By Edward Copeland
Sometimes you have to wonder what made some of the pre-Code Hollywood classics such as Night Nurse, which turns 80 years old today, so shocking. Sure, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell spend an inordinate amount of time in various states of undress, but the subject matter doesn't approach the lurid level of a Baby Face (also with Stanwyck) or Red-Headed Woman with Jean Harlow. Maybe it's because even then it raised questions about the motives of some involved in the health care system or the practice of medicine. Whatever the reason, what's most important about Night Nurse is that just 20 years shy of being a century old, it remains a damn good movie.
Directed by William "Wild Bill" Wellman, Night Nurse begins in an almost comic tone before it takes a suspenseful turn in its second half. Wellman brings a lot of nice touches to the film visually. It opens from the point-of-view of an ambulance speeding through city streets on its way to a hospital's emergency's room.
Ambulance is spelled in reverse inside the driver's window. They were aiming to be reversed as many used to be so they would read correctly in other vehicles' rear-view mirrors, only they have it backward and it's written forward on the front of the ambulance. As the injured man is unloaded, the orderly guesses correctly that he's been in a car wreck. "Cement truck hit one of those Baby Austins," the ambulance driver tells him as they wheel him into the hospital. The orderly comments that you'd never catch him in one of those little cars, but the ambulance driver corrects him that the injured man was driving the cement truck. As they move through the hall, the pass a nervous father-to-be letting go of his wife's hand as she heads to the delivery room. A nurse places a screen around another man in the crowded ward and a woman asks her, "Why can't my son have a screen?" The nurse explains that it's against the rules. The woman points out that she just placed one around the other man and the nurse explains that's because that man is dying.
The camera finally moves past all the chaos as we see sharp dark shoes entering the office of Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the superintendent of nurses to apply for a nursing job. Her name is Lora Hart and she's played by the great Barbara Stanwyck. Miss Dillon is a bit of a harridan, barely taking her eyes off what she's doing to give Lora much attention. Her education doesn't impress her and she asks her why in the world she would want to be a nurse. Lora tries not to laugh as she notices that the woman has a habit of making a grotesque throat-clearing sound ever few seconds. "Nursing people has always seemed liked a second nature to me," Lora tells the superintendent of nurses, but she seems less than impressed and dismisses her out of hand. As Lora marches out of the woman's office, she makes certain to stop at the door and clear her throat with a smile before she leaves.
When she's exiting the hospital, a preoccupied man bumps into her, spilling the contents of Lora's purse and falling on his ass. Lora takes the stance that he was trying to be fresh with her, but he gets up and reassures her that isn't the case. He introduces himself as Dr. Arthur Bell (Charles Winninger) and asks why she was there. She tells him she had hoped to get a job as a nurse, but that Miss Dillon didn't seem interested. Bell offers to take her back and asks her name. When she shares that her name is Lora Hart, Bell replies, "Hart — that's a good name for a nurse." Lora, escorted by Dr. Bell, returns to Miss Dillon's office. When she sees Lora with the doctor, the superintendent gets tongue-tied, but Bell doesn't give Dillon much of a chance to say anything anyway, just tells her to treat Miss Hart well and find a place for her and perhaps she can help improve things around then. He wishes Lora good luck and departs, leaving her to have a real interview with Miss Dillon. While Miss Dillon's attitude toward Lora improves slightly, mainly she wants to know why she didn't tell her before that she was acquainted with Dr. Bell. She explains that she will begin work as a probationary nurse, which means she will live in a dorm and have a curfew (in bed with lights out by 10). Because she'll just be on probation on first, she must pay strict attention to the rules or she could be let go. "Rules mean something — you'll be told about them later," Miss Dillon tells her.
The superintendent sees another probationary nurse passing and calls out, "Maloney." Maloney (Joan Blondell) enters and Miss Wilson introduces her to Lora and says since Maloney (the film never gives her a first name, just the initial B.) doesn't have a roommate, she should get Lora a uniform and show her the ropes. At first, Maloney isn't very friendly, seeing any new probationary nurse as competition, even handing her a uniform several sizes too large at first, but soon the girls hit it off and Maloney warns her about the different types of men to watch out for, such as interns. Just as she says that, an intern named Eagan (Edward Nugent) sticks his head in the dressing room and acts generally obnoxious. Maloney makes no attempt to hide her disdain. "Sometimes I don't like you, Maloney," Eagan tells her. "I wish I could find a way to make that permanent," she replies. What do you say newcomer?" he asks Lora. "Two-nothin' in favor of the lady," Lora concludes. Eagan knows when he's licked and leaves. "Take my advice and stay away from interns," Maloney reiterates. "They're like cancer. The disease you know, but there ain't no cure."
It must be said that while Night Nurse would barely be classified as a B picture by most at the time it was made, the movie not only surpasses that level in terms of quality, but in Wellman's distinctive touches and Barney McGill's cinematography. For instance, in one particularly effective sequence, Maloney and Lora must assist a surgery as one of their final tasks before they can take the oath and be full-fledged nurses. Lora, as we will learn, can be a bit skittish (though the growth of her strength marks the journey of both her character and the film). Maloney warns her that if she faints or messes up, she's done so hang on. They stage the scene in a large operating theater and Wellman films most of the sequence in overhead shots. The surgery doesn't go well and there's blood as the surgeon's try to save the man. Lora almost buckles, but Maloney gives her her hand. As the man dies, they show a series of almost ritualistic shots as the body gets slowly covered. The OR clears out but Lora lingers behind, waiting until the room has emptied to collapse to the floor which Wellman again captures in an overhead shot.
What's interesting is that while William A. Wellman had a reputation prior to Night Nurse (he did direct Oscar's first best picture (Wings) after all and would go on to make many more notable films), the other members of the creative team really didn't have that much else of note on their filmographies. McGill's only other significant films as a d.p. were Svengali starring John Barrymore and Michael Curtiz's The Cabin in the Cotton that kick-started Bette Davis' career. The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Dora Macy (a pen name used by writer Grace Perkins) and written by Oliver H.P. Garrett who was prolific but only made noise as a co-writer on Manhattan Melodrama (with Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Duel in the Sun (with David O. Selznick and uncredited work by Ben Hecht) and Dead Reckoning (with four other men). On Night Nurse, additional dialogue was credited to Charles Kenyon, who was just as prolific as Garrett. His most recognizable credits were helping to adapt Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935 and Robert Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest in 1936. Somehow though these people pooled together to produce crackling dialogue, memorable images and efficient storytelling out of a movie that most viewed as filler. It's a minor miracle.
Perhaps what makes Night Nurse one of those daring pre-Code pictures is that, while it never shows Lora or Maloney leading a loose lifestyle, the young single gals do sneak out of the dorm and come back in after curfew drunk. Presumably Maloney has dragged Lora out on a manhunting expedition since what type of mate to pursue tends to be all Maloney talks about. In addition to interns being a no-no, she warns against doctors as well, saying that you'd just end up running their office while they chase other women. As for patients, for some reason Maloney thinks that "appendicitis cases are best." However, for Maloney, only one male is ideal. "There's only one guy in the world that can do a nurse any good and that's a patient with dough!" she says. "Just catch one of them with a high fever and a low pulse and make him think you saved his life and you'll be getting somewhere." Those conversations are for another time. Right now, the pie-eyed pals are more concerned with getting undressed in the dark and climbing into bed without tipping off Miss Dillon that they'd broken curfew. That plan goes bust thanks to Eagan, who left a surprise under Lora's blanket — a skeleton from the anatomy class that causes Lora to let out a shriek. Maloney tells her to hurry and get under the covers and act asleep, in case Dillon comes in. Lora doesn't want to be that close to the bones, but she does it. Sure enough, Miss Dillon comes in and flips the lights on. Maloney tries to fake that she just woke them up but the superintendent throws back the blanket and exclaims, "I thought so" as she sees that Maloney still has part of her clothing on. The girls fear that a firing is coming, but instead as punishment Dillon assigns them to the night shift working with the worst cases that come in off the streets: drunks, beatings, etc. As she leaves them to get some sleep, Eagan drops by to taunt them and they yell at him. Lora continues to lack the nerve to sleep where the skeleton was, so Maloney lets her crawl into bed with her for the night.
The "punishment" that Miss Dillon gives Lara and Maloney actually only serves to forward the plot. They only work there long enough to meet a new character who will play an important role going forward (and it's neither the drunk nor the intern helping to treat those coming in for help). A sharp-dressed man comes staggering in, having lost some blood. Lora gets to work patching him up which necessitates cutting his shirt. "Hey! That's silk!" the man (Ben Lyon) objects. "That's how I knew you were a bootlegger," Lora tells him, but then she realizes his injury is a bullet wound. "That looks like it's a bullet wound!" Lora says. "Well, it's a cinch it's not a vaccination mark," he replies. By law, nurses are required to report all bullet wounds to the police, but the man begs her not to do it. Lora finds herself torn because she likes this nameless bootlegger. Maloney comes up and spots the bullet wound and tells them they have to report it — they can't risk their jobs before they even officially start them. "Maybe 56 bucks a week isn't much but it's 56 bucks," Maloney says. Eventually, Maloney gives in and she and Lora fix the bootlegger up and keep his secret. After that is when the operating room test comes and Lora and Maloney pass. The pals join the other probies and take the Florence Nightingale Pledge and become full-fledged nurses.
"I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care."
It's at this point that Night Nurse makes its pivot. Aside from the great opening, when we saw anonymous characters doing their work, Lora and Maloney patching up the bootlegger and the OR scene, we've really witnessed little in the way of the practice of medicine. That pledge the newly minted nurses took (at least as far as Lora is concerned — aside from a couple of brief appearances by Maloney, Joan Blondell mostly vanishes from the film, unfortunately) means something to them, It wasn't just a line that Lora was trying to pull on Miss Dillon when she told her that "nursing has always seemed like a second nature to me." Skittishness over skeletons and blood aside, Lora has only grown stronger and she will need that strength for what she confronts next. At the hospital, she had assisted Dr. Bell in the treatment of two sick little girls, Desney and Nanny Richey (Betty Jane Graham, Marcia Mae Jones). For some reason though, their widowed mother (Charlotte Merriam) removed Bell from the case and took them home for treatment there under a Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde) and an ever-rotating staff of nurses who keep quitting or getting fired. Maloney currently holds the daytime shift and when the latest night nurse exits, Lora gets the job and hits it off with the children who are ecstatic, to their detriment, one falling to the floor in weakness over the excitement. The housekeeper Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Frederici) enters to put a stop to it. Lora had been warned to be wary of the household staff, particularly Nick the chauffeur (Clark Gable, who got the role which originally was intended for James Cagney. However, when The Public Enemy hit so big earlier in 1931, the studio and Cagney agreed he shouldn't play such a small role as a hood now). Gable gets the most unintentionally funny introductions in the movie (or just about any movie). After Lora had been specifically warned about "Nick the chauffeur," when she encounters him and asks who he is he actually says in complete monotone, "I'm Nick — the chauffeur." The way that moment plays could only have been sillier if it had been followed by ominous organ music.
Lora attempts to find Mrs. Richey somewhere within the mansion to tell her what dire straits her children are in and finds that she appears to be either drunk or passed out 24 hours a day, usually on the arm of her equally inebriated boyfriend Mack (Walter McGrail). Often, the place overflows with many partying friends in a scene of bacchanalia. When Mrs. Richey nods off one time, Mack makes moves on Lora should Lora parries his pawing fairly well, but the first time she meets Nick is when he shows up and lays Mack out with a punch. Lora and Nick don't maintain a friendly relationship for long as she tells him she's calling a doctor. He warns her not to unless Dr. Ranger has given her orders to that effect. She ignores him and proceeds to the phone. Nick shouts that he runs this place, but Lora gets someone on the line so Nick knocks her out and carries her unconscious into another room.
The next day, Lora goes to see this Dr. Ranger to report what's going on, but it soon becomes clear to her that he's not particularly interested in the welfare of the children and she puts together what must be going on: The children must have a trust fund that will pass on to their tipsy mother if they die and they'll have Nick marry her and he and the doctor will steal the fortune. She threatens to report Ranger to the authorities. He seems unconcerned, telling her she has no proof and to make such allegations will just end her career. Lora storms out and goes to see Dr. Bell who, to her surprise, agrees with everything she says but doesn't want to lift a finger to help her either since, even though he's long had suspicions about Ranger, "he is a colleague." Not much has changed in 80 years: Doctors always protect one another no matter how bad they know the other doctor is. Bell tries to put his inability to report Ranger off on "ethics." This really sets Lora off. "Oh, ethic, ethics. That's all I've heard in this business. Isn't there any humanity left? Aren't there any ethics about letting little babies be murdered?" she yells at him. Bell advises that if she really wants to help the children, she should go back and apologize to Ranger so she can keep working. Lora agrees, but first she stops for a soda and happens to run into the bootlegger and tells him her story. When he hears what Nick did, he offers to talk to a couple of guys to take care of him. Lora learns his name is Mortie and he promises that he's out of the bootlegging business now, but he agrees to help her anyway he can. The bootlegger would be more ethical than the doctors.
Now, I won't tell you how Night Nurse resolves itself, but it packs so much into its running time that it's damn remarkable it all got squeezed in. Logically, Night Nurse shouldn't be the gem that it is, but lightning struck. Not the type that wins awards but the more important type of electricity — bolts that go off in one time period and continue to reverberate decades later. I do have to share a couple of other favorite moments before I wrap it up though. Wellman put so much effort into this programmer with the different way he set up shots and another of my favorites is the perspective he uses when Mack comes on to Lora again and she lays him out with a punch of her own. It almost looks like 3-D. Then, for comedy, we get to see Mack crawl on the floor to take refuge behind the bar.
Soon after that, Lora tries to physically drag Mrs. Richey so she can see how her daughter is but the drunken women isn't cooperating. Lora even drags her by the throat at one point until Mrs. Richey finally collapses on the floor, passed out. Lora tosses a bucket of ice water on her trying to wake her up to no avail. As she walks away, Lora almost give us some pre-Code profanity as she mutters, "You mothers." The young Stanwyck amazes and this was only her third year making movies and she also scored with another brilliant turn in 1931 in Frank Capra's The Miracle Woman — and so many more and greater performances were still on the way.