Night Nurse (1931, William A. Wellman)

For most of Night Nurse’s seventy-two minute runtime, lead Barbara Stanwyck is able to keep the film going just through her intensity. She’s a new nurse on her first assignment after the hospital, caring for a couple of anemic kids in their mansion, condo apartments, or just studio apartment set. The hospital set in Night Nurse is solid. The ritzy rich place, not so much. They need the separate apartments because the kids—vaguely annoying but not entirely unlikable Betty Jane Graham and Marcia Mae Jones—need to be kept away from their mother, Charlotte Merriam, who’s busy getting drunk while they get worse.

The family is under the care of creepy doctor who doesn’t have a license Ralf Harolde. You know Harolde’s creepy because he winks a lot. It’s a weak, unsure performance. Some of it’s the script, some of it’s Harolde, some of it’s Wellman’s direction. Screenwriters Oliver H.P. Garrett and Charles Kenyon can’t seem to crack the dialogue, Harolde’s not bringing anything of substance, and Wellman’s relying on the gimmicks. Wellman has a handful of good sequences in Night Nurse, but they’re relatively short and never when the film really needs them. And nothing he does with the actors ever works. When an actor succeeds, it’s not thanks to Wellman (or the editor, Edward M. McDermott, who’s always at least a half second off in his cuts). Meanwhile, Garrett and Kenyon try a few things themselves—repetitive dialogue for Stanwyck, which doesn’t land the first time and doesn’t land the next four times they use it as a touchstone; they have a little more success with the callbacks mocking mean head nurse Vera Lewis.

Lewis initially doesn’t want to hire Stanwyck because she doesn’t have a high school diploma, but after Stanwyck literally bumps into hospital head of staff Charles Winninger and they make eyes at each other–and potentially Winninger at Stanwyck’s ankles—he makes sure she gets the job. Winninger and Stanwyck having any kind of horizontal interest (one assumes it’s more Winninger’s interest) in one another doesn’t make it through the first ten minutes, much less first act. After one lewd implication from Stanwyck’s roommate (it’s room and board for nurses) Joan Blondell, Winninger’s forgotten until they need a real doctor to tell Stanwyck no one’s going to believe some woman about the weird goings on at the Merriam house whether she’s a nurse or not.

The first third of Nurse is Stanwyck and Blondell’s antics while in training, which includes Stanwyck patching up a shot bootlegger—Ben Lyon—who then supports her career ambitions from afar. The rest is Stanwyck and Blondell on assignment—Blondell’s the day nurse and Stanywck is the night—with the sick kids. The house has a suspicious housekeeper (Blanche Friderici, who’s alternately fine and miscast, just not actually peculiar enough for the household), drunk mom Merriam’s drunk, rapey boyfriend Walter McGrail (who’s a great minor villain), and then brute chauffeur Clark Gable. Gable’s fairly terrifying for most of his scenes, which is a high light as the last third of Night Nurse just gets talkier and talkier. The movie only runs seventy minutes but they’ve only got story for maybe sixty. There’s so much padding, which gets particularly frustrating thanks to Wellman’s tedious composition and pacing.

Night Nurse isn’t just slow, it’s repetitive. No one can figure out how to stretch the scenes so they just keep saying the same things over and over again until the script can gin up some coincidence. There are also so many dead end tangents, including major characters. The film follows the tangent for a scene, dragging it out, then drops it and never mentions it again. If these moves were successful, the film would be narratively efficient. Since they’re not, it’s just floundering.

Stanwyck’s a good lead—which is different than giving a good performance; she’s fine, but she can only sell so much because she’s the only one interested in selling it. The script and Wellman are indifferent at best. Blondell’s good. Lyon’s really likable. Gable’s solid. Winninger’s disappointing, but a bunch of it could be the script not giving him anything to really do. But not all of it.

I somehow managed to forget to mention a large portion of Night Nurse is dedicated to getting Stanwyck and Blondell into various stages of undress. Wellman’s not particularly interested in those sequences either, which is good and all, but the way he shows his disinterest is to be just as disinterested in everything else. And if the screenwriters were as inventive with the mystery aspects as they were getting Blondell and Stanywck to change their clothes… Night Nurse might work out.

As is, Stanwyck keeps it engaging until the third act when the dramatics take over and then the movie fizzles when leveraging those.

The ending’s a bit of a trip, morality-wise, but not in a way it helps (or even hurts) at all.

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