The synopsis for Night Nurse hangs over it like a dense fog. Certainly it reads like a candidate for the bleakest film of any era: an unproven nurse is pitted against a thug chauffeur who sees a ways to riches through starving a couple of children to death and claiming their inheritance. The thug chauffeur? None other than Clark Gable looking more like Boris Karloff’s evil twin than Rhett Butler. But Night Nurse is an incredibly balanced film, indeed duality is a major theme throughout. Even if after years of “realistic” and “gritty” features, Hollywood still hews to morals of the Hayes code. Good guys come from the good world…. Not so with Night Nurse. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives at a hospital to plead for a nurse’s position. She’s clad in black, in stark contrast to the white scrubs of her desired profession. Though young, it’s clear she’s lived more than enough to know how to navigate through a cruel world. After getting denied a nurse’s position she manages to earn the kindness of the good doctor Bell through her feminine charms. The doctor vouches for Lora on the spot, and she’s accepted into the hospital. She’s put in the care of Maloney, a another young woman who seems know too much about the ways of the world.
Another misconception, perhaps due to Stanwyck’s stature, is that Night Nurse is a serious melodrama. Mostly the film revels in its luridness. The communal nature of the hospital (the nurses serve as boarders) allows for plenty of opportunities to find the lead actresses stripped down to their slips. There’s also a few choice double entendres thrown around for good measure. When a prank forces Lora to share Maloney’s bed, the next day Maloney sings the praises of Lora’s “magical hand”.
Duality is the theme, every major character has a twin. Lora and her fellow trainee Maloney; the nurse’s harsh mistress and the equally severe though useless nanny. Most interesting are the good doctor Bell and the evil Dr. Ranger. Bell works in a cozy office in a reputable hospital. His operations draw crowds of interns in the medical theater. Ranger stays mostly cloistered in a cavernous office, equal parts Art Deco and ancient Egyptian. He squints, blinks, and speaks like a man driven paranoid from drug addiction. But despite this, Bell’s one surgery results in the death of the patient, while Ranger’s charges survive the attempted homicide against them.
The great charm of the pre code films is how intuned they are with their times. The aforementioned Hayes code existed since the early thirties, but it was more of a gentleman’s agreement than a hard and fast rule. The enforcement of that code would spawn a subversiveness, as directors like Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Howard Hawks made sport of finding loopholes in the law over their superior filmographies. Filmmakers after them often practiced subversion for subversion’s sake, well after permissive MPAA ratings made such decisions an arbitrary choice. But in 1931, there wasn’t much need to bury subtext. It’s pretty clear that Lora’s suitor, Mortie is more dangerous than Nick, but the film makes no serious attempt to reform him or make him more palatable to the audience. He’s in Lora’s pocket, and there are worse people in this world.
Night Nurse shows its time in a very matter of fact manner. No exaggerated camera angles, or caricature. That beside, its hard to not think of the Kristallnacht when Mortie looks through the window of a deli and rests his head on the Star of David before smashing through the glass. Likewise Nick’s all black attire, offset by high jackboots looks like a Nazi uniform rather than a chauffeur's uniform. But Nazism was still fomenting in Europe at the time, its cultural touchstones probably weren’t common knowledge or even fully established.