NIGHT NURSE (1931) B/W 72m dir: William A. Wellman
w/Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable, Blanche Friderici, Charlotte Merriam, Charles Winninger, Edward Nugent, Vera Lewis, Ralf Harolde, Walter McGrail, Allan Lane, Marcia Mae Jones, Betty Jane Graham
Terse, gripping thriller of a nurse who discovers a grim plot, in the household where she works, to murder two small children for their inheritance. Crackling dialogue and vivid acting, with Gable a standout as a particularly nasty hood. More strong stuff from Stanwyck's favorite director, Wellman.
From Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith: "Night Nurse, at Warners, was Barbara Stanwyck's first film with William Wellman. She was to do five for him in all and become --- as with [director Frank] Capra --- the leading lady he cast the most.
"'Wild Bill' Wellman --- referred to by his actors as everything from 'a sadistic director when it came to realism in action scenes' to 'a ballsy guy, and damn fun to work with' --- made some delightfully crazy pictures with Stanwyck, He was not timid with a gag and --- while Stanwyck did some moving work for him in So Big and The Great Man's Lady --- their other three films together can best be described as 'no holds barred.'
"Night Nurse shook everybody up. It was taken from a novel by Dora Macy which the author said was true, based on the experiences of a night nurse she had known. And one reviewer called it 'lurid, hysterical melodrama, unpleasant in theme, yet well presented' and went on to say:
"Imagine, if you will, a night nurse whose first assignment is on a case where a dope fiend doctor and a murderous chauffeur --- who slugs youth and age indiscriminately --- conspire to slowly starve two darling children in order to thieve their inheritance from a dipsomaniac mother.
"Obviously, the film was ahead of its time.
"Stanwyck trains in a hospital where the only bright spot is her wisecracking roommate, Joan Blondell. There are a number of gags pulled by a fresh interne --- including the placing of a skeleton in Stanwyck's bed. And a young bootlegger, whom she tends in the hospital, becomes her boyfriend.
"When she graduates and goes to her first case, she finds the children starving and their mother spending her time with a bottle and the chauffeur (Clark Gable). A reputable doctor has been taken off the case and replaced by an unknown. A drunken housekeeper keeps her eyes closed and her mouth shut. And wild parties prevail.
"Stanwyck straightens out the mess and saves the children, whose trust fund Gable was after. And the film ends with Gable 'getting his' from her bootlegger friend who has him 'taken care of.' The couple ride off together --- not into the sunset, but into the car parked behind them --- as Wellman pulls the last of his stunts to cheer up a grim melodrama.
"Wellman was the first to make use of the effect that could be achieved by roughing up his small but resilient leading lady. (Capra tried it soon after in Forbidden --- probably a coincidence.) What makes it work is the fact that Stanwyck can give it as well as take it --- and her revenge is always gorgeous.
"In Night Nurse she takes a couple of crashing falls across the floor. Especially sadistic is the sock on the jaw given her by Gable (who beats up anybody in the film who gets in his way). And while she doesn't get to punch Gable back (nobody does, and lives) she does have a great time taking it out on another of her attackers.
"Trying to drag the children's stoned mother to them, Stanwyck is interrupted by a drunken hanger-on who had assaulted her earlier. With no hesitation, she slugs him --- knocking him to the floor. He crawls behind the bar like a wounded dog. And when he makes the mistake of looking out from behind it as she tries to revive the mother with a bucket of water, she lets him have it with the bucket.
"Critics had trouble believing their eyes, and called the picture 'far-fetched and exaggerated.' The nursing profession couldn't be like that. At the same time, they admitted that they didn't understand a lot because they were put off by the candor. Those who got the point found the humor effective.
"Reaction to Stanwyck's work was favorable from all. And, while she still had some distance to go, the hard-boiled side of her image was shaping up nicely --- to the delight of those who liked her as much for her guts as her tears.
"Clark Gable didn't do badly either. Critics singled him out --- as well they might. Joan Blondell remembers that, when she and Stanwyck first saw Gable, they grabbed at each other's pinkies in awe. And Stanwyck has said, 'We all knew he was a striking personality. He commanded attention.'"