The Great Villain Blogathon: Clark Gable in Night Nurse (1931)
Some random observations:
1. A last name is not an essential requirement to be a villain.
2. Neither is a moustache.
Case in point – Nick the chauffeur, played by a moustache-less Clark Gable in Night Nurse (1931). But more about Nick in a moment.
This pre-Code gem stars Barbara Stanwyck as Lora Hart, a night-duty nurse charged with the care of the two young daughters of a dipsomaniac socialite. She soon discovers that the girls’ neglectful mother is the least of their troubles – their very lives are in danger from none other than (duh duh DUH!!!) Nick, the chauffeur.
The role of Nick is a pivotal one, but it’s not very big. In fact, it’s not until a half hour into this economical, 72-minute feature that Nick is even mentioned – but, boy, what a mention! During a conversation that Lora is having with her two charges, Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), the girls share that they used to have a third sister, but she was “runned over.” Desney dramatically offers that she was “all cut – cut in lots of places.” The girls didn’t see the accident, Desney explains – instead, it was described to them by Nick (duh duh DUH!!!). When Lora asks the girls if Nick is their father, they vehemently respond in the negative: “Nick’s not like Daddy – Daddy was a nice man. [Nick] is a horrid man, isn’t he, Nanny?” Desney says, and her sister starts to sob, seemingly unable to even speak of Nick’s evil deeds. “Nick scares us . . . he says the most awful things.”
Another five minutes pass before Nick makes his entrance. Lora is napping in her room when an inebriated, tuxedo-clad gent shows up at her door and tells her “a lady needs [her] assistance.” He shows her to a nearby room, where the girls’ mother, Mrs. Richey (Charlotte Merriam), is passed out on a bearskin rug. Lora places the unconscious woman on a chaise lounge and starts to undress her, but she’s interrupted by an attack by the drunken tuxedo guy. Lora fights valiantly, tussling with the man on the floor. Suddenly, the door to the room opens and a man enters – at first, we only see his polka dot pajama bottoms, slippers, and Oriental-themed silk robe as he crosses the room, lifts the man up, gives him two punches, and unceremoniously shoves him into a chair. Before Lora can express her appreciation for his gallantry, the man brushes off her thanks, barking at her to give Mrs. Richey a “stomach wash.” (Incidentally, I didn’t know what the heck this was – after a little research, I concluded that he’s referring to a “gastric lavage,” also known as a stomach pump, through which the stomach’s contents are suctioned out, followed by a rinsing with a saline solution.) (You’re welcome.) Lora refuses, insisting that a doctor’s orders are needed for such a procedure, but the man roughly grabs her wrist as a convincer, and snatches the phone from her hand when she tries to make a call, telling her that he is giving the orders. And when Lora asks what gives the man this authority, he responds, “I’m Nick. The chauffeur.” (duh duh DUH!!!) Lora emits a most appropriate theatrical gasp, but she still makes a grab for the telephone, prompting Nick to land a blow square on her chin, knocking her cold.
What an introduction!
Despite getting her clock punched, Lora stays on the job, but before long she realizes that the girls are growing more and more ill, especially Nanny. Finally, Lora discovers that they are being deliberately starved to death, and she learns from the housekeeper that Nick is in cahoots with the crooked doctor on the case in an effort to gain control of the girls’ trust fund. Shortly after Lora learns this news, Nick makes his second appearance, surfacing as Lora is trying to revive Nanny by giving her a milk bath. Lora doesn’t bite her tongue, telling Nick that she knows what he’s up to and that he’ll be charged with murder if Nanny dies. When Nick realizes that the housekeeper has spilled the beans about the trust fund, he takes her into another room and beats her, then forces Lora to remove Nanny from the milk bath. When another doctor shows up to help, with plans to give Nanny a blood transfusion, Nick puts the kibosh on that notion: “You’re not the doctor on this case . . . I’d run along if I was you,” Nick tells him – just before he knocks him across the room. When Lora jumps into the fray, Nick pushes her into a wall, but he doesn’t get the chance to finish the job – just in the nick of time (if you’ll pardon the expression), in steps Mortie, a bootlegger pal of Lora’s. With his hand in his pocket obviously concealing a gun, Mortie, shall we say, escorts Nick from the premises. And that’s the last we see of Nick. Literally. One of the film’s last scenes shows an ambulance arriving at the morgue – one of the attendants remarks that “some guy got taken for a ride” and remakes that he was wearing a chauffeur’s uniform.
It wasn’t until I watched Night Nurse for this post that I realized just how little Clark Gable was actually in this film. He was only in three scenes and in one, he was only seen eavesdropping on Lora’s telephone conversation. Still, he was a looming presence, made even more so by his strapping physique and aggressive, intimidating manner. And Gable was the perfect actor for the role. As director William Wellman wrote in his autobiography, Gable was “one of the most despicable heavies imaginable, and he did it with such savoir faire that he became a star.”
If you’ve never seen Clark Gable in Night Nurse, you’re in for a treat. And if you’ve seen him, do yourself and give this film another watch. You’ll be glad you did.
And you only owe it to yourself.
This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings, Kristina at Speakeasy, and yours truly. Click on Barbara Stanwyck in the picture on the right to check out the many great posts of villainy being presented as part of this event! Or else!