If you’re in the mood for some pre-code Hollywood fun (and who isn’t), then Night Nurse (1931) is the film for you. Directed by William Wellman (whose work I just realized I’ve written about a lot), Night Nurse is fast, slightly shocking (in a 1930s sort of way), and highly entertaining.
Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to become a trainee nurse but is turned away from the hospital for not having a high school diploma. After bumping into the chief of staff, Dr. Arthur Bell (Charles Winninger), on her way out (shades of another Stanwyck pre-code film, Baby Face, comes to mind in this scene), she gets her wish. Accepted into the program, she’s paired up with the gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell) who shows her the ropes around the hospital. The two become roommates and friends.
One night a gunshot victim, Mortie (Ben Lyon), comes into the hospital. He turns out to be a bootlegger and convinces Lora not to report him to the police. Charmed by the smooth-talking criminal, she agrees. Later he sends her a bottle of rye with thanks to his “pal” and when she and Maloney graduate, his is the largest floral bouquet in the room.
Now certified, Maloney gets Lora the night shift taking care of two little girls, Desney (Betty Jane Graham) and Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) Ritchey, who Lora met when they were treated for malnutrition and anaemia at the hospital. Now back home with their mother in a Fifth Avenue mansion, the girls’ condition has worsened. Before leaving Maloney, who has the day shift, warns Lora that there’s something “screwy” going on in the house.
The two girls, who had met Lora at the hospital, tell her that they used to have another sister but she got run over and that their dead father had been a nice man. But Nick the chauffeur? He scares them. They also complain that they’re always hungry.
After the children go to sleep, Lora learns that nightly parties go on in the house and that Mrs. Ritchey routinely passes out drunk. Lora is assaulted by one of the party goers and nearly raped before she’s rescued by Nick the chauffeur (Clark Gable). Later, when he asks her to pump the stomach of Mrs. Ritchey and she refuses, they struggle, and he knocks her out.
The next day she confronts Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde), the man treating the girls, about what’s going on in the house, and he tells her to “let it go.” She quits and reports her suspicions to Dr. Bell who doesn’t feel comfortable interfering with another doctor’s case. He advises her to get her job back and try to find evidence so she can swear out a warrant.
Apologizing profusely to Ranger, she’s reinstated and returns to find Nanny dreadfully weak. Unable to get Mrs. Ritchey to respond to her pleas to help her children or to get Dr. Bell on the phone, Lora resorts to trying a milk bath, an old wives’ remedy that the housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Friderici), keeps insisting saved her sister’s child. Mortie, who happens to be making a delivery to the mansion, goes on a milk run for her. While waiting to see if it’s working, Mrs. Maxwell, who’s been drinking, tells Lora that Nick is really Mrs. Ritchey’s boyfriend, and that he’s trying to murder the girls so he can marry their mother and get their trust fund.
The bath doesn’t help but Dr. Bell shows up (Mortie tracked him down) and is examining Nanny when Nick tries to stop him. Once again, Mortie comes to the rescue, threatening Nick with a concealed weapon and sitting guard outside the room while Lora offers up her own blood for a transfusion that saves Nanny.
The following day, Mortie gives Lora a lift downtown so she can give her evidence to the police. When she mentions her concerns about Nick, Mortie tells her that he told a couple of guys that he “didn’t like Nick so good.” The closing scene is of an ambulance pulling up to the hospital with the body of a man dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform.
Like any good pre-code film, Night Nurse is filled with characters with questionable morals. Lora is sympathetic to and ends up with a bootlegger. Mrs. Ritchey is a drunk and negligent mother. Dr. Ranger appears to have a cocaine problem. And violence (Nick seems to have killed the girls’ other sister, Lora is almost raped) is met with violence (Nick’s death) seemingly without any final condemnation from anyone.
Naturally there’s dialogue filled with witty wisecracks, most of which are delivered by the delightful Joan Blondell who always excelled at playing the best friend in films and tended to get the best lines too.
“I thought the hospital would burn down before I could get into it. Now I have to watch myself with matches.”
“Keep away from interns. They’re like cancer: the disease is known but not the cure.”
(To Mortie): “Oh, you make any joint look like a speakeasy.”
And then there’s the question of clothing or rather the lack of. The general rule in this film appears to be, when in doubt, have the female leads get undressed. Stanwyck and Blondell remove their clothes constantly throughout the film—when they’re trying on their uniforms, when they’re going to bed, when they’re getting ready for work. Except for an early scene in which one of the interns walks in on Stanwyck (“You can't show me a thing I ain't seen. I just got out of the delivery room.”), the two women are always alone, away from prying eyes except for those of the viewer.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is the relationship between Lora and Maloney. There’s no backstabbing or jealousy between these two. Instead they’re friends and colleagues who have each other’s back. Even the swipes Maloney makes at Mortie, Lora’s love interest, are good-natured. The dark-haired Stanwyck and the blonde Blondell visually make a striking duo on screen and their banter comes off sounding natural.
Stanwyck plays Lora as a street-smart working girl with a soft spot for children. While her maternal feelings shouldn’t be brushed aside, Stanwyck is at her strongest when she shows off her tough cookie persona, standing up to Nick and slapping one of the party goers. When she tries to get Mrs. Ritchey to help her children and the drunken woman passes out, Stanwyck looks down at her, shakes her head and says, “you mother,” before dumping a champagne bucket of water on her.
And then there’s Gable. Oh, Mr. Gable. In this, one of his first roles, Gable is young, handsome, and dangerous. Far from the charming rogue movie goers would come to love, Gable is a brute here. The only thing that takes away from Gable's performance is when he announces, “I’m Nick, the chauffeur.” It’s suppose to be filled with menace yet today the lines just come off as a bit comical. It doesn't matter because Gable simply oozes sex appeal. It’s no wonder that he would soon become a box office star.
Even though the attractive Gable is in the second half of the film, it’s the first half, set in the hospital, that’s the most interesting with its shots of the maternity ward and Lora at her first surgery. It also has one of the film's best known scenes when Lora and Maloney sneak back to their room after missing curfew. Stripping down to their slips, they are getting ready to turn in when Lora finds a skeleton in her bed (a trick played by one of the interns). Her screams bring the head nurse to the room who, realizing that they’ve been out, punishes them both with extra shifts. Lora, unwilling to sleep in a bed recently occupied by a skeleton, climbs into bed with Maloney instead. Now that’s a pre-code film.