Sunday, June 12, 2011


"The Public Enemy" director William Wellman tackles the issue of medical ethics in this blue-collar melodrama from Warner Brothers, "Night Nurse," (*** out of ****) about an unsavory quack trying to starve two vulnerable pre-school children to death to get his grimy hands on their trust fund. A young Barbara Stanwyck stars as the crusading nurse heroine who sets out to save the kids from the despicable likes of Clark Gable--in a loan-out role--as a slimy small time hood who has no qualms about slugging women. This snappy, Depression-era, 72-minute, black & white expose about hospitals and nurses qualifies as gripping but often sordid tale. Wellman doesn't foreground the usual romantic conventions by focusing primarily on the relationship between the heroine and the hero. The romantic scenes between Barbara Stanwyck and Ben Lyon as they flirt take a backseat to the subversive plot about children-in-jeopardy. Barbara Stanwyck's performance as a young nurse seems callow and uncertain at times, nothing as fierce some as she was later in "Baby Face," but Joan Blondell is her usual jaunty self. It is exciting to catch Clark Gable at this point in his illustrious career before he made good at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He delivers an electrifying performance as a thoroughly loathsome hood who stands out above everybody else. Interestingly, James Cagney was the first choice to play the thug that Gable would incarnate, but Cagney had ascended the stairs of stardom and the studio sought somebody else.

"Night Nurse" emerged as a departure from the typical Hollywood production in the wake of the silent picture era. When you watch "Night Nurse," pay attention to all those tracking shots as well as other where Wellman moves the camera. Early Hollywood sound pictures were primarily static because producers and directors were fearful of generating sound when they moved their cameras. Indeed, in some early sound pictures, the camera operator was sealed in a soundproof box with the camera and had to hold his breath since there was on air in the sealed up camera. Moreover, Wellman recorded live audio when he moved his cameras which was something of an innovation, too. He was one of the first filmmakers to dangle a microphone from a boom above his actors and actresses as they delivered their dialogue. If you have any doubts about the use of boom mikes, look at all those tell-tale shadows of the boom mikes on the walls. The opening shots lensed through the windshield of an ambulance careening down one street and then another to a hospital emergency room is invigorating, enough so that Wellman repeated the same sequence at the end.

Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to be a nurse. She nearly misses the opportunity because she lacks a high school diploma. Wellman and his scribes make her heroine sympathetic from the start because her mother's death forced her to drop out of high school. Since she doesn't have the diploma, a stern-minded nurse refuses to accept her as a probationary nurse. Fortunately for Lora, the man hurriedly entering the revolving door at the hospital's front entrance catches her on the way out and knocks her handball to the floor. This callous fellow turns out to be Dr. Arthur Bell (Charles Winninger of "Nothing Sacred") and he persuades the Superintendent of Nurses, Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis of "Intolerance") to give Lora a chance. "Rules are important," Dillon dictates from the get-go, and "Night Nurse" is about about breaking rules, not only in the medical field but also the movies. Dillon assigns another nurse, Maloney (Joan Blondell of "Three on a Match"), to show Lora the ropes, and those ropes are tightropes.

First, Maloney warns Lora not to fall in love with either doctors or interns. Cynically, Maloney recommends patients with dough. Second,the nurses must follow strict rules to keep their respective jobs. For example, she has one hour to herself and must work until 7 pm. As long as she is in bed with lights out by 10 pm, she has nothing to fear. Moreover, if they are caught out of bed after 10 pm, they face the prospect of additional night shifts. Later, Lora learns that she earns a paltry $56 per week. A cocksure intern, Eagan (Edward J. Nugent of "Prison Shadows"), pulls a practical joke on Lora. Eagan stashes a human skeleton in her bed. Lora screams and he pokes his head in to laugh at them. Meanwhile, the scream has awakened Miss Dillon who storms into their room. Maloney mistakes Dillon for Eagan and flings a slipper at her. Dillon makes Lora take two weeks on the night shift at the emergency clinic. One evening, Lora patches up a wounded bootlegger, Mortie (Ben Lyon of "Indiscreet"), who persuades her not to report his bullet wound. They become friends, and Mortie saves Lora later when she finds herself in a tight spot.

Eventually, Lora graduates from the nursing program and gets a night nurse job with an unscrupulous Dr. Milton A. Ranger (Ralf Harolde of "Killer Shark") who explains that the best nurses is keep her mouth shut. Maloney handles the day shift, while Lora works the night shift, attending to two children, Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones of "The Champ") and Desney (Betty Jane Graham of "Alias the Doctor"), suffering from malnutrition. One evening, when she tries to help the drunken Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam of "Alimony Madness"), Lora is assaulted by the drunken boyfriend and Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable of "Gone with the Wind") intervenes. Lora is about to call the police, but Nick clobbers her on the chin. When Mrs. Maxwell, the Housekeeper (Blanche Friderici of "Thirteen Women") lets slip that Dr. Ranger and Nick, the Chauffeur are in cahoots to kill them for their trust fund money, Lora goes to Dr. Bell. Bell warns her that nobody will believe her hysterical accusations about Ranger. When Lora wants to quit, Bell convinces her to continue to work so she can gather evidence to be used against Ranger and Nick. Lora and Mrs. Maxwell are trying to save Nanny with a milk bath when Nick intervenes. There is a wonderful close-up of the bath tub being emptied out into the silk with the doll that Nanny had that sums up the old saying do not throw the baby out with the bath water. Anyhow, things are touch and go until Mortie shows up with a pistol in his pocket and sends Nick packing.

"Night Nurse" is an interesting and entertaining Pre-Code film.