Night Nurse (1931). 72 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lora Hart), Ben Lyon (as Mortie/Pal), Joan Blondell (as B. Maloney), Clark Gable (as Nick), Blanche Friderici (as Mrs. Maxwell), Charlotte Merriam (as Mrs. Ritchie), Charles Winniger (as Dr. Arthur Bell), Edward J. Nugent (as Eagen), Vera Lewis (as Miss Dillon), and Ralf Harolde (as Dr. Milton A. Ranger).
Night Nurse boasts many attractions: actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in the bloom of youth, an almost baby-faced Clark Gable in one of his earliest speaking roles, and a screenplay based on Grace Perkins’s crime novel of the same name. But the main reason to see Night Nurse is because it is a prime example of the type of kinky movie made during what we now call the pre-Code Hollywood period (1929 to mid-1934), which spanned from the advent of sound films to the creation of the Production Code Administration, the internal censorship office of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The films of this period often feature salacious material, and Night Nurse is no exception. It is hard to imagine a movie like Night Nurse being made under the Production Code, but also even today.
Lora Hart (played by Barbara Stanwyck) enrolls in a nursing school at a metropolitan hospital, where she meets B. Maloney (played by Joan Blondell), who becomes a good friend. One night in the emergency room, Lora is left alone with a patient who is clearly suffering from a bullet wound, but rather than report him to police as she is required to do, she takes pity on him, patches him up, and sends him on his way. The man is a bootlegger, and he presents her with a bottle of alcohol in thanks, identifying himself only as her “Pal.”
Lora and Maloney graduate and are placed as private nurses in the household of boozy widow Mrs. Ritchie, whose two daughters are suffering from malnutrition. The chauffeur Nick and Mrs. Ritchie’s house guests are violent and reckless; Lora is attacked on her first night and demands to be placed elsewhere, but the corrupt Dr. Ranger who oversees the children refuses to help her. Lora turns to Dr. Bell, who convinces her to stay until she can find out what is going on in the Ritchie household. Lora determines that Nick is starving the girls with Dr. Ranger’s help, in order to pocket the children’s inheritance. As one of the daughters nears death, Lora’s friend the bootlegger, who we learn is named Mortie, helps her by locating Dr. Bell, who performs an emergency blood transfusion that saves the girl’s life. Mortie has Nick murdered, and he and Lora ride off into their future together.
This synopsis does not give you a full sense of how wild the film is. For example, there is a good deal of undressing, all of it unnecessary. It is there to show us the supple flesh of Stanwyck and Blondell, draped in lacy satin and silk. Stanwyck is seen undressing in one scene by an intern, who helpfully mentions, “You can’t show me a thing I ain’t seen. I just got out of the delivery room!” The female leads even help each other to disrobe, adding to the film’s naughtiness. There is a good deal of illegal drunken revelry taking place in the Ritchie house (Prohibition would not end for another two years), with Mrs. Ritchie herself drunk or drinking in every scene, wholly unrepentant—even when Lora comes to tell her that her daughter is dying in the next room. The evil Dr. Ranger exhibits tics, possibly from drug use. Lora is attacked sexually by Mrs. Ritchie’s alcoholic companion and manhandled and punched unconscious by Nick, who causes her chin to bleed. Then there is the lurid starvation story, with Nick cruelly depriving the two girls of food through the help of housekeeper Mrs. Maxwell, who Nick may or may not kill in one of the movie’s last scenes. Some of this audaciousness is explicit and patently visible on screen (the undressing, the wild partying), whereas some of it is subtler (the doctor’s tics, the intern’s reference to the delivery room) and requires us to mentally supply the explicit context. So while Night Nurse is fairly dripping with salaciousness and innuendo, it does at times merely drop hints and practice some modicum of restraint.
One additional difference between Night Nurse and films made under the Production Code is that under the Code, illegal acts and corrupt characters were to be punished universally. Here it is true that Nick the chauffeur is murdered, suggesting that moralistic retribution is possible even in the Night Nurse universe. Consider, however, what does or does not happen to the other characters. Mrs. Ritchie seems to be at best an oblivious drunk who is blind to the horrible deeds of her chauffeur and probable lover, but it is possible that she knows more. We do not learn, however, what happens to her.
But there is an even more glaring oversight: Lora’s friend Mortie is a bootlegger who does not abandon his illegal alcohol-related activities, and more than that, is guilty of threatening (we think at first jokingly) to have people killed in oblique terms if they do not help him do good deeds. Then we learn that Mortie actually has Nick murdered in retribution for his near killing of the Ritchie girls, and Mortie not only goes unpunished but gets to ride away with Lora in the end. To compound the weirdness of Mortie’s presence, he is known to Lora by the mysterious name “Pal” for most of the film, a strangely affectionate term for someone with such a dark side. It is very hard to imagine a Code-era scenario in which Mortie could do all of the things he does in Night Nurse and still emerge triumphant.
What makes the story even more unusual is its focus elsewhere on the moral uprightness of a lone night nurse who struggles to do the right thing in a rotten situation. The first half of the movie is largely didactic, with the seriousness of the nursing occupation stressed to Lora, Maloney, and their cohort. This earnest undertone carries over to the murder plot that plays out in the Ritchie household. When Lora begs others to intervene and help the Ritchie girls, she rails against the excuses given by medical professionals about principles and the need to stay out of other doctors’ cases. But Lora cannot stand to hear about medical ethics when children are endangered. She wants someone to act and do the right thing. What Lora does not realize is that she is part of a story that is itself dripping in the language of ethical behavior, intermingled bizarrely with gratuitous flesh, lewd violence, tipsy revelers, and campy child abuse. To say this movie has a mixed message is a dramatic understatement. It is, in its special pre-Code way, weirdly bent on providing us with an alternative moral philosophy where the virtuous and helpful can also be seedy and underhanded, sleazy and reprehensible, kinky and unexpected.
Night Nurse has a major issue working against it, and that is the unresolved question of what the movie actually is. When Mortie begins to appear more frequently at the film’s end, as the plot builds to a climax, the movie becomes snappier, cockier, and wittier. The scene where Mortie drives off with Lora not only makes for a bold finale, but the way in which it is done is also over the top. We see Lora and Mortie trying to move forward in traffic, accidentally going in reverse, and crashing into the car behind them. This happens twice, underscoring the goofy qualities of the ending, which ties back into the film’s development, through Mortie, of an oddball comic tenor. Additionally, while Lora and Mortie are stuck in traffic in the last scene, we cut to a repeat of something that started off the movie: a reckless whirlwind ambulance drive through the twists and turns of the city. It is thrilling and terrifying. At the beginning of the movie, it might have caused us to believe we were in for an action film. By the end of Night Nurse, we understand that that is not what we have seen, but the movie seems keen to revisit that generic flirtation at the end, as if to remind us of a path it could have taken.
When meshed together, the overt comedy of the ending, the suggestion of fast-paced action, the macabre and salacious plot, and the instructional nature of the first half result in a decidedly funky mixture of modes, moods, and calibrations. I was left feeling bemused, but also feeling as if the whole thing, in terms of plot, generic convention, and tone, and in spite of some of its ardently serious content, was actually rather mixed up and silly. It is a cacophony of ideas, all jumbled together with titillation in mind. I could not help but mentally fast-forward to a filmmaker such as John Waters who makes comedies about tasteless and inappropriate subject matter blended together with melodrama. I suppose the difference is that John Waters is striving to be tasteless. I think Night Nurse is trying to get away with what it can, and it can get away with a fair amount, but its direction is ultimately a bit of a jumble.
Still, I have to be grateful that such a weird, twisted take on life was once widely available, courtesy of the Hollywood film industry. Night Nurse is probably more notable today for its daring and lurid qualities, its curious mixture of virtue and sleaze, than for its actual artistic merits, but it is absolutely worth seeing to get a thorough introduction to the weird world of pre-Code Hollywood.