“Don’t think you can muzzle me.”
Night Nurse directed by William Wellman, is an extremely entertaining film, and it’s also a marvelous vehicle for the talented Barbara Stanwyck. When the film begins, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is trying to get a job as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s hampered by her lack of high school diploma. A kind and widely respected doctor takes up Lora’s cause, and she’s added to the student nursing staff at the hospital. The plot follows Lora’s training, and while some emphasis is placed on Lora and fellow fun-loving student Maloney’s (Joan Blondell) attempts to circumvent curfew, it’s also clear that Lora takes her chosen career very seriously.
One evening, Lora is working in the emergency room, and she meets a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon). A moment of kindness seals their friendship, and it also raises the film’s major theme–medical ethics. Mortie tells Lora that doctors and nurses cover things up at the hospital, and his comment makes an impact.
Lora’s first assignment following graduation is to care for two little girls in their home. The children are suffering from malnutrition and anemia, yet the family is wealthy. There’s obviously something very peculiar afoot–the children’s mother, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam) is drunk most of the time and hosts wild parties, an acidic housekeeper spies on the nurses, the children complain of hunger, and Nick (Clark Gable), the sinister chauffeur lurks in the background. When the situation at the Ritchey home deteriorates one evening, Lora’s medical ethics are tested, and she must chose between the care of her young patients or take a chance that may wreck her career.
Night Nurse is a powerful pre-code drama. Yes, there are lots of fluffy, enjoyable scenes that involve Stanwyck running around in her undies a great deal (check out the VHS cover), but the core of the film covers some serious material. This is a marvelous role for Stanwyck, and her character has a spine of steel that refuses to bend. There are many great scenes in the film–Nora facing down the drunken Mrs. Ritchey, and Nora arguing with the slimy Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde), for example. But the very best scene occurs between Nick and Lora–she confronts him, and he tries to bully her. Lora doesn’t back down–in fact she gets right in his face, and the camera is angled just perfectly to catch the unflinching eye contact between these two characters. If you are a Stanwyck fan, don’t miss this one.