Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: NIGHT NURSE (1931)

As part of the Turner Classic Movies collection, Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2, Night Nurse (1931) represents the kinds of pictures made before the infamous Hays Code took effect and began to censor what movies could and could not show to the American viewing public. Prurient interests aside, Night Nurse is worth watching for several reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to see Barbara Stanwyck square off against Clark Gable.

The plot focuses on Stanwyck's character, Lora Hart, a plucky young woman who devotes herself to a nursing career and eventually becomes entangled in a scheme to murder two little girls for their trust fund money. The first half of the film chronicles Lora's rise through the nurse training program, showing her to be a determined but good-hearted girl who faints in the operating room after a patient suddenly dies. The look on Lora's face as she hands out babies in the maternity ward tells us all that we need to know about her basic nature, so it comes as no surprise when her maternal instincts are roused by the plight of her two young charges, who are being slowly starved to death in a conspiracy engineered by the mother's menacing chauffeur, Nick (Gable).

Stanwyck, of course, became an icon playing femme fatale and tough cookie types, and this role is something of a departure for her, even in the early days of her long career, although it helps pave the way for her maternal turn in Stella Dallas (1937). The plot of the film might have made Night Nurse a Gothic tale except for the resolutely practical personality that Stanwyck manifests, and it is a great relief to see her aptly named Lora Hart so courageous and unyielding when other heroines might have collapsed under the strain.

Gable is just pure evil as Nick, the villainous chauffeur who keeps the girls' mother sloppy drunk as part of his plan to murder the children and then grab the trust fund fortune by marrying the incapacitated woman. Presumably he intends to become a widower soon afterward. Everyone else in the movie seems to be deathly afraid of him, and it's easy to see why whenever he appears in his black chauffeur's uniform, reeking of cruelty and masculine power. He is a violent man, which the film shows us very early on and then never lets us forget. We understand that he is a man who really will starve defenseless little girls to death, and Gable makes for a perfectly convincing villain in every respect. If he hadn't become a leading man he might have made a fine character actor for heavies.

Enjoy the loose talk, the various scenes of Stanwyck and Joan Blondell dressing and undressing, and the other scandalous bits of the film, but take note of the "view from the driver's seat" camera work, too. The movie experiments with some wonderful camera angles designed to convey the drama and urgency of the medical profession, particularly in the ambulance scenes. Night Nurse is packaged as a source of titillation for those who want to see Hollywood’s lustier period, but it is a fine picture, tightly plotted and extremely well acted by some of classic cinema's greatest stars. The Night Nurse disc from the Forbidden Hollywood collection also contains the fascinating documentary, Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, which provides a very entertaining overview of the Hays Code and the ways in which it altered the film industry's standards.

For more of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code pictures, see Ladies They Talk About (1933) and Baby Face (1933) on other volumes of the Forbidden Hollywood collection. Stanwyck makes some of her most memorable appearances in The Lady Eve (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944). In addition to his iconic performance in Gone with the Wind (1939), see Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and The Misfits (1961). Director William A. Wellman also helmed The Public Enemy (1931), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and Westward the Women (1951).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

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