Let’s say this first – if you like Pre-Code movies, you will love Night Nurse. It’s a full blast of the fun that Pre-Code films can hold: wisecracking best friends, snappy dialogue, unconventional plot twists and, of course, Barbara Stanwyck in her early red-headed days.
But it’s an unusual role for Stanwyck, because the character of Laura Hart is something we don’t expect from the usually hard-boiled Stanwyck: a starry-eyed idealist. She’s not naïve – it’s established from the start that she’s a working-class girl who was forced to drop out of high school and work to support herself – but she loves nursing and wants to be the best nurse she can be. Even at the end of the film when she’s forced to leave the field she loves, her disillusionment hasn’t made her hard or cynical. She remains the same warm, caring, confident person we saw when the film opened.
It’s sometimes startling to see the contrast between the Pre-Code Stanwyck and her Production Code persona. There is a definite difference between the two. In her Production Code films, there’s something a little cold about Stanwyck even in her romances – something a little remote and mysterious. In her Pre-Code films, Stanwyck holds nothing back. She lays it all on the table and dares the audience to judge her for it. And director William “Wild Bill” Wellman backs her up with a tough, punchy film that showcases Stanwyck’s strengths as an actress.
Night Nurse opens with a shot through the windshield of a speeding ambulance skidding through the city and coming to a stop at the door of the Emergency Ward. Laura Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) comes to the hospital to beg for a spot in the nursing apprentice program run by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis) but despite Laura’s work experience, Miss Dillon stands firmly by her rule that all trainees must have a high school diploma … until a chance encounter with head of the hospital Dr. Bell (Charles Winniger) wins Laura the spot.
Laura immediately bonds with fellow nursing apprentice Maloney (a gum-popping Joan Blondell), who introduces Laura to the ins and outs of the hospital. We get the requisite lingerie shot as Laura tries on nursing uniforms with intern Eagan (Edward J. Nugent) spying nearby. When Laura tells him to get lost, Eagan replies, “You can’t show me anything – I just came from the delivery room.”
True to her word, Laura is a natural when to comes to nursing – when assigned to the Maternity Ward, she is in her element as the queen of her little realm of breastfeeding mothers and newborns:
When Laura and Maloney are caught sneaking in after hours, they are punished with several weeks on the night shift in the Emergency Ward, where Laura meets a charming bootlegger (Ben Lyon) with a gunshot wound to the shoulder. After some deliberation, she agrees not to report the wound even though the law requires it, and he calls her his “pal.” It becomes a running joke as the bootlegger sends gifts from “Your Pal,” including a bottle of (illegal) rye before Laura’s last test as a nursing apprentice: a stint in the operating room that causes her to faint after the patient is lost on the operating table, but with Maloney’s help she’s able to keep sufficiently in control to do it after the operation is over and is allowed to graduate.
Remember what I said about Stanwyck playing an idealist? Watch the scene of her graduation as she takes the Florence Nightingale Pledge. Maloney can barely stop cracking her gum long enough to get through the words, but Laura believes each and every one with all of her heart:
Laura’s resolve is tested by her very first private case, though. She is sent to be the night shift nurse for two little girls being treated for malnutrition. Maloney is the day nurse and warns Laura that there’s something “screwy” about the case: the well-respected Dr. Bell has been removed and replaced by society doctor Ranger (Ralf Harolde) – sharp-eyed viewers may recognize him from another role as an unscrupulous doctor in 1941’s Murder, MySweet.
Laura almost quits the job after her first night where she encounters the man who’s really in charge of the household – Nick, the chauffeur:
Why, yes, that’s Clark Gable in his early gangster days – you can tell he’s playing a villain because he has no mustache. He’s fourth-billed here, so I’ll talk about him more when we get to another film where he has a meatier gangster role, 1931’s A Free Soul (running on TCM Friday 9/26 at 6:00 a.m. ET).
An incensed Laura first takes her complaint to Dr. Ranger, but she quickly realizes that he’s a quack, and possibly a drug addict – Harolde plays Ranger as sharp and twitchy, with a suspicious sniffle. She then turns to Dr. Bell, who urges her to remain on the case to try and protect her little patients. If she really thinks the little girls are being deliberately starved to death, she needs to stay on the case to get the proof she needs to swear out a warrant. She goes back to Ranger and apologizes so humbly that he generously agrees to let her stay on the case. But Laura’s doubts about the medical ethics she was taught are growing, because it seems as though those ethics are preventing her from saving her patients from the murderous Nick.
The girls get sicker and sicker until Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) is on the verge of death. Laura confronts their neglectful mother, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam), but she’s too drunk to respond:
(By the way, many people now mishear Mrs. Ritchey’s line: she says she’s a “dipsomaniac,” which was the original term for what we now call an alcoholic. Because it’s archaic, some people mishear it as the more common “nymphomaniac.”)
Heading back to the sickroom, Laura runs into her bootlegger bringing more supplies to the party, but he drops everything to help her and proves himself a valuable ally: he gets the milk Laura needs to give Nanny a milk bath, has his men track down Dr. Bell, forces Nick to retreat, and spends the night outside the children’s room to prevent Nick from coming back. Bell saves Nanny with a blood transfusion provided by Laura, who finally has the evidence she needs to swear out a warrant against Dr. Ranger and Mrs. Ritchey. Maloney warns Laura that this means the end of her career as a nurse, but Laura accepts that – her priority is to save the girls and she’s willing to give up the career she loves to do it.
The bootlegger agrees to drive Laura downtown to swear out the warrant, and it turns out that her “pal” has been even more helpful than he said:
Ah, Pre-Code, where premeditated murder and a happy ending can go hand-in-hand.
Fans of Production Code films often scoff at the lurid trappings of many Pre-Code films, saying that they were all about sex and scandal without any serious underpinnings. Obviously, Night Nurse has its racy elements, including several lingerie scenes and Laura’s near-rape by Mrs. Ritchie’s drunken boyfriend, but the film is all about ethics. It asks why a society doctor who conspires in the attempted murder of two children should be more respected than the working-class nurse who uncovers his plot. It asks why “professional ethics” should be invoked to ignore the murder plot. And it presents a criminal – the bootlegger – who is more ethical and courageous than any of the “respectable” characters. At one point, Laura hisses, “I’ll kill the next one who says ‘ethics’ to me!” and by that time, we’re firmly on her side. If conventional morality and ethics mean that two little girls can be murdered with impunity while all of the “ethical” people stand by wringing their hands, well, bring on the bootlegger. At least he gets things done.