Night Nurse (1931)

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.

Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and an unwelcome visitor

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.

Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable

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.

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15 thoughts on “Night Nurse (1931)

  1. “Night Nurse” is a terrific movie, but we sometimes forget that Gable in 1931 was viewed far differently than he was a year or two later. His persona was perceived as a brutish sort thanks to films such as “A Free Soul” and this one. It wouldn’t be until 1932 that MGM gave him a more multi-dimensional, sympathetic persona. perhaps capped by his work with Jean Harlow in “Red Dust.” It would’ve been interesting to see Cagney tackle this role; did he ever make a film with Stanwyck? (I don’t think she ever worked with Cary Grant or William Powell, either, more’s the pity.)

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    • Many thanks, Vincent! I had forgotten that Gable plays a thuggish character in ‘A Free Soul’ too – as far as I remember, he has a bit more scope in that movie, though it is a while since I saw it. Cagney and Stanwyck did make one film together, but it came late in both their movie careers – ‘These Wilder Years’ (1956). Cagney plays a businessman trying to trace his son who was given up for adoption, and Stanwyck is the head of the mother-and-baby home where the child was born. I think they both give fine performances in this one and have some good scenes together, where neither one will give in, but I do wish they had made a film together earlier on. I also agree it would be great to see Stanwyck opposite Cary Grant or William Powell. Thanks again for visiting and commenting, much appreciated.

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  2. Judy, I’m all of the above and I enjoyed Night Nurse immensely. I dig Wellman’s attempts at social realism (that goes for Other Men’s Women, too) and I could appreciate Gable playing a thug here without expecting him to be more. In his uniform he looks practically fascist. I look forward to more of your Wellman reviews; this one was great.

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    • Thanks very much for the encouragement, Samuel – I want to write about a lot more Wellman movies, as time permits. The interest in social realism is one of the things that appeals to me about his work too. It hadn’t struck me about Gable looking practically fascist in his uniform – but, now that you have said it, yes, I agree! Also glad to hear you like ‘Other Men’s Women’ too – I know it’s a minor film but it really appeals to me. Also, thank you for putting a link to Movie Classics on your blog, I’ve linked to you too.

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  3. Judy, Excellent review of one of my favorite pre-code films ( I wrote about this myself early last year.) with two of my favorite actresses. Blondell performance consists of the three “S’s” that is , Sassy, sexy and sensational! Stanwyck displays the toughness that she would be known, yet her character is compassionate. Gable’s performance is a bit one-note as you allude to Ben Lyons role was just plain weak.
    Nicely done on the Warner films, how they start out as stories with “realistic working backgrounds” before getting melodramatic. And also on the relationship between Stanwyck and Blondell.

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    • John, I’ve just been over and reread your review of this one, which is great stuff – I did remember you had written about it, but held off rereading until I’d written my own piece. I do agree that Stanwyck is tough in this as well as being gentle – a difficult combination but she brings it off, here as elsewhere. I do really like Blondell and Stanwyck together.

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  4. Pingback: Monday Morning Diary (January 11) « Wonders in the Dark

  5. There’s no question that Stanwyck and Blondell do make a great pairing here, and that ‘women at work’ pictures are a rare treat, even at a time where work film in general had some popularity at this time when work was all too rare for many. I do agree with your sentiments there on Gable, and I too could not imagine Cagney playing a role of a character who starves children.

    This is yet another in a string of meticulously-written reviews of the early American cinema that is an exhaustive as it is enlightening.

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    • Thank you very much, Sam – I especially like your point about work films being popular at a time when work was “all too rare for many”. I had realised that these gritty work-based films were popular around the time of the Great Depression, but had never quite made this connection. Thanks also for the kind words!

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  6. I need to break down and just finally purchase all the Forbidden Hollywood collections… definitely need to see these films. Outside of Baby Face, I haven’t seen any of Stanwyck’s work of this era.

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    • Well, you’ve definitely seen her in ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ – and prompted me to look it out after reading your review! I haven’t actually seen Baby Face yet, Dave – will definitely do so, though! I just can’t get enough pre-Codes, and am now getting especially interested in Stanwyck, partly thanks to you putting me on to the Capra film.

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  7. Great review. One of the things you missed was how many times Barbara was undressed. It was a total of 3 times and Blondell once. This was an amazing thing for 1931. In that day women weren’t allowed to have their skirts above the knee. Barbara stands up to Nick. Again this is great because in 1931 women just didn’t do that. I enjoyed the first part of the film also. It is fun to see how things were done then, and how we have progressed. Thanks for the great review.

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  8. I think Gable’s performance in this one has the force of a hurricane, and he’s so focused and intense that he’s terrifying in it. The whole film, with the business about starving the children after killing their sister by running her over with his car, just bowled me over. So surreal to see arguably the screen’s most effervescently warm actor play that torrentially evil part with such impact. Actors with almost unimaginably huge personalities, like Gable or John Wayne, make extraordinarily powerful villains in the rare instances they play them (Wayne only did so in “Wake of the Red Witch”) while those lacking that playful scope actually must portray a villain to really come across as best they possibly can (Kirk Douglas in “Champion” and his son Michael in “Wall Street,” superb delivering iconic performances, spring to mind).

    The only way I can imagine to play Nick the chauffeur would be to go for broke into sheer unremittingly threatening evil and I’m confident that Cagney was one of the very few actors who could have competed with Gable in delivering those goods, although I can’t imagine anyone playing that part better than Gable, I’d have to see it to even conceive of it.

    There’s a lot of talk here in the press when the film comes up, by the way, about Gable’s uniform being a precursor to the Fascist get-ups that were only just arriving on the scene back then with Mussolini; Hitler hadn’t yet been elected chancellor in Germany.

    Of course, once again, we’re talking about movies here, and one opinion’s probably more or less about as valid as the next. And by the way, you’re obviously quite a gifted writer and I apparently can’t read your site without immediately commenting at extravagant length.

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  9. Thanks very much for this and all the detailed, stimulating comments you left me last night, Michael – I do appreciate it. It will take me a little while to get to grips with all of them. I’m now intrigued to see ‘Wake of the Red Witch’ and John Wayne as a villain, something which is hard to imagine – that’s a very interesting thought about the actors with large/warm screen personalities making powerful villains.

    It’s a while now since I saw this film, so my memory of it has faded a bit, but I do remember how menacing Gable is – in both his dressing gown and that uniform, with its fascist connotations which you point out here. Thanks also for your kind words about my blog.

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