Monday, February 8, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #19: Night Nurse

US, 1931. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable.

The thing I love about these pre-Hays Code talkies is how reliably bonkers the best of them are. It's almost as if the restictions on sex, violence and conduct that Hollywood imposed upon itself post-1934 also included a narrative control clause as well. Night Nurse is featured on the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, volume 2, along with four other peculiar relics from this oddball period.

The film doesn't start promisingly, though 30s audiences hadn't been E.R.ed and St. Elsewhered to death, so maybe the life of two nurses in training (Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell) at a big city hospital would have been more fascinating then. For a modern audience, the first half hour is mostly carried by the charm of the two ladies and Wellman's need to show them dressing and undressing every few minutes.

The fun really begins when the girls become full-fledge nurses and get a placement, taking care of two angelic little girls whose slow descent towards death doesn't seem to bother their alcoholic floozy of a mother. And why does surly chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) refuse to allow the nurses to seek outside help? The tone is full tilt Victorian-tragedy-meets-Reefer Madness as Stanwyck fights furiously to save the youngsters while Mom holds debauched parties with free-flowing liquor a few rooms away.

Luckily, Stanwyck has an ace up her sleeve: a prohibition-bustin' bootlegging potential boyfriend with mob connections. The final scene, which combines the cute couple finally coming together while casually discussing the violent death of one of the other characters, is delightful, especially the grim punchline.

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