“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 in Night Nurse
She is my favorite female film star. Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn. She possessed an unusual beauty and a distinctive husky voice. She was an extremely versatile actor, moving easily between Melodramas, Thrillers, Westerns, and Screwball Comedies. The buzz in the industry has always been that she was wonderful to work with, professional, fun on the set, noted for being especially kind to the crew and the extras, and she never behaved like the big star that she was.
Stanwyck had a career that lasted six decades, with over 100 films, bringing film fans a strong, realistic screen presence. She was a favorite of directors Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra.
As an actor Stanwyck could be, by turns, salty or sweet; vulnerable or tough; funny or tragic; but always totally unique and uncommonly intelligent. She brought madcap comedic glamour to The Lady Eve (1941), played a tough-minded feminist in the weepy Stella Dallas (1937), and a dangerous femme fatale in film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). She could even sing and dance, appearing on stage in 1922 and 1923 versions of The Ziegfeld Follies.
In 1934, the Hayes Code, began to strictly enforce their morality on Hollywood to try and clean up the ”indecency” from films. Everything from swearing and drug use to childbirth and interracial relationships were white washed from the movies. The Code encouraged happy endings. One of the films that initiated this puritanical policing was the gritty Night Nurse (1931), which features Stanwyck in lingerie, with attempts to murder children, and a dead Clark Gable. It is in regular rotation on TCM. You really should catch it.
There are few ethics depicted in William Wellman‘s brief, brutal film Night Nurse, a bluntly titled film from Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in this sort of hard boiled melodrama with a social message in the 1930s. Wellman and Stanwyck made five films together, and in this, their first, it’s clear that Stanwyck’s innate toughness as an actor, along with her unrelenting work ethic, found favor with Wellman, who was tough stuff himself.
If you thought exploitation movies were the provenance of the 1960s, you must see Night Nurse. It’s a strange mix of comedy, melodrama and sleaze. Stanwyck is very energetic in this one, aggressively shoving her face very close to other people, punching big lugs, hurtling bottles of booze around, yet she really comes through as a sensuous albeit forceful nurse. At one point in the film she wears a band aid on her chin which somehow makes her even more attractive. Joan Blondell is terrific as her gum snapping friend, setting a standard for vulgarity. The film focuses on the ethics of the medical profession with amazing cynicism.
Stanwyck was known as a ”one take wonder”. She could memorizing pages of dialogue at the last minute, and then delivering the results in one flawless take after another, which delighted Wellman.
Warner Bros in the early 1930s was a factory, pumping out one film a week to keep up with the insatiable demand of Depression era movie fans for anything their minds off the crushing burden of the nationwide financial collapse. The studio made movies that moved with breakneck speed and dealt with Prohibition, murder, rape, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, pulling no punches in the process.
In Night Nurse, Stanwyck plays private nurse Lora Hart, who is called in along with fellow nurse Maloney (Blondell) to care of two sick children at the home of their mother, a wealthy alcoholic widow played by Charlotte Merriam, who cares very little for children. The unscrupulous Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde) is supposedly supervising the children’s care, but Stanwyk soon finds out that the good doctor is trying starve them to death, so that the chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable, in a very early role) can marry the inebriated mother, and gain control of a trust fund set up for the children.
That is a brief synopsis, but the real intriguing thing about Night Nurse is the straightforward violence in the film, which was part of a world of corruption and greed all too familiar to 1930s audiences. The doctor is a drug addict, all too willing to go along with the chauffeur’s plans just to get a fix; and Lora, without even a high school diploma to her name, gets her job as a nurse only because the unethical intervention of Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), who has a thing for her.
Lora knows when to look the other way. In another early scene, as she works in a hospital emergency room on the night shift, where she treats a bullet wound on Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger, and doesn’t report the incident to the police. Mortie thus takes an interest in Lora too, which comes in handy when it is clear that all of Lora’s warnings to the authorities about the children’s condition has gone ignores.
Wellman had just had a big success with Public Enemy (1931) and the role of Nick in Night Nurse was intended to go to James Cagney. But Cagney was a huge star after Public Enemy. So, the role of Nick went to the inexperienced Clark Gable, whose performance in Night Nurse will be shocking to those who think of him his later roles. He knocks Stanwyck to the floor and he brings an air of constant menace whenever he has a scene. He isn’t above punching a woman, or anyone else, who crosses him.
The screenplay has plenty of hard-boiled dialogue and takes every possible occasion to show Blondell and Stanwyck in their underwear. Both women live in a world where on-the-job sexual harassment in the norm, an era in where everything is for sale. Lora works the night shift, so most of the film is shot in a lot of darkness.
In the end, only violence will help where violence rules, and that’s what you get as the film careens toward its merciless climax. With Wellman’s unfussy direction, Stanwyck’s gutsy performance, and Gable’s surprisingly convincing turn as a killer of children for cold hard cash, make Night Nurse a film in where the normal rules of society don’t apply, a world without compassion, or ethics, a bit like 2020.