This month, Clark Gable is ruthless, one-dimensional Nick the chauffeur to Barbara Stanwyck’s plucky young nurse in Night Nurse.
A quintessential pre-code, the film centers around Lora Hart (Stanwyck) as she struggles to keep her ideals while getting through nursing school. After she graduates, she is assigned to be a night nurse to two little girls suffering from malnutrition and anemia. Clark does not appear until halfway through the film and only appears for a few minutes, as Nick, the evil brute of a chauffeur. Lora becomes suspicious of the doctor treating the children and of Nick. Nick throws her around, bullies her and the children say they are scared of him. Lora soon comes to the realization that Nick and the doctor are in it together–to starve the children to death and keep their mother a drunk so they can get their hands on the family’s fortune. It really is a rather disturbing story. Two little girls who are starving and whine that they are hungry, they want to play but don’t have the strength and they are sad that their mother never comes to see them (even though she’s in the same house and has roaring parties every night, just down the hall!), and all the while are threatened by the house staff that is supposed to protect them. Heinous.
This film is all Stanwyck’s–and it should be. Stanwyck’s little pre-code dramas are some of my very favorites. Their luster lies in their grittiness and reality–something that would be completely lost just a few years later when the powers-that-be put the stop to such alarming storylines as starving innocent children for money. She is in her element, in her bobbed 20′s hair, thick lipstick and calf-length skirt, standing up to the man and telling him what’s what.
Night Nurse is really a pre-code classic in every sense of the word. New nurse Stanwyck is undressing (pretty much a pre-code standard scene!) and a male intern pops in the room. “Oh, don’t be embarrassed; you can’t show me a thing. I just came from the delivery room!” he chides. Ooh la la.
A Free Soul, Clark’s breakout film, has just been released a few months prior to Night Nurse. By the time Night Nurse premiered, Clark was a runaway hit and his days of fourth billing were behind him. But not yet during filming of this little programmer (a short, cheap film usually lumped into a double feature with a bigger, splashier movie). In fact, fledgling Clark was shuffled around, making The Finger Points, The Easiest Way and this film simultaneously, which wasn’t difficult to do since all his parts were small and he was in sporadic scenes. So, Clark was a gangster, a laundryman and a chauffeur all at once!
The part of Nick was so small that Clark doesn’t even appear until 35 minutes in the 70 minute film and is only in about three scenes. James Cagney was originally cast in the role, but after The Public Enemy became a huge hit, he was upgraded from secondary roles so the part of Nick went to then unknown Clark. The role didn’t exactly require a lot of homework for him. Director William Wellman, who would later direct him all of the Wild and Across the Wide Missouri, gave Clark little attention. His only direction to him was: “He’s a loathsome brute.” All Nick’s lines are things like “Why, you little..” “Aw, shut up!” and “Oh yeah?” Not exactly Shakespeare…
Clark is mostly clad in a black uniform, hair slicked back with what I am convinced is Crisco, and his eyebrows penciled in with what looks like a Sharpie. Not exactly his best look. He is young and chiseled, though…
In his first appearance in the film, where he is introduced as a real bad guy by beating up a drunk and thrashing Stanwyck around, he is oddly dressed in the seemingly non-threatening outfit of a Japanese-looking robe and polka dot pajamas!
It’s almost comical when Stanwyck says, “And who are you?” The camera zooms in while Clark says with dramatic pause: “I’m Nick…the chauffeur!” Dun dun dun!
Not to be ignored as Stanwyck’s loyal best pal is Joan Blondell, who often played the best gal pal of the main actress–in fact later would be flirty with Clark and the best gal to Greer Garson in Adventure. Blondell’s got some of my favorite lines, such as when she is teaching Stanwyck the ropes of being a nurse. “Take my tip and keep away from interns; they’re like cancer–the disease is known but not the cure! There’s only one guy in the world that can do a nurse any good and that’s a patient with dough. Just catch one of them with a high fever and a low pulse and make him think you saved his life and you’ll be getting somewhere. And doctors are no good, either. They never marry nurses. And the trouble with interns is they do! All a wife means to an intern is someone to sit in his front office when he starts practice and play nursemaid the rest of her life without pay! The thing to do is to land an appendicitis case–they’ve all got dough!” That’s all you need to know to be a nurse, ladies–that pesky medicine stuff will figure itself out!
I actually find the beginning part of the movie, where Stanwyck and Blondell are working in different parts of the hospital, to be more entertaining than Nick-the-evil-chauffeur-who-must-be-stopped!
Ben Lyon is Stanwyck’s love interest and he’s a bootlegger with gangster connections–tsk, tsk. But hey, being a bootlegger is a far better thing than being a devious chauffeur out to murder little children, eh?
Nick, poor Nick, must meet his comeuppance for being evil and is hastily killed off, making this one of only a handful of films in Clark’s long filmography in which his character dies. The ending is rather a cop-out–I’m still not sure who exactly is going to look after these children now? Their father is dead and their mother is still a ditzy drunk who couldn’t care less.
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