TCM Pick of Month: Pre-Code
Christmas, my birthday, and Barbara Stanwyck – December is an awesome month! And with the sufeit of Stanwyck features airing on TCM this month, it only stands to reason that my pre-Code pick would be one of hers. There were numerous pics from which to choose, but it was pretty easy to single out Night Nurse, a most excellent feature that’s chock full of pre-Code goodness (or badness, as the case may be). Plus, it’s got Joan Blondell, a perfect pre-Code ending, and more gratuitous shots of ladies in their undies than you can shake a stick at! What more could you want?!?
Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) gets more than she bargained for – including unethical physicians, attempted murder, alcoholism and child neglect – when she signs on as night nurse to the two young daughters of a wealthy socialite.
It was hard to pick just one, but I have to say that my absolute favorite scene, the one that leaves me practically slack-jawed with delighted amazement, is the one where Lora discovers that one of the children in her charge is near death and tries to convince the tot’s mother to accompany her to the nursery.
The scene opens as Lora leaves the bedside of the ailing little Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) in search of her mother, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). When she steps out into the hallway, she seems to be entering another world – a non-stop party filled with constantly blaring jazz, liquor, and general debauchery. After making her way past several inebriated couples – including one soused dame who takes one look at Lora in her nurse’s uniform and cracks, “Say, what’s going on here? A costume party?” – Lora finally finds Nanny’s mother perched precariously on a barstool, draped atop a man who is just as drunk as she is. “Go back and be barkeeper, Mack,” Mrs. Ritchey slurs. “Tishy wants a little drink.” As Lora tries to convince her to check in on her ailing daughter, Mrs. Ritchey’s responses range from overconfident praise of her daughter’s physician (“Dr. Ranger is a grand, splendid, magnificent doctor!”) to a tearful admission that the good doctor won’t allow her to see the children because “it makes them so nervous and so upset.”
The scene kicks into high gear when Mrs. Ritchey rouses her drunken companion, Mack, with a violent shove, still trying to get him to “give Tishy a little drink,” and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Mrs. Ritchey is screaming hysterically, “I’m a dipsomaniac and I’m proud of it! You hear? I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it! I like it!” (This is, simply, one of my favorite lines in all of pre-Code. I could play this part over and over. And I do!)
But, to paraphrase Al Jolson, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! When Lora tries to physically force Mrs. Ritchey to see her child, and Mack ineffectually attempts to step in, Lora quite literally stops him in his tracks by knocking him off his feet with a wallop that you have to see to believe! By the time Lora flings a bucket of water in Mrs. Ritchey’s face and then tosses the empty vessel at Mack (who, incidentally, has crawled behind the bar in an effort to escape), you’ll want to watch the whole scene again!
Favorite LOL moment:
Lora and her pal Maloney (Joan Blondell) have taken all of the requisite courses and are graduating into “nursehood.” (My word, not the film’s.) At their graduation ceremony, the group of new nurses recites the Florence Nightingale Pledge; Lora’s eyes are shining and her lips are sweetly curved in a smile filled with pride and dedication. Beside her, Maloney is not quite so entranced by the occasion – she appears to be infused with a combination of boredom and cynicsm, and at one point, stops reciting the pledge to give her wad of gum an all-important chomp. You have to see it to appreciate it, but LOL!
“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. What for? 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. ” B. (Betty? Bonnie? Who knows?) Maloney (Joan Blondell)
Night Nurse was directed by William Wellman – it was the first of five films that he made with Stanwyck; the others were So Big (1932), The Purchase Price (1932), The Great Man’s Lady (1942), and Lady of Burlesque (1943). Stanwyck later said that Wellman was one of her favorite directors.
Rose Joan Blondell was born to a show business family – her father was a vaudeville comedian and her sister was also an actress. Under the name “Rosebud Blondell,” she won the Miss Dallas pageant in 1926 and came in fourth place for the Miss America Pageant. The versatile Blondell reportedly appeared in more Warner Bros. films than any other actress.
The character played by Joan Blondell was identified only as “B. Maloney.”
Clark Gable – still in his pre-moustache days – played a thoroughly despicable chauffeur named Nick. In William’s Wellman’s autobiography, A Short Time for Insanity, he wrote that Clark Gable played his role in Night Nurse with “such savoir faire that he became a star. The powers-that-be at Warner Bros. liked his performance, but decided he was not worth fooling with, not star material: his ears were too big. They forgot to look at his dimples and listen to his voice and see his smile.” Gable was signed to a long-term contract at MGM that same year.
Barbara Stanwyck was nominated during her career for four Academy Awards – for Stella Dallas (1938), Ball of Fire (1942), Double Indemnity (1944), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1949). She never won. She was, however, given an honorary Oscar in 1981 for her “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”
Ben Lyon portrayed a bootlegger who comes to Lora’s aid on more than one occasion. In 1930, Lyon married Paramount actress Bebe Daniels, with whom he appeared in Alias French Gertie (1930). The couple remained together until Daniels’s death in 1971. Later that year, Lyons married actress Marian Nixon (who was so adorable in one of my favorite pre-Codes, Under Eighteen). He died in 1979 after suffering a heart attack while aboard a cruise ship.
Watch for this goof, but don’t blink: When Lora first meets the two children, they are jumping on top of their beds. One of them, Nanny, collapses and falls to the floor. Lora picks Nanny up to place her on the bed – in the first shot, Nanny’s feet are towards the wall, but a second later, her head is toward the wall.
The screenplay was written by Oliver H.P. Garrett, who was a newspaper reporter and magazine writer in Boston and New York before he turned his talents to Hollywood. There, he became a founding member and two-term vice president of the Screen Writers Guild. He also shared an Oscar with Joseph L. Mankiewicz (great-uncle of TCM host Ben Mankiewicz) for best screenplay for Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Garrett also wrote the screenplays for a variety of other features, including City Streets (1930), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), and Dead Reckoning (1947); co-authored the script for A Farewell to Arms (1932); and was one of the (uncredited) contributing writers for Gone With the Wind (1939).
There is a scene in the film where a practical-joking intern, Eagan (Edward Nugent), places a skeleton in Lora’s bed. In the original draft of the screenplay, Eagan had put the skeleton in a baby carriage, which so startled Lora that she dropped the baby she was holding. Presumably, the baby died, and Eagan was subsequently fired. (I guess that was a bit too much, even for pre-Code!)
Catch Night Nurse on TCM, airing in the early morning hours of December 27th. Consider it an early New Year’s present – you only owe it to yourself!