Night Nurse (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Charles Kenyon (based on Night Nurse by Dora Macy)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable
Academy Award-winning director William A. Wellman’s film Night Nurse served as one of the first platforms where legendary actress Barbara Stanwyck could show her talents as a leading lady. Stanwyck had the sensibilities of a modern woman and a physical acting method that put her leagues above the competition – her acting prowess would lead her to being nominated for Best Actress four times between 1938-1949 for classic films like Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, and Ball of Fire. Night Nurse gave talented director William A. Wellman and star Stanwyck the boundary-pushing material needed to create something truly unique and ultimately memorable.
Night Nurse follows nurse trainee Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) as she begins her career in a new hospital. Her roommate Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell) quickly becomes her best friend, and Lora begins to make the best out of her new place of employment. She is assigned to the night shift in the emergency room, where she meets a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) after he is shot. After passing her training, Lora moves on to private nursing, where she looks after two young sick children called Desney and Nanny Ritchie. Their mother (Charlotte Merriam) is a drunk socialite who is infatuated with her chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable). Lora soon comes to find out that young Desney and Nanny are being starved to death by Nick, in a plot to marry their mother and subsequently inherit their trust fund. It is Lora’s sworn duty to interfere in the plot, but everything seems to be working against her. Night Nurse was notable at the time of its release for its risque nature, and later became known as an important launching pad in the careers of Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Joan Blondell, and Ben Lyon.
From the very beginning of Night Nurse, I knew I was in for something completely different both stylistically and tonally. The first shot of the film follows an ambulance in first person as it speeds through the streets and into the hospital loading zone – it is a simple but thrilling moment that sets the tone for the film to follow. The hospital setting is full of oddball characters who make the setting feel vibrant and alive. Barbara Stanwyck’s Lora Hart is kind-natured, independent, and witty – watching her acclimate to her new hospital atmosphere is the highlight of the film’s first half. Her chemistry with Joan Blondell’s Maloney is undeniable in their comic timing, and I found myself wanting more interactions between the two. Lora and Maloney are two of the most fiercely independent characters in Night Nurse, a feat that is all too rare for the early 1930’s. Both women know what they want out of life and will stop at nothing to get it, with neither letting much of anything shake them. They verbally spar with their coworkers and the people surrounding them, showing that they’re not going to be toyed with. Night Nurse is a perfectly paced film with a runtime of just 71 minutes, making the best out of every single minute. The film’s tone takes a dramatic turn once Lora Hart has passed her training program and begins to look after the sick Ritchie children. Here we immediately hear a grizzly tale of how Nanny and Desney’s sister met her demise, meet the drunken Mrs. Ritchie, and watch as Lora is assaulted and very nearly raped by a drunk house guest. Movie legend Clark Gable plays the film’s antagonist Nick, who immediately makes his brutish presence felt by knocking out Lora’s would-be rapist, and forcing Lora to pump Mrs. Ritchie’s stomach. Gable is intimidating and quite frankly horrifying as Nick, a man with no moral code to speak of.
Some of the most memorable aspects of Night Nurse come in the form of its pre-Hays Code content, which there’s an awful lot of. We see Barbara Stanwyck’s Lora Hart and Joan Blondell’s Maloney undressing several times, the film deals with the attempted murder of young children, and multiple characters make reference to swear words – Lora at one point looks to a passed out Mrs. Ritchie and utters “you mother-”. The film’s ending is another example of pushing boundaries in the pre-code era, where two main characters laugh at the strongly hinted death of a third major character. The true brilliance of Night Nurse’s screenplay (written by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Charles Kenyon) is the way it turns several character archetypes on their heads. Ben Lyon’s criminal bootlegger character Mortie becomes one of the crucial heroes of the film, while Clark Gable’s handsome and charming chauffeur Nick is a sadistic child murderer. Night Nurse takes already familiar movie tropes and turns them into something wholly unique – it’s a film that constantly challenges you while also being highly entertaining and groundbreaking in many ways.
While it may be something of a B-movie at its heart, William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse is the most fun I’ve had with a new film in quite some time. It’s boundary-pushing content is a joy to watch unfold, and it features an incredibly talented young cast. Barbara Stanwyck’s strong and independent Lora Hart is an incredibly memorable pre-code character, as is Clark Gable’s vicious antagonist Nick. The film features a strong supporting cast and lively environments that feel exaggerated in the best way. When Night Nurse reaches its conclusion after just 70 minutes, I was very much blown away by what I had just seen. It may not be the type of film that will change your life, but it’s one I feel should be given more attention today. William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse is funny, charming, thrilling, and highly recommended.