It’s often said that William Wellman’s pre-code melodrama Night Nurse takes a long time to get going – and that there is too much about heroine Barbara Stanwyck’s training as a nurse before she gets involved in the film’s main plot. I’d have to say I think just the opposite. For me, much of the film’s fascination lies in the opening half hour or so, with its gritty, wisecracking portrayal of life for staff working in a large hospital. I enjoyed the whole movie, which, at just 72 minutes, crams in an awful lot of material – but I felt this opening part was far more interesting and compelling than the later sections where Stanwyck has to battle against a fiendish chauffeur, played by Clark Gable.
It seems as if quite a few movies from the 1930s and 40s follow a pattern of establishing a realistic working background in the opening section, then lurching into melodrama later – Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940), starring George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, fits this description, looking at the lives of long distance lorry drivers, as does Wellman’s own Other Men’s Women (1931), about rail workers, which I’ve just reviewed on this blog. Although I love melodrama from this period, I tend to be even more fascinated by the sections focusing more on the characters’ working lives.
In any case, the opening of Night Nurse, which is based on a novel by Grace Perkins, sees Lora Hart (Stanwyck), who is down on her luck and desperate for money, turning up at the hospital asking to train as a nurse. At first the haughty superintendent of nurses, Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis) is reluctant to take on a high school dropout, but eventually Lora wangles a job and is befriended by tough, no-nonsense fellow trainee B Maloney (Joan Blondell). There is some enjoyable wisecracking dialogue between the two women as their friendship is built up. This early part often seems more like a comedy than a drama. Lora is more idealistic about nursing, whereas B moans about the work and sees it mainly as a way of making a living – but they are both equally determined to qualify and succeed in their chosen career.
After seeing quite a few movies from this period about men at work, I found it good to see one about women, and it is especially refreshing that the two friends never stab one another in the back or fall out over a man. Such cliches are avoided as they support one another, jointly combating the interfering Miss Dillon and the flirtatious junior doctors, including one who hides a skeleton in Stanwyck’s bed. Stanwyck and Blondell make a great team and their warm screen personalities come across vividly, with Stanwyck slightly gentler, Blondell slightly tougher and more knowing.
There is quite a lot of broad humour, as in the skeleton episode – and more pre-Code naughtiness like a scene where Stanwyck is changing into her uniform and caught by one of the junior doctors in a state of semi-undress. (There’s a similar scene in Wellman’s Wings, where Clara Bow is caught changing into her uniform as an ambulance driver.) However, amid the wisecracks, the two nurses’ dedication and caring come across, and there are some good, natural scenes with patients, like one where Lora is taking new babies to their mothers to be fed. This whole trainee nurse section of the movie is really almost a mini-film on its own, the climax coming when Lora and B have to witness a major operation, and Lora fears she will faint, thereby failing to qualify. However, B manages to keep her standing until after the doctors have left the operating theatre – when she gracefully crumples to the floor, ending this first part of the film.
I do discuss the whole plot in this next bit.
The second half of the film moves away from the hospital, as Lora and B take on private nursing work, taking it in turns to look after two sick children who are supposed to be convalescing at home. However, Lora gradually realises that a corrupt doctor is conspiring with an evil chauffeur, Nick (Gable) to starve the children to death and make away with their inheritance. The tension is cranked steadily higher as Lora tries to warn people about what is happening but nobody will listen – and, as a result, is terrorised and in one scene physically attacked by Nick. The role of Nick was originally supposed to be played by James Cagney – I find it really hard to imagine how he would have played this sordid role, since even his most despicable villains tend to have something sympathetic about them, a hint of buried sweetness. There’s nothing remotely sweet about plotting to starve children, or about trying to manipulate a hopelessly drunken, bewildered mother, Mrs Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam, who gives a powerful, disturbing performance as a weak woman with no moral bearings whatsoever).
To be honest, I think the role is a waste of Gable too. He manages to look menacing, mainly while wearing a dressing gown, in the blend of domesticity and violence which seems to crop up regularly in Wellman movies, in key scenes such as the murder at breakfast time in silent film Beggars of Life and the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy. But, although his dark, brooding figure in a dressing gown makes a striking impact, it seems to me as if his character is basically an evil cardboard cutout without much individuality.
Maybe there would have been more scope for Gable to do something with the character of Mortie, a bootlegger who is treated by Lora at the hospital after a shooting and then becomes her protector. As played by Ben Lyon, he’s a rather colourless figure, seeming like a boy next door rather than a gangster – though maybe that is actually the point! There’s a great scene where Mortie has to get some milk to save the life of one of the two little girls, who needs a milk bath to get some nourishment into her – instead of bothering to go out and buy some, he smashes the front of a grocery store and helps himself. But I think this scene could have been even better if Lyon had more personality.
I was slightly nervous about watching this movie because of the plot of children being starved, so was glad to see that the children look reassuringly robust throughout, although they are pretty good little actresses – the one who has to look semi-conscious in the milk bath does it very well. The odd thing here is that the man masterminding this particularly nasty murder plot is someone with a respectable job – a chauffeur – whereas the indignant good guy is an unrepentant gangster, who has Nick killed, gets the girl and lives happily ever after. That would surely have changed after the Code came in.
Another thing that would probably have changed is the portrayal of the mother, Mrs Ritchey, who never repents, never changes her ways and doesn’t receive any punishment, apart from the misery she is dealing out to herself through her drinking. I wasn’t clear whether the children are left in her care at the end of the film – but fear they might well be. In the Wellman films I’ve seen so far, he often shows the dangers of drunkenness, how vulnerable it can make someone, and this is one of the starkest portraits. There is very little sympathy for Mrs Ritchey, as compared to, say, the portrayal of Grant Withers’ drunken railway worker in Other Men’s Women – I’ll be interested to see if there are more sympathetic women drinkers in other Wellman films, or if he is harder on women in this area than on men.
All in all, I’d say this film is a must for anyone who likes Wellman, Stanwyck or Blondell, or who is just interested in gritty early Warner movies and pre-Codes.