One of the most interesting aspects of pre-Code daring in “Night Nurse” (1931) involves not the many scenes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell undressing before us, which happens so much it gets to be routine, but rather the film’s treatment of the medical profession.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a nursing school student, who befriends fellow nurse Joan Blondell, endures the leering of interns, and helps a bootlegger patient by not reporting his bullet wound to the police. At first she insists she must, and asks him why she shouldn’t.
“For the same reason you don’t squeal about half the raw work you see done here,” he replies. It is the first indication we are given that the medical profession is not all squeaky clean, and Miss Stanwyck, bristling, defends her profession, “We have professional ethics.” She insists, “The things my profession keeps quiet about we believe is for the public’s own good.”
This young neophyte proudly recites her Florence Nightingale Pledge upon graduation, while Joan Blondell blankly chews her gum, and is released to the world as an idealistic and scrappy nurse, for “fifty-six bucks a week.”
Stanwyck’s job upon graduation is as a night nurse to two ill children whose drunken socialite mother and her evil chauffeur are slowly starving them to the death to get their trust fund. Complicit in this attempted act of murder is the children’s own doctor. Miss Stanwyck, suspicious of the children’s care, gets smacked around some by Nick the Chauffer, played with sexy vigor by Clark Gable in one of his first roles.
She complains to Dr. Ranger about Nick and about the kid’s cruel diet. Dr. Ranger, played by Ralf Harolde, is a bad doctor and a bad man, with a bad facial tic, which may insinuate even more evil about him. He arrogantly accuses Miss Stanwyck of blackmail and medical ignorance, and that worst crime a young woman and a young nurse can commit, that she has forgotten her place.
“You’ve picked up a lot of half-baked medical knowledge around the hospital. All nurses do,” he barks. A surprising and nasty indictment of the medical profession of the day, but Miss Stanwyck, though insulted, is not intimated. She intends to be a whistleblower, but her mentor, kindly Dr. Bell, played by Charles Winninger, talks her out of it. When she tells him of Dr. Ranger’s malpractice of the helpless children in her care, Dr. Bell only backpedals, “You know I can’t interfere in another doctor’s case.”
This is a sad comment on the medical profession if poor medical care cannot be taken to task. One wonders if the audience of the day were shocked by this or merely exchanged knowing smirks of agreement at something that they felt always had been and always would be.
But Miss Stanwyck’s character, Laura Hart, is having none of it. “Ethics, ethics, ethics, that’s all I’ve heard since I’ve been in this business. Isn’t there any humanity in it?”
Dr. Bell smokes a cigarette as he tries to both reason with her and disengage himself from the uncomfortable prospect of having to see faults in another physician. However, he encourages her to return to her case and say nothing, and get enough evidence to trap all those who want to harm the children, Dr. Ranger included.
Stanwyck does this, and when she meekly bows to Dr. Ranger’s authority, the pompous fiend condescendingly instructs her, “A successful nurse is the one who keeps her mouth shut.” She obeys, and gets back to the kids.
Eventually, after some tense scenes with the sick kids and the threatening Nick as the little Nanny Ritchey, played by Marcia Mae Jones, becomes unconscious from her anemia, Dr. Bell is strong-armed on the scene by her old pal the bootlegger and performs a blood transfusion from Miss Stanwyck, whose type is “4A” to the little child. Dr. Bell tells her he will go to bat for her with the police, and she announces with relief that he is “swell.”
He is swell, Dr. Bell, and a bit more like the doctors we would come to know after the Code made such grim and grotesque portraits of the medical profession no longer allowable. The squeaky clean Dr. Kildare was in the vanguard of an army of kindly doctors. They brought us comfort. More then curing, they told us nothing was wrong.
It wasn’t really true, then or now. What was true then, and now, is the genuine rage expressed by Miss Stanwyck’s character that some in the revered medical profession did not deserve the reverence that we desperately wanted and needed to bestow.
It cannot be an accurate portrait of less advanced medical care at the time, but just phony movie drama that makes a doctor in the operation in which Stanwyck participates early in the film call for oxygen only when the patient is near death, and puts his ear on the patient’s chest, instead of using a stethoscope to ascertain whether the patient is still alive. Milk baths for anemia? Medical malpractice to include deliberate murder, as well as the medical innocence of the film, rather than the daring pre-Code titillation, is what is most shocking about “Night Nurse.”