Saturday, May 27, 2017

Stubs - Night Nurse

Night Nurse (1931) Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable. Directed by William Wellman. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, Charles Kenyon Based on the novel Night Nurse by Dora Macy (New York, 1930). Producer: None Credited. Runtime: 72 minutes. U.S.A. Crime, Drama, Mystery

As discussed here previously, Pre-Code Hollywood films are not filled with debauchery or nudity, but deal more openly with issues that Hollywood would have to hint at from 1934 until the mid-1960s, when all provincial thoughts were tossed aside. Films are labelled Pre-Code the same way home video releases sometimes come in unrated versions. To be unrated, a film only has to differ in length from the version that was rated by the MPAA. It doesn’t take much, only a few seconds, to make a film unrated, in the much the same way that saying a film is Pre-Code means anything more than it was made before 1934.

Still, there are touches about Pre-Code films that you won’t see in films from the mid-30s on. Case in point, Night Nurse (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon and Joan Blondell. There was also a supporting actor you may have heard of in it as well, Clark Gable, who would someday warrant the title "The King of Hollywood". And to top it off, the film is directed by one of Hollywood’s early greats, William Wellman, who only a few years prior had directed Wings (1927), one of the better silent films; the first film to win “Best Picture” and the last, until The Artist (2011), to garner that honor.

All were brought together in a Warner Bros. film adaptation of the novel Night Nurse by Dora Macy, the non-de plume of Mrs. Fulton Oursler, printed only the year before. (Don’t go looking for the book, as I can’t find any reference to it other than it was the basis for this film.)

Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is at first rejected by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis).

In Night Nurse, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants very badly to be a nurse, but her lack of a high school degree gets her rejected by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the Superintendent of Nurses. But Lora’s fortunes change when she encounters the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Arthur Bell (Charles Winninger), in a revolving door. He knocks her purse out of her hands and while he picks up it contents, he becomes enamored with Lora. He intercedes on her behalf with Miss Dillon and gets the requirement waived.

A change encounter with a smitten Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) gets Lora the job.

Miss Dillon assigns another nursing student, Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell), to help get her settled and assigns them to be roommates in the dorms provided for student nurses. While Miss Maloney is sarcastic, the two become best friends. Maloney warns her about the interns, one of whom has a crush on Lora.

Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell) doesn't seem thrilled to be assigned Lora as a roommate.

One night when Maloney and Lora are out past curfew, the intern puts a skeleton in Lora’s bed. Her screams are enough to wake Miss Dillon, who is across the hall. Suspecting that the women have broken her rules, she comes down harder on Maloney, who has broken the rules more often.

A practical joke and the girls' reaction to it gives away that they've been out past curfew.

We also see the two nurses as they learn their craft. When both are assigned to the emergency room, Lora ends up treating bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon) for a gunshot wound. Even though she is required by law, and admonished by Maloney, to report any gunshot wound to the police, she doesn’t, earning Mortie’s gratitude.

While working in the Emergency room they meet bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon), who has been shot.

The final test for both nurses is surgery, with Lora worried about how she’ll react to all the blood. A bottle of Rye is delivered from Mortie as a good luck gesture. When Dr. Bell’s patient dies on the table, Lora makes it through, but faints to the floor when she is alone.

After the patient dies, Lora passes out in surgery.

This is followed by graduation, with the nurses singing a song related to Florence Nightingale as part of their graduation.

Maloney's heart isn't in singing the Florence Nightingale song.

After graduation, Lora and Maloney accept a private nursing job, through Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde), caring for Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), children of a wealthy alcoholic socialite, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). Maloney has the day shift and Lora the night.

At the Ritchey mansion there always seems to be a party going on. Lora’s first meeting with Mrs. Ritchey comes at the urging of Eagan (Edward Nugent), one of the perpetually drunken party guests. Mrs. Ritchey has collapsed on the floor in a drunken stupor. Nick (Clark Gable), the family chauffeur, intercedes and tells Lora to pump out Mrs. Ritchey’s stomach. But Lora insists she doesn’t have the right equipment to do the procedure and when she tries to call for help, Nick stops her. When Lora persists, Nick punches her (off screen), knocking her out and onto the floor. He eventually carries her out of the room.

After knocking her out, Nick (Clark Gable) carries Lora out of the room. Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte
Merriam) and party guest Eagan (Edward Nugent) are too drunk to help or care.

The next morning, Lora, a bandage on her chin, goes to see Dr. Ranger to complain about Nick. But Dr. Ranger is unsympathetic and while he plans to do nothing about the incident, still promises her that it will never happen again. Lora is convinced it won’t happen to her because she quits.

Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde) doesn't want to hear about Lora's problems with Nick.

Lora goes immediately to see Dr. Bell and tells him that she thinks the children are not getting good care, but at first Dr. Bell doesn’t want to interfere with another doctor’s case. But he listens, suspicious about Dr. Ranger’s treatment of the children. He convinces Lora to stay on at the Ritchey’s as the best way to take care of the girls and she goes back to Dr. Ranger and gets her job back.

After moving back to the mansion, Lora runs into Mortie again while she’s at a pharmacy picking up medicine. Over a soda, he tells her that he’s quit the racket and she believes him.

Lora runs into Mortie and they share a soft drink.

Later, at the mansion, Eagan tries to molest Lora in front of a passed out Mrs. Ritchey and Lora decks him.

Eagan gets more than he bargained for when he puts the moves on Lora.

Lora is alarmed by Dr. Ranger’s treatment of the girls, whom she feels are being starved to death. Finally, Nanny Ritchey is so weak that Lora fears for her life and tries unsuccessfully to get Mrs. Ritchey to show some concern. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell (Blanche Friderici), who up until then has had a hands-off approach to the children, also finally becomes concerned. She gets drunk on Mortie’s liquor and tells Lora that Nick and Dr. Ranger are conspiring to starve the children to death in order to gain control of their trust fund. The trust fund will pass to the drunken and infatuated Mrs. Ritchie, and Nick will marry her for the money.

Mrs. Maxwell also suggests a milk bath, a home remedy to bring down Nanny’s fever, but there is not enough milk in the house and the stores are closed. Lora is not sure that will help, but she can’t reach anyone by phone to help her.

Into the mansion walks Mortie, still a bootlegger after all, on his way to make a delivery to Nick. Lora implores him to help her and he goes out looking for milk. He ends up breaking into a Jewish delicatessen to get what she needs. Lora tells Mortie that she can’t get a hold of Dr. Bell and he disappears.

The bath doesn’t work and Nick flushes the milk down the drain.

Dr. Bell shows up and tells Lora that some guy named Mortie tracked him down and threatened him if he didn’t go to the Ritchey Mansion. Dr. Bell examines Nanny and wants to take her to the hospital, but Nick knocks him out.

Mortie arrives with a gun in his pocket and keeps Nick at bay so Lora can try to save Nanny.

Mortie shows up again, this time with a gun, and prevents Nick from interfering any further. Dr. Bell suggests the only thing they can do is an emergency blood transfusion between Lora and Nanny, since both have the same blood type.

The transfusion saves Nanny Ritchey's (Marcia Mae Jones) life.

The next morning, Lora awakes and finds that Nanny has been saved. Still a little woozy, she insists on going to the police to report Nick and asks Mortie to give her a lift. He wants to keep his arm around her and so she has to shift the gears for him. Mortie tells her not to worry about Nick, as some of his friends have taken care of him.

While Mortie is supposed to be taking Lora to the police, he
informs her that his friends have taken care of Nick.

To emphasize this, we see out the front of a rushing ambulance as it pulls into the hospital and up to the emergency room. When the doctors rush out to help, they’re told it’s a morgue job now for a man dressed in a chauffeur's uniform.

The star of the film, Barbara Stanwyck, began her career as a Ziegfeld girl in 1922 at the ripe old age of 15. She would become a Broadway star in Burlesque (1927), her first leading role. She lost out on the lead in the silent film Broadway Nights (1927) because she couldn’t cry on cue during the audition. Instead she ended up with a minor and uncredited role as a dancer in the now lost film.

Her first sound film was The Locked Door (1929), followed up by the also forgettable Mexicali Rose (1929). It was Frank Capra who gave her the big break in Ladies of Leisure (1930). Night Nurse was one of five films she made that year. Unlike many actresses of the time, Stanwyck was more of a freelance actress, making films for United Artists, Columbia and Warner Bros. early in her career.
She’s good in the role of Lora, able to show her earnest determination against all odds. Stanwyck’s character is sexy enough to get doors opened and, once they are, smart enough to take advantage of the opportunity presented.

Her co-star in Night Nurse was Ben Lyon. While not a name much remembered today, in silent films, Lyon had been successfully paired with Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, Barbara La Marr, and Mary Astor. His best-known role may have been Hell’s Angels (1930), which was also responsible for launching the career of actress Jean Harlow. When his acting career waned in the early 1940s, he took a job working at 20th Century Fox. It was there, on July 17, 1946, that he met a young aspiring actress named Norma Jeane Dougherty. She was a woman he called "Jean Harlow all over again!" He would organize a color screen test for her, rename her and sign her; the legend of Marilyn Monroe was born.

In Night Nurse, he plays a lovable bad guy, a bootlegger with a soft spot for Lora. It’s a bit of a cliché character, but he carries it off rather effortlessly.

Joan Blondell came to Hollywood with James Cagney as the two recreated their stage roles in the 1930 play Penny Arcade in the film Sinner’s Holiday. This film was supposed to reunite them again, but Cagney’s career trajectory changed with the release of The Public Enemy (1931) and he was now a star. The role of Nick, originally intended for Cagney, fell to Clark Gable, in a year in which he would appear in 12 films.

Blondell may have been getting typecast, as once again she is in familiar territory as a cute but sarcastic friend of the lead. She gets off one of the better lines in the film. When introducing Lora to life at the hospital, she quips Say, I was afraid the hospital would burn down before I could get into it. Now I have to watch myself with matches.” I know she didn’t write it, but she delivers it like it was her own idea.

While Clark Gable was not a star at the time, apparently Stanwyck and Blondell both knew he was star material. In the biography, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith, the actress recalled “The instant Clark walked onto the set I knew - we all knew - that here was a striking personality. He commanded attention." Wellman also realized his star potential, writing in his autobiography, A Short Time For Insanity, that Gable was "one of the most despicable heavies imaginable, and he did it with such savoir faire that he became a star. The powers-that-be at Warner Brothers liked his performance but decided he was not worth fooling with, not star material: his ears were too big. They forgot to look at his dimples and listen to his voice and see his smile." MGM noticed though and signed him to a long-term contract the same year and he quickly established himself as one of the studio's top male leads.

Clark Gable plays Nick, the Ritchey family chauffeur and all-around unsavory guy.

Gable’s Nick character is pretty one-dimensional. He manages to play handsome and mean at the same time. While this is not the film where he got to show what he could really do on screen, he still makes an impression and not just because it is Clark Gable in an early role. His Nick might have been remembered even if Gable never became the King of Hollywood.

There is a real efficiency to the story-telling, which seems to be typical for William Wellman’s work at this time. There is just enough exposition given to take you to the next scene. And the film never stops moving the story forward. The pacing seems to be somewhat typical of the Warner Bros. style, though Wellman still manages to make the audience care for Lora despite the quick tempo. Maybe not as grandiose a story as Wings, but Wellman still tells a good story. And there is a lot of story covered in its 72-minute run time.

There are so many things that recommend Night Nurse despite its cookie cutter approach to filmmaking. This is a chance to see so many good actors at the beginning of their careers in one film. If you like Stanwyck you won’t be disappointed, neither will you be if you’re a Blondell fan or one of Clark Gable’s. While not a great film, Night Nurse is still compelling and a good example of Pre-code Hollywood at its best.

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