Night Nurse (1931): United States – directed by William Wellman
Not rated by the MPAA – contains old-timey underwear and some off-screen violence
This movie sure couldn’t have been made two years later. It’s one of the rare gems from the brief pre-Code period, when they made gritty gangster movies and other racy stuff. Then Will Hayes got involved and nothing was ever the same again.
Night Nurse was directed by William Wellman, who also made the pre-Code gangster flick The Public Enemy with James Cagney and the highly respected Western The Ox-Box Incident with Henry Fonda. Here he teams up with Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable (in a supporting role) to bring us a fairly good medical thriller.
Well, I’m not too sure if medical thriller is the best way to describe it. It starts out as a drama/comedy when Laura Hart (Stanwyck) attempts to get a job as a nurse. Since she hasn’t finished high school she is not allowed, but after bumping into the prestigious Dr. Bell (Charles Winniger) she is granted permission to begin the program.
She rooms with the cynical B. Maloney (Joan Blondell, who was also in Grease) and together they get into some trouble. One night Hart runs into a young bootlegger who’s been shot. She patches him up without filing a police report and earns herself a pal for life. Later on she is assigned to private nursing, to the care of two young children. However, she soon discovers there is more going on than meets the eye, what with the nefarious chauffeur Nick (Gable) and a crooked doctor involved with things.
Fortunately, her own private gangster shows up at all the right times. You see, there has to be a gangster in the movie, because almost every pre-Code film has gangsters in it or is about gangsters. Good thing, too, otherwise this movie wouldn’t have been half as fun. As it is, it’s not a particularly great film. Even though the directing and editing aren’t top-notch, the dialogue still cracks like so few films today. (This just goes to show that even in an okay film from the 1930’s the dialogue was vastly superior to 95% of what’s made today.)
So, then, why did I enjoy the film? Well, a couple reasons. Stanwyck is always a pleasure, possessing some rare qualities that make it impossible to keep one’s eyes off of her. In addition, it was great to see Gable play a truly mean-spirited and evil character, something he rarely did (to my knowledge.) Mostly, though, it was the content that was immensely intriguing and interesting to me. I am always fascinated by what they got away with in films, especially during the brief period between the invention of sound and the Production Code.
For one thing, there are many moments of undressing present in the film. Both Stanwyck and Blondell constantly change clothes. Granted, in those days women’s undergarments contained more cloth than most wedding dresses do these days, but still: women in their underwear! This would have been cause for extreme rejection by the Production Code Administration. There are also a couple evening dresses that were a tad revealing for those days, though today they would be considered not the least bit provocative.
Even more interesting, actually, is some of the other stuff they got away with. To begin with, there are almost no moral characters in the entire film. Morality was the reason the Code was created, but here even the good characters are slightly morally ambiguous at times. Most shocking, even by today’s standards, is the violence against women. (Mild spoiler ahead) At one point Gable actually knocks Stanwyck to the ground with an uppercut to the jaw, though the camera is gentlemanly enough to tilt down so we only see her hitting the ground unconscious. There are a couple other instances of women getting accosted, too, and they were all pretty shocking, especially for a movie from 1931.
By today’s standards much of this doesn’t mean a thing. However, that it was made nearly 80 years ago I find fascinating. If you are not similarly inclined, though, you might not enjoy the movie much at all. It doesn’t have quite the wit and charm many classic films from the 1930’s and 1940’s possess, so unless you are interested in the pre-Code films or Stanwyck and Gable, I would have trouble recommending it. If you are interested it moves quickly (at 72 minutes long) and is well-enough made to be worth the effort.