We often say old movies are much tamer than today’s movies.
But hang on a minute. We just screened a film from 1931 that is pretty darned salacious.
Now, if this description sounds dull, it’s because we didn’t mention the self-proclaimed dipsomaniac mother, the lecherous chauffeur, the family’s unscrupulous doctor, or the reason the children are being starved (yes, starved) to death.
It sounds tawdry, and it is. Just check out the original trailer that screams, “The Things She Knows!” and “At last! Behind The Scenes With Night Nurse!”
This film knows exactly what it is, and it delivers the goods: crime, violence, reckless behavior. In fact, it’s hard to think of a vice it doesn’t have.
Oh – and let’s not forget that fabulous early-1930’s Warner Bros. dialogue. For example, “You think just because you can strong-arm a couple of women you have the brains to pull over a racket like this? I had your number from the minute I stepped into this house.”
Despite all this scandalous business, the film does have some insights into nursing and medicine in the early 1930s.
The film opens as Stanwyck’s character is begrudgingly accepted into a hospital’s nursing program. A fellow student (Joan Blondell) is conscripted as her roommate and mentor. Blondell’s character, a gal who snaps her gum along with one-liners, explains the rules – then demonstrates how to break them.
As was the custom of the day, nursing students (called “practitioners”) lived in assigned quarters under the supervision of the strict head nurse. In Night Nurse, practitioners are to be in bed, Lights Out, by 10:00. Naturally, gentlemen callers are not allowed.
Blondell’s advice on the best way to escape nursing altogether is to marry a doctor or a rich patient. “You need to land an appendicitis case,” she says. “They’ve all got dough.”
Even though Blondell’s and Stanwyck’s characters are somewhat anti-establishment, they take their nursing duties seriously and seem to find satisfaction in caring for patients. The film also includes The Florence Nightingale Pledge in its entirety, a pledge that focuses on ethics and confidentiality.
The practitioners’ biggest test is also a demonstration of friendship between the two women. The pair is assigned to assist in a life-saving operation, and Blondell urges Stanwyck to Keep It Together, no matter how grim the surgery gets. When Stanwyck starts to feel woozy, Blondell grabs her wrist and squeezes hard. This forces Stanwyck to concentrate and and remain upright.
However, things do not go well for the patient. As the surgery begins, the patient snores loudly under anesthesia. But suddenly the breathing stops and someone shouts for more oxygen. Replacement equipment arrives, but it leaks, which means it’s useless. The patient, now dead, is covered with a white sheet and is wheeled out of the operating theatre.
Only after everyone else has left the room does Stanwyck collapse onto the floor.
Night Nurse is adapted from a novel by Grace Perkins, who wrote under the pseudonym Dora Macy. Perkins was a prolific writer of sensational novels, usually featuring courageous women battling unsavory circumstances at great personal cost.
This kind of determination translates well on film. When Stanwyck’s character realizes the children she’s caring for are slowly being murdered, she fights for their lives despite being dismissed as a “hysterical nurse”. Even when confronting the sinister chauffeur (a young Clark Gable), she displays a toughness that the children’s own mother lacks.
Night Nurse is an unflattering, yet fascinating look at corrupt medicine. If you have an interest in the history of healthcare, or are curious to see an infamous pre-code, you should set aside 70 minutes to watch this film.
This is part of The MEDICINE IN THE MOVIES Blogathon hosted by Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews.
Night Nurse: starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Oliver H.P. Garrett. Warner Bros., 1931, B&W, 72 mins.