NIGHT NURSE (William A. Wellman, 1931)

As a hospital-affiliated private nurse, Lora Hart suspects that her two patients—young children; sisters—are being starved to death by an ambitious thug who plans on marrying the mother so he can inherit the girls’ trust fund. Essentially, Wild Bill Wellman’s compulsively watchable Depression melodrama Night Nurse is an assault on medical “ethics”—code, for doctors not interfering with other doctors and their patients. The thug is in cahoots with Dr. Ranger, and respectable Dr. Bell won’t interfere until his own life is threatened.
     The main attraction here is Barbara Stanwyck in a stupendously entertaining performance—tough, sexy, full of heart; her Lora insists on humanity and honesty above professional protocol and obedience, and “proper” behavior. For her conventional acting here, but more so for her revolutionary acting that year in Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, I have named Stanwyck the best film actress of 1931.
     The thug, who has become the family chauffeur, is played as someone purely vicious by a supporting actor bound for stardom and unprecedented likeability: “The King” himself, Clark Gable. He knocks around Stanwyck with seeming impunity; Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer are among other actresses whose characters Gable’s brutalized in this phase of his career.
     But Nick, the character that Gable plays, “gets his.” A bootlegger enamored of Lora, who extracted a bullet from him without notifying the police, arranges for a hit to take out Nick. The pre-Code film ends with Lora and bootlegger Mortie riding off into the sunset together after Mortie draws a smile from Lora by telling her about the arrangement. However grisly this may appear, as far as Nick goes, it fits into the overarching theme enunciated above in the second paragraph. What Mortie has done is not legal but is moral.

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