Violence against women, alcoholism, child abuse, racy dialogue, gangsters, lust driven interns, bootlegging and sex – “Night Nurse”, a 1932 William Wellman melodrama, has it all. You never have seen so much vice tossed and mixed into one 75-minute cinematic festival of sin. In addition, it stars two of the sexiest, talented and biggest stars of the pre-code era, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. If you add in a young virile, though nasty Clark Gable, you cannot ask for more.
Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to be a nurse and is at first turned down by the old biddy nurse in charge because she lacks the required education. You see Lora had to quit school to help out with her family. Dejected and on her way out of the hospital, a gentlemen entering accidently knocks her bag out of her hand. Well, it turns out the man is Dr. Bell (Charles Wininger) head of the hospital. To make amends, for dropping the contents of her bag all over the floor, and staring at her legs as he picks up the dropped items placing them back in her bag, he arranges with the nasty head nurse, now all smiles, apologetic and under the assumption Lora knows Dr. Bell, for Lora to start her training on the night shift. She is set up to share a room with fellow nurse the jaded gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell). Soon the two are going out partying and undressing together, even sharing a bed after being caught coming in after curfew by the old biddy nurse. On a more serious note, Lora get some real medical emergency education assisting doctors in surgery, sometime successfully and well sometimes not so much. One night, while on duty in comes Mortie, (Ben Lyons), a bootlegger we soon find out, with a bullet wound. Bound by duty to report all bullet injuries to the police, Mortie, who deep down is a swell guy, convinces her not to do so.
Upon graduating, both Lora and Maloney get jobs as private nurses for a well to do family with Lora as the night nurse and Maloney taking the day shift. Their main responsibilities are taking care of two young children, whose father is dead and whose mother is too busy drinking and partying to care of them. The kids are heirs to a large fortune and this is where Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable), enters the scene. Nick is a low life who is arranging, along with a crooked doctor in on the plot, to starve the children to death, marry the widow mother, and get access to the kids’ trust fund. Of course, our heroine, discovered what Nick is up too and with the help of bootlegger Mortie manages to save the day and the kids but only after being viciously beaten by Nick and giving a blood transfusion to save one of the malnourished young girls.
“Night Nurse” was one of the first of the pre-code films released on home video under the Forbidden Hollywood banner back in the 1990’s. Back in those days, the VHS series was hosted and introduced by Leonard Maltin.
The film is dated in many respects but there is much to keep you interested. Racy wild dialogue like when a young intern tells nurses Stanwyck and Blondell that they can’t show him anything he has not just seen in a delivery room and the children’s mother wildly yelling out at one point “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it!” And what other film ends with the audience being told that Clark Gable has been “taken for a ride.” Mortie, Lora’s bootlegging admirer and the guy who knows the guys who took Nick for his final ride end up with Lora riding off into the urban sunset.
Gable, in an early role, is convincingly evil as Nick the Chauffeur. Had he not become a star he could have had a good career portraying immoral characters as he does here and in some other early performances. With his gruff voice, he is perfect. Joan Blondell is her sexy and sassy self and for anyone who has followed this blog knows Joan, along with Stanwyck, are two of my favorite actresses. This was the second of three films they appeared in together. Stanwyck is wonderful as the strong willed nurse determined to save the children from the cruelty being imposed on them by Nick and an inattentive mother. In one scene, she actually drags the drunken mother across a room hoping to get her to pay attention to what is happening to her daughters and mutters under her breath “you mother!” The part itself does not require much depth from an acting perspective just a lot of toughness and a ‘have been there before attitude’ from Stanwyck, which she does so well. Just how tough was Stanwyck? Well, here she puts the soon to be anointed “King” Clark Gable in his place and just two years later, she cuts down to size a young John Wayne in “Baby Face.” That pretty tough! Interesting enough, Warner Brothers had the chance to sign Gable to a contract but passed on him leaving the door open for MGM to sign the future Rhett Butler.
The screenplay is based on a novel by Dora Macy, aka Grace Perkins. Reading a review of the novel in Time magazine (6/13/30), demonstrates the faithfulness of the screenplay to the book except for the character of Nick who in the movie seems to have replaced an Uncle, along with a sister-in-law, as the brains behind the plot to starve the children.
Directed by William Wellman, who keeps the pace moving, though like many Wellman films it is rough around the edges, but never dull. “Night Nurse” was the first of five films Wellman would make with Stanwyck. The others were “The Purchase Price”, “So Big”, “The Great Man’s Lady” and “Lady of Burlesque.” With at least ten sinful pre-code films in her credits Stanwyck stands up there alongside Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Ruth Chatterton and other queens of pre-code films.