Noirvember ambles down a connected side-street with William A. Wellman’s 1931 film Night Nurse, starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Stanwyck plays the effervescent Lora Hart, who–despite a lack of formal qualifications–charms her way into a nurse trainee position. She’s smart, perceptive, and good with people: a classic Hollywood heroine, one you could imagine a studio exec describing as “fresh-faced” and “spunky.” It’s a definite plus that the film’s pre-Code status means that Lora is allowed both radiant goodness and a few scenes of lingerie-clad shimmying, both principled heroism and a likable bootlegger beau who can save the day by arranging a discreet killing.*
If you dragged the movie into the future by just a few years, Lora would probably have to tip one way or the other: either a vibrant champion of innocence, with nary a silk slip to be seen, or a morally ambiguous sexpot who winds up complicit in everyone’s crimes. Night Nurse rejects the either-or setup, and like a lot of pre-Code films, it feels fresh and daringly unconventional because of it.
It must be said that it also feels a bit loosely structured, as if its thriller plot–involving two children being slowly starved to death as part of a scheme–intrudes a bit too late, and a bit too grimly, on its fun slice-of-life nursing dramedy. The main villain (a suitably intimidating Clark Gable) makes the most of his limited screen time but could really stand to have a few more appearances. Various nitpicks insist on presenting themselves, and since they involve how to best prevent the murder of two young children, they feel more urgent and significant than most niggling questions about a movie’s plot.
But at the same time, it’s a brisk 72 minutes that gives Stanwyck quite a nice showcase, introduces a genuinely disturbing suspense element, and provides a surprisingly endearing romance, so it still offers good value for your time. It’s odd but thoroughly likable. There are times when a film’s slightness and messiness work in its favor, where the multitude of half-developed ideas are intriguing and stimulating rather than frustrating. You could pull half-a-dozen different movies out of Night Nurse, and I’d like all of them … as indeed I like this.
* The Solute does not advocate the cool crime of murder.
Night Nurse is streaming on the Criterion Channel.