Often overlooked as a minor feature in the collective careers of Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and director William Wellman, Night Nurse (1931) is actually more engrossing than some of their more highly regarded films. For one thing, the often sordid subject matter is directed with considerable verve; Wellman punches up the film's raciness with a steady stream of double intendre wisecracks, mostly delivered by Stanwyck and fellow compatriot Joan Blondell, as they parade around in various stages of undress. The violence in the film is rather strong for the period as well, with Gable beating Stanwyck to the floor in one scene and then carrying her semi-conscious body off to his bedroom for an off-screen rape. More controversial was the depiction of the film's villains - so callous they could murder children for profit - and the movie's pro-vengeance ending which suggested that the police and the courts were completely ineffective in dealing with certain unlawful situations. Of course, all of this makes Night Nurse one of the more fascinating pre-Code melodramas that Warner Brothers released in the early thirties; It also led to tighter censorship controls over content.
Seen today, Night Nurse is particularly interesting for Barbara Stanwyck's performance as a working class gal who knows how to use her brains as well as her fists. Her tough, seen-it-all attitude comes through memorably in such scenes as the one where she finds Mrs. Ritchey, lying drunk on the floor while her two young daughters are left unattended. Looking down on her with digust, Stanwyck mutters under her breath, "You Mother!"
Night Nurse was the first of five films Stanwyck and Wellman made together and the actress would later state that he was one of her favorite directors. She was also bedazzled by her co-star Clark Gable. In the biography, Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith, the actress recalled that she and Joan Blondell grabbed each other's pinkies in awe when they first laid eyes on him: "The instant Clark walked onto the set I knew - we all knew- that here was a striking personality. He commanded attention." Wellman also realized his potential and wrote in his autobiography, A Short Time For Insanity, that in Night Nurse, Gable was "one of the most despicable heavies imaginable, and he did it with such savoir faire that he became a star. The powers-that-be at Warner Brothers liked his performance but decided he was not worth fooling with, not star material: his ears were too big. They forgot to look at his dimples and listen to his voice and see his smile." MGM noticed though and signed him to a long-term contract the same year. By the end of 1931, he had already established himself as one of the studio's top male leads due to his charismatic performances in A Free Soul (opposite Norma Shearer) and Possessed starring Joan Crawford.
Director: William Wellman
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Charles Kenyon, based on the novel by Grace Perkins (aka Dora Macy)
Art Director: Max Parker
Cinematography: Barney "Chick" McGill
Costume Design: Earl Luick
Film Editing: Edward McDermott
Original Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Principal Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Lora Hart), Ben Lyon (Morlie), Joan Blondell (Maloney), Clark Gable (Nick), Blanche Frederici (Mrs. Maxwell), Charlotte Merriam (Mrs. Ritchey), Charles Winninger (Dr. Arthur Bell), Edward J. Nugent (Eagan).
by Jeff Stafford