the role of a heavy. He’s menacing enough though. His introduction is one of the film’s most unintentionally funny scenes, with the camera dollying in on his face as he barks, “I’m Nick – the chauffeur!” The camera then dollys in on Lora, who knows him by reputation, as she gasps, “Nick – the chauffeur?!”

Night Nurse is not the most enjoyable or well-made of Pre-Code films. Beyond being of historical interest, it does have its moments. Nonetheless, anyone who only wants to watch one early Stanwyck film, or even one Pre-Code, would be better served by watching the even blacker, franker Baby Face.

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