Early in William A. Wellman’s seminal pre-code movie Night Nurse, a man walks into a hospital emergency room with a gunshot wound to his arm. Lora Hart, a trainee nurse played by Barbara Stanwyck, immediately recognizes him as a bootlegger, a first impression that’s confirmed when he begs her not to write out a police report. Even though she knows she could get fired for not reporting the incident to her supervisor, something about the man appeals to her, so she treats his wound, and lets him go without filing any paperwork.
After finishing her training, Lora Hart is reassigned from the emergency room to become the “night nurse,” essentially a home care aid, for Desney and Nanny Ritchie, two little girls who had recently been treated by Dr. Bell, Lora’s original mentor at the hospital. In the opening shot of Night Nurse, William Wellman had placed his camera behind the driver’s seat of an ambulance speeding through an unnamed big city. The result was both thrilling and profoundly disorienting. We were energized by the speed the ambulance was reaching, and yet we were also terrified that at any moment it might crash. One of the best qualities of Night Nurse is how William Wellman carries the aesthetic of the opening sequence all the way through the entire seventy five minutes of the film. When Lora reports to work for the first night, and she quickly realizes that the two little girls are being slowly starved to death, the effect is a bit sitting in the back of a car that just made a sudden turn. It snaps our heads back. “What the fuck?” we think. “Why would anybody want to starve to innocent little girls, and why would they hire a nurse to watch over them while they died?”
The key to the mystery, Lora Hart soon realizes, is Dr. Milton A. Ranger, Dr. Bell’s replacement at the hospital. While Dr. Bell was a kindly, if stuffy and ineffectual doctor, Milton A. Ranger, is incompetent and corrupt. Mr. Ritchie, the wealthy father of the two little girls has recently died, and Mrs. Ritchie, their mother, is a severe alcoholic who has come under the tyrannical control of Nick, their villainous, black clad chauffeur played by a very young Clark Gable. It’s too bad Gable didn’t stick to playing villains. He’s menacingly effective in the role of Nick, and we soon learn not only why he’s starving two little girls to death, but why he hired a nurse to witness the whole diabolical process unfold. Mr. Ritchie, knowing Mrs. Ritchie was an alcoholic, had left Desney and Nanny, not their mother, a rather extensive trust fund. The only way Nick can get hold of them money is to kill them off in front of a witness who will testify that the deaths were due to natural causes. He’s confident that Dr. Milton A. Ranger, with whom he’s agreed to split the profits, can keep the “night nurse” in line.
He didn’t count on Lora Hart. More importantly, he didn’t count on the decision Lora Hart had made earlier in the film. The imposing Nick – Clark Gable is 6’1” but he looks even taller – introduced himself to Miss Hart by punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious. She had refused to follow his instructions, and tried to report the whole bizarre situation to her superiors at the hospital. Nick is the kind of bully who thinks that the hierarchical,and profoundly sexist, organization of the typical hospital will protect him, that Miss Hart won’t dare question Dr. Ranger’s judgment. When she does just that, goes back to Dr. Bell, and pleads with him to intervene, he’s equally confident that he can cow her into submission. Poor Nick, of course, has no way of knowing that in the beginning of the film, Lora had earned the unquestioning loyalty of one of the city’s toughest outlaws, the bootlegger she helped keep out of jail, and who can now supply her with more than enough muscle to handle an upstart chauffeur.
If you haven’t seen this film, go out and see it now. It’s not that it’s necessarily a great movie – there are enough plot holes and inconsistencies to drive a truck through – but it not only features great performances by Stanwyck and Gable, it’s a fascinating document of what American culture was like at the height of the Great Depression, and in the last few years of Prohibition that would have been impossible to make only a few years later. Night Nurse pretty much violates every single rule of the “Production Code.” Outlaws and working-class probationary nurses and outlaws are morally superior to the ruling-class, who are mostly drunks who couldn’t care less if two little girls are being slowly murdered right under their own eyes, and to Ivy League educated physicians, who are either corrupt, money grubbing fiends, or kindly but ineffectual bumblers who are more concerned about following the letter of the law than doing what they know is right. Lora Hart is able to defy Dr. Milton Ranger and Nick, and to force Dr. Bell into saving the two girls, because she knows that “legal” doesn’t always mean “good.” Sometimes crime pays. Sometimes criminals are better people than the professional class that makes the law. Had Lora been a goody goody, both Desney and Nanny would have ended up dead, and Nick would have lined his pockets with their trust fund. Her early decision to let the bootlegger off the hook, however, insures that Night Nurse has a happy ending. The two little girls survive, and Nick gets “taken for a ride,” a fate anybody who’s seen the original Godfather knows is also a one way ride.
Does the bootlegger, whose name turns out to be “Mortie” tell Lora about what he did to Nick? Hell yeah he tells her. Lora and Mortie drive off together to live happily ever after, laughing all the way. Taking the law into your own hands and having your “boys” kill a man who would murder two little girls for their trust fund is not only morally justifiable, it’s a great joke. Nick not only got what he deserved. It’s hilarious.