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Lora Hart manages to land a job in a hospital as a trainee nurse. Upon completion of her training she goes to work as a night nurse for two small children who seem to be very sick, but something much more sinister is going on. Written by
Col Needham <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Night Nurse" (WB, 1931), directed by William A. Wellman, is not your ordinary hospital drama in the league of late 1930s "Dr. Kildare" series at MGM or the program "Nurse Keate" mysteries at Warners. It's a pre-production code, risqué hospital drama featuring a lone nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) surrounded by those of the medical profession who do more than examine and cure for humanity. But not all doctors and nurses are the villains here. There is even a chauffeur named Nick, who makes James Cagney's 'Public Enemy' character look more like a boy scout in comparison. But at 71 minutes, director Wellman fills this drama with plenty of sound and fury.
The storyline involves Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who obtains a nurses position at a hospital where she must follow strict rules and regulations, given an hour off to herself a day and only one night off a week. She rooms with Maloney (Joan Blondell), a sassy blonde who believes that rules are meant to be broken. Later, Lora is hired as a private nurse to care for two fatherless little girls who happen to be the heirs to a large fortune. Their mother, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam) prefers to enjoy herself by smoking cigarettes, being drunk and entertaining herself at all night parties surrounded by low-life people. At the same time, Mrs. Ritchey's chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable), intends on having those girls starved to death in order to obtain their trust fund after marrying their mother. When Lora learns of this evil plot, she notifies Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde) for advise, unaware that he may also part of the plot.
In the opening segment of the video cassette copy of "Night Nurse," which is introduced by movie critic Leonard Maltin, he mentions that no one could have played the role better in "Night Nurse" than Barbara Stanwyck. Agreed! She gives her character an injection of toughness and sincerity. In one of its television presentations on Turner Classic Movies, host Robert Osborne mentioned that the role for Nick, the chauffeur, was originally intended for a young James Cagney, who recently scored big time success with the release of "The Public Enemy" (1931), also directed by Wellman. Although Cagney might have pulled it off, Gable is far better suited for this particular role mainly because of his forceful appearance, strong approach and firm voice. When he introduces himself to Nurse Hart (Stanwyck) in saying, loud and clear, "I'm NICK, the CHAUFFEUR," it shows how threatening his character can be. Cagney wouldn't have done this as well. Yet this is the same Gable, minus his famous mustache and likable personality, shortly before his long reign as MGM's "King of the Movies,", who not only beats up the weaker sex here, but gets to meet his match in Nurse Hart. Aside from Gable's slapping and socking his victims, along with making threats, Stanwyck pulls no punches when she socks an individual drunk in order to confront the mother to attend to her two abused daughters. When she finds that this drunken woman doesn't care, Hart, in anger, looks directly at the drunken floozy on the floor and quips, "YOU MOTHER!"
Also seen in the supporting cast are Ben Lyon, an actor in silent movies with a very well recorded distinctive voice, playing a bootlegger who identifies himself as Mortie near the film's end; Charles Winninger as the kind-hearted Doctor Arthur Bell, who also gets the feel of Nick's fist; Edward Nugent as an immoral intern who quotes this classic line to Stanwyck as she undresses: "Oh, don't be embarrassed. You can't show me a thing. I just came from the delivery room!"; Vera Lewis as Miss Dillon, the no-nonsense head nurse (and she means business); Blanche Frederici (another one of Nick's punching bags); and Marcia Mae Jones and Betty Jane Graham as the Ritchey girls.
After watching "Night Nurse," one wonders how many movies of this sort distributed from other film studios are out there, if any. If "Night Nurse" were made today and released as is, it would present few thrills. But because it was made in 1931, "Night Nurse" is full of surprises, then and now, mainly because of how many scenes got passed the censors. Even the topic of child abuse was a screen rarity during that time.
Rarely shown in recent decades, thanks to Ted Turner and his classic movie channel and video distribution through MGM/UA, "Night Nurse" can be seen, and really seen to be believed. Maybe the movie itself does go overboard, but it's really worth a look mainly because of the cast and tough direction in storytelling. This is vintage Stanwyck at her best, especially when wearing her slightly over-sized nurses uniform. And due to the frankness of director Wellman, he gives the movie the shot in the arm it needs.
And one final word of warning, BEWARE OF NICK THE CHAUFFEUR! (***)
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