“Oh, ethics . . . ethics . . . ethics! That’s all I’ve heard. Isn’t there any ethics about letting poor little babies be murdered?”
– Barbara Stanwyck as nurse Lora Hart in Night Nurse.
There are precious few “ethics” on display in William Wellman’s brief and brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled and efficiently directed Pre-Code film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in hard boiled melodramas with a social message in the early 1930s. Wellman and star Barbara Stanwyck would make five films together, and in this, their first outing, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as a performer, coupled with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was a very tough customer himself.
Known for carrying a loaded gun on the set, and occasionally threatening actors with it if he felt they were sloughing off on the job (as he did with Ronald Colman in his 1939 film The Light That Failed, when Colman deliberately fluffed his lines during a key scene due to a disagreement with Wellman over casting), Wellman knew exactly what he wanted when he walked on the set each morning, and usually got the results in one or two takes.
This was just fine with Stanwyck, who was known as a “one take wonder,” capable of memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, and delighted Wellman. He was almost as much of a speed demon on the set as MGM’s W.S. Van Dyke, another rough and ready director who famously shot the hit film The Thin Man in a mere 12 days.
For above everything else, Warner’s in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out films at the rate of one a week to keep pace with the insatiable demand of Depression era audiences for something – anything – to take their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse.
Films such as Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931), Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), and Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) set the tone and pace for a series of films that moved with breakneck speed in their narrative thrust, and dealt matter of factly with Prohibition (and the complete failure of that “great experiment”), murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and a host of other social ills, pulling no punches in the process.
In Night Nurse, Stanwyck plays private nurse Lora Hart, who is called in along with fellow nurse Maloney (Joan Blondell) to care for two sick children at the home of their mother, the wealthy alcoholic widow Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam), who cares little about her offspring’s welfare. The unscrupulous Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde) is supposedly supervising the children’s care, but Lora soon finds out that Dr. Ranger’s real aim is to starve them to death, so that the brutish chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable, in a very early role) can marry the inebriated Mrs. Ritchey, and thus gain control of a trust fund set up for the children.
There’s more to the plot, of course, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. The main attraction here is the straightforward violence of the film, which exists in a world of corruption and greed, a moral wilderness all too familiar to 1930s viewers. Dr. Ranger, for example, is clearly a drug addict, all too willing to go along with Nick’s plans to obtain what he needs to get through the day; and Lora, without even a high school diploma to her name, gets her position as a nurse only through the kindly but clearly unethical intervention of Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), who takes a liking to her early on in the film.
Lora knows when to look the other way, too, and thus gain allies in her fight to survive. In another early scene, as Lora works in a hospital emergency room on the night shift, she tends to a bullet wound inflicted on Mortie (Ben Lyon), an amiable bootlegger, and at his behest, doesn’t report the incident to the police. Mortie thus takes an interest in Lora’s future. As the narrative unfolds, this comes in handy at a crisis point, when it’s clear that all of Lora’s warnings to the authorities about the children’s condition have been to no avail.
Wellman took on this film right after the success of Public Enemy, and the role of Nick in Night Nurse was initially assigned to James Cagney. But Cagney’s overnight stardom as a result of his work in Public Enemy ruled that out – he was clearly destined for bigger things. Thus, the role of Nick fell to Clark Gable, whose performance in Night Nurse will come as a shock to those who only know him from his later, more sympathetic roles; twice, he knocks Stanwyck to the floor when she objects to the “care” the children are receiving, and he stalks through the film with an air of constant menace. Nick’s one method of dealing with trouble is brute force, and he doesn’t think twice about hitting a woman, or anyone else, who crosses him.
Then, too, the dialogue is absolutely hard boiled, and the screenplay takes every possible occasion to show either Joan Blondell or Stanwyck in various states of undress. It’s clear that both women live in a world in which on-the-job sexual harassment is the norm – it’s what they expect in an era in which everything is for sale, even the lives of innocent children, who are unable to protect themselves. And, of course, since Lora works the night shift, most of the film takes place in an atmosphere of perpetual darkness, as the characters seem cut off from the rest of the world by the absence of daylight.
In the end, only violence will help where violence rules, but that’s for you to find out as the film careens toward its inexorable climax. Suffice it to say that in Wellman’s no nonsense direction, Stanwyck’s memorably gutsy performance, and Gable’s surprisingly convincing turn as, essentially, a killer of children for cold hard cash, Night Nurse effectively creates a film in which the normal rules of society don’t apply, if they ever did. It’s everyone for themselves in a world without compassion, or ethics – something Lora clearly has, despite her protestations to the contrary.
Night Nurse (1931 USA 72 min)
Prod Co.: Warner Bros. Dir: William A. Wellman Scr:. Oliver H.P. Garrett and Charles Kenyon, (from the novel by Grace Perkins, additional. dialogue by Charles Kenyon) Phot: Barney McGill Ed: Edward D. McDermott Prod Des: Max Parker Mus Leo F. Forbstein