Ah, how I love my Pre-Codes. There is nothing like them.
The little gem I am talking about today came out a year before my previously discussed film Downstairs but it's just as wild, woolly and fun. I'm talking about Night Nurse, a film that not only told the moviegoing public that oaths (Hippocratic or otherwise) are for sissies but gave us a kimono clad young Clark Gable. Thank you, movie gods.
|She may have more than nursing in mind.|
As fair warning, spoilers lay ahead!
Night Nurse is about Lora Hart (Stanwyck), an idealistic young woman who is driven to be a nurse by compassion and a genuine desire to help people, lack of experience or education be damned. In what is a swift and nifty bit of exposition, in only a few sentences we get Lora's background. It's the scene in which she tries to get a job at the local hospital, only to be shot down by the bulldog HBIC, who tells us by way of reading over Lora's history that she nursed her sick, now deceased, mother, was unable to graduate high school due to her mother's illness and her grocer wrote her a letter of recommendation. I love this brief scene so much because so many movies and television shows today have forgotten how to do excellent (and subtle) exposition. Instead of light scenes like this, we are hit over the head with an anvil and smacked with a 2x4 by way of forced, unnatural and clunky dialogue. You know what I mean. No forensics tech or detective has to explain to another why they are doing what they are doing or have done (and in such technical terms) unless a camera is there. It's a clunky and painful way to exposit information. This scene is a perfect case study in how not to insult and potentially put the audience to sleep.
Anyhow, back to our film, Our heroine, with the oh-so-appropriate last name, is leaving the hospital, sans job, when she is plowed down by the resident neurosurgeon who likes what he sees and tells the bulldog, who is practically licking his feet, to find Lora a job, which she does. A gum smacking nurse called Maloney (played with absolute bravura by Joan Blondell) is assigned to show Lora the ropes and room with her. This is another thing we learn in Night Nurse - - nurse recruits not only work all the time (one day off a week), they live in what amounts to hospital dorms with check-ins and lights out at certain times. Maloney teaches Lora that interns are scum, that doctors never marry nurses (only interns do that) and nursing is a pretty dirty and often thankless job.
|Lyon, Blondell and Stanwyck bonding over a bullet|
Meanwhile, Maloney has gotten a job as a day nurse to two children who were in the hospital for starvation; she arranges for Lora to be their night nurse. This is where she (and we) are introduced to the shady as hell Gable as Nick the chauffeur. Or should I say the "chauffeur," because it's obvious that Nick's duties do not end with parking the car. The children's mother, to whom he reportedly "works," is a worthless pile of permed hair, furs and liquor.
|Yes, you are.|
Lora rightfully returns to the hospital to complain about this treatment, and report Dr. Ranger, the doctor assigned to treat the children, who is clearly on the take. Her kindly benefactor, Dr. Bell, tells her he cannot overstep his bounds with the sleazy Dr. Ranger and, as there is no evidence, nothing can be done but he does encourage Lora to return to the hornets' nest in order to gain evidence and, presumably, protect the children.
|He's bad, I know he's bad . . .|
The film wraps up with Lora driving off into the sunset with Morty and his silk shirts and Morty informing her that she no longer needs to worry about Nick because Morty has friends. Or should I say "friends." Cut to an ambulance pulling into the hospital where Lora worked with the driver saying the stiff inside was "taken for a ride" and he wasn't a bootlegger because he was wearing a chauffeur's uniform. Dum dum DUM! Fade out.
Let's just start with the obvious, shall we? What was going on in the world that Lora would be told to go back to the private residence where she was attacked, assaulted and threatened? That's just crazy. And certainly no endorsement for the police.
As far as lack of endorsements go, I can't see movie audiences of the early 1930s watching Night Nurse and rushing out to join the medical field because it's not shown to be a bastion of morality here. At least one doctor is shown to be on the take, interns are depicted as slimy horndogs not to be trusted and the nurses are the bottom of the totem pole - - disrespected, tired and ultimately jaded. Even Lora, so optimistic and altruistic at the beginning of the film, seems hardened and wise to the world by the end (although we really can't blame her.)
Barbara Stanwyck, as always, is excellent here. She portrays Lora with stars in her eyes in the beginning but who, by the time she meets Morty in the emergency clinic, is able to trade quips and barbs with him, all while cleaning out his gunshot wound. I saw flashes of her upcoming role as Lily Powers in Baby Face when she was dealing with the drunkards as the night nurse. Watching her look with disgust at the children's mother while muttering "You mother . . . " is amazing. You know at least mentally another word follows "mother." It doesn't need to be said because Stanwyck's inflection is everything. I also love her "oh yeah?" retort before she hauls off and socks a drunk right in the kisser. This, my friends, is the essence of the Pre-Code.
Ben Lyon was well cast as the bootlegger with the heart of gold (and arm of lead.) He's attractive, without being pretty or over the top, and you can almost understand why Stanwyck's Lora would fall for him. I say almost because let's be honest. He's not a great guy. He's a bootlegger. He's legally a criminal. He has a dangerous job (he's been shot at least once that we know of) which means Lora will be in danger so long as she's with him. It's a fascinating choice that the writer of Night Nurse decided to make Lora's knight in shining armor a bootlegger rather than a rich playboy (Franchot Tone in Dancing Lady) or attorney (Franchot Tone in Midnight Mary; Franchot Tone in Sadie McKee.) Wow, Franchot Tone got around, didn't he? But I digress. We, as the audience, are supposed to be happy that Lora ends up with a bootlegger. Which is better than ending up with a toe tag or with the lascivious Nick who would either starve you, run you over with a car or pimp you out but still.
Gable's role as Nick is a supporting one and he is most definitely not seen on screen enough. Yeah, I'm a Gable fan. He's a terrible person but you can understand how he gets the ladies because damn if he isn't totally hot. He isn't confrontational with Lora from the first moment but he absolutely takes control and tells her how it's going to be. When he socks her, we are in no doubt as to how shady he is; when he's carrying her from the room, we are left wondering whether he's going to take her for a ride or give her a ride on the Gable Express. He dumps her on a sofa in her own room but he does stand by, watching her. Again, he's a bad guy but the sexual undertones . . . yowza.
As a major plot point in the film involves the attempted murder of children, Night Nurse is a gritty film. These children are the only two characters in the film who aren't jaundiced and cynical about life. The wealthy are presented as aimless drunkards who only care about money and the next party; the criminals are on the make; and some of the medical practitioners are little above the criminal element themselves.
That said, the film is insanely enjoyable and occurs in a relatively skimpy seventy-two minutes. But what a ride! Pop some popcorn, grab a drink and buckle up for an enjoyable Pre-Code experience.
Night Nurse is available on DVD through TCM Archives Forbidden Hollywood Collection and shows up on occasion in TCM's rotation.
For your enjoyment, here is a clip of the infamous "oh yeah?" and "You mother . . . " scene.