I recently became interested in pre-code films, and I am always interested in Barbara Stanwyck. At the intersection of these two interests is Night Nurse, one of her earliest films. She's quite baby-faced in it, and sort of green-seeming in comparison to her later persona, although she's still great in this. Accompanying this movie on the "Forbidden Hollywood" collection is a documentary about pre-code Hollywood entitled Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-code Hollywood. I learned quite a bit from it. For instance, the Hay's code was actually written prior to the release of most of the films that are now considered "pre-code." The stricter enforcement of the code had to do with America's economic climate, and the national attitudes that went along with it. As soon as the flux was over, Americans wished to return to a state of normalcy, which include good old conservative values. Hollywood films really do serve as an excellent barometer for national attitudes, which is one of the things that makes old Hollywood so fascinating. As much as I dislike most of what the Hollywood machine cranks out these days, I wonder what they will say about us as a people when we look back in a decade or so at Shrek 15 and Iron Man 2, or The Blind Side.
In Night Nurse, Laura Hart (Stanwyck) manages to obtain the position of a nurse, despite her lack of credentials, by charming a doctor of high standing. It is unclear whether Hart actually finds that it is her calling to nurse the sickly, or whether her calling is to procure a decent living wage for herself, but she is not a corrupt soul. As her name suggests, Hart, while she does not adhere to the written rules and ethics of her profession, has a moral code of her own. In the central narrative arc, Hart finds herself nursing two children who appear to be starving to death. When it comes down to it, she does everything she can to help them, although this means that she must break some codes of the medical profession, as well as enlisting the help of an outlaw.
Throughout the early part of the film there are some sort of exploitative scenes that don't really further the plot, like the one above, in which Maloney (Joan Blondell) first watches Hart undress, and then helps her put her stockings on.
There are also some just plain strange scenes, like the one below, in which an intern slips a skeleton into Hart's bed. If this film had a different tone, I might try to suggest that this is an omen of some kind, but I really don't think that it is. it just creates an excuse for Hart to snuggle up in bed with Maloney.
During Hart's nurse training, a bootlegger comes into the hospital with a gunshot wound, and she allows him to escape without reporting him to the police as hospital policy requires. This proves to be auspicious, as he pops up to help her later on when the proper avenues fail her.
When the nurses graduate, both Hart and Maloney recite the Florence Nightingale pledge, although the viewer is aware of the number of times they have already violated this code. Maloney only recites every other word, filling in the blanks with heavy-jawed gum chewing. Both of them seem pretty blase about the whole thing. They collectively acknowledge that their diploma means nothing; they are happy to have it merely because it will keep them employed.
Once Hart actually enters the home of the children she is nursing, she finds them in a desperate situation with a mother who is interminably drunk and surrounding by a plethora of shady characters who seem hell bent on obstructing her. The actual plot here isn't that important, but it revolves around Nick, the chauffer (Clark Gable) and his desire to seize the children's ample trust fund. Restricted by hospital bureaucracy, which disallows her from applying any remedies without the doctor's consent, as well preventing her interference in private lives of the patients, she is technically unable to do a thing. Of course, being the fiery miscreant that she is, she ignores all such protocol, and proceeds to get her hands dirty.
She even throws some wimpy punches, but still manages to knock this guy to the ground:
The most interesting aspect of this movie is the undercurrent of lawlessness and its treatment. Mortie, the bootlegger (Ben Lyon), is a likable man with a rather sunny disposition, yet he does some questionable things, like whatever it was that got him a bullet lodged in his arm. In order to get milk for the dying child, he breaks into a deli. This is the only place where the film actually depicts his law-breaking. The rest of it occurs off-screen. Because of the isolation of this scene, it is unclear whether he resorting to breaking and entering, or whether it was the first option that became available to him. It does not seem like there is any self-doubt in his character, and no guilt about his lifestyle.
At the very end, Mortie has Nick the driver offed, although this occurs off screen. Then, the film just kind of ends without any kind of discussion of whether this makes him morally reprehensible. It seems not. This, more than any of the lasciviousness of the first half of the film, is the best evidence of the pre-code time period of the film's release. After the code, the bootlegger would never get away with murder; he would be punished somehow. Yet, he and Hart ride off into the sunset together, arm in arm.
The message of the film is relatively transparent. Rules don't make right, and abiding by them doesn't necessarily make you a good person. It's pretty simple theme, which makes it a quintessential pre-code. Wellman, like the other filmmakers of this time purposefully avoided following Hays' rules. In doing so, they made some great art. Not that Night Nurse is up there with the best of it, but it is still a very engaging film.