SPOTLIGHT: Dashing Pre-Code Gable (III)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our series on the Pre-Code films of Clark Gable, the first male star to get a spotlight here on That’s Entertainment! Over this past year, we’ve actually covered a handful of Pre-Code Gable films during our examinations of the works of some of his frequent leading ladies. This blog has already featured: A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer, Possessed (1931) with Joan Crawford, Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, Hold Your Man (1933) with Jean Harlow, Night Flight (1933) with Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford, It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Myrna Loy. We’ve also covered two of Gable’s Post-Code films with Joan Crawford: Forsaking All Others (1934) and Love On The Run (1936). In the Gable series, we’ve covered Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), and The Secret Six (1931). Today…

 

Night Nurse (1931)

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A nurse discovers that the children she’s caring for are murder targets. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, and Clark Gable. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett. Additional dialogue by Charles Kenyon. Based on the novel by Dora Macy. Directed by William A. Wellman.

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Gable’s a babykiller in this seedy Pre-Code tale of a young nurse, played by one of the era’s toughest dames, Barbara Stanwyck, who discovers that the children for whom she’s caring are slowly dying. A classic example of what we’d NOT see after the strict enforcement of the code, Night Nurse (1931) is almost like Pre-Code 101: an essential.

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“After a chance meeting with noted surgeon Dr. Arthur Bell, high school dropout Laura Hart is admitted to a nursing school in a hardscrabble big city hospital through his influence. Along the way she befriends a bootlegger with a bullet wound, but with the help of wisecracking co-worker Bea Maloney, she becomes a proficient nurse, and the young women graduate. Their first assignment is caring for two little girls in a seemingly respectable Fifth Avenue apartment inhabited by a dipsomaniac mother, indifferent housekeeper, and brutish thug of a chauffeur. Lora suspects the girls of being coldbloodedly starved to death but runs into indifference when she confronts the youngster’s sinister doctor and her own supervisor, Dr. Bell. Lora is faced with the choice of resigning and abandoning her charges or staying.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)

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Running at only about 71-minutes,  this tight tale is engrossing from start to finish. What initially seems like a story involving Stanwyck’s attempts to learn the ropes of nursing from the wiser (and wisecracking) Joan Blondell, who brightens any film in which she appears, turns into a really suspenseful and horrific tale about Stanwyck’s attempts to communicate to someone — anyone — that there’s something awfully shady going on at the Ritchie house. Not surprisingly, given the necessitations of the story, the film’s success is almost solely dependent on the performance of the leading lady. Do we root for her? Is she believable? The answer to both questions is yes, and that’s often the case when the subject is Miss Barbara Stanwyck. Shockingly, this is the first film covered on this blog to feature the iconic Pre-Code dame (whose films are so Pre-Code that other Pre-Codes look tame by comparison), but rest assured that she’s bound to pop up again. Stanwyck really sells the film, and given the slight predictability of the plot, her ability to keep us entertained is supremely appreciated.

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Wonderfully, however, Stanwyck is supported by some excellent talents. Chief among these is Blondell, who is in her element as Stanwyck’s smart best friend — shooting off her mouth with the requisite naturalness that makes the film seem like it was filmed only yesterday. Meanwhile, Show Boat‘s original Cap’n Andy, Charles Winninger, plays Stanwyck’s only other ally, and his presence is simple and welcomed. But there are a bevy of other delights here — stern Vera Lewis, flighty Blanche Frederici, and tipsy Charlotte Miriam as a tragically hilarious and highly believable drunk, are but a few.

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And then there’s Gable, clad all in black — our villain. Folks, he’s meaner and badder here than we’ve ever seen him before. He’s slowly killing kids (into the details of which the film does not delve) to inherit the trust fund set up by their late father. He’s unlikable — walloping Stanwyck square in the face several times — and the film makes no bones about it; no attempts are made to sympathize or relate to his character. He’s evil, and frankly, it’s fantastic. He plays it 100% on the nose, and like his co-stars, imbues the screen with an electric presence, already quite evident in this, one of his earlier films.

Beyond the violence and the grim tale of child murdering, there’s Stanwyck’s strange relationship (perhaps you could call it a love interest) with Ben Lyon’s gangster character, another shady mug, who, though not killing little girls, is not going to be winning a good citizen’s award anytime soon either. Helping to save the day by calling in Winninger, the film ends with Lyon and Stanwyck driving off into the sunset together — after he has admitted to arranging the off-screen death of Gable. (No arrest? No trial? This is like Najara on Xena.) Only in a Pre-Code film could the heroine find love with the gangster who kills and gets away with it. Absolutely delightful. (Although, Lyon isn’t as tough as his character would seem to require. Someone a bit more menacing would have sold this beat better.)

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Pre-Code fans, this film is essential viewing. Gable fans, you’ll get quite a kick out of seeing Clark so unabashedly ruthless. Highly recommended to all!

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Come back next Friday for another Gable film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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