Barbara Stanwyck plays Lora Hart, a high school drop-out looking to get a job as a nurse. At first, she’s turned down because of the fact that she didn’t finish high school, but after she runs into Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) as she’s leaving the hospital, Dr. Bell helps get her in as a probationary nurse. Another nurse, B. Maloney (Joan Blondell), takes Lora under her wing and shows her the ropes. She learns to care for babies, help with surgeries, how to turn down advances from the interns, and when to keep quiet about stitching up bootleggers after they’re injured under questionable circumstances. After helping out one bootlegger, Mortie (Ben Lyon), he becomes quite fond of her.
When Lora has completed her training, she’s hired as a private nurse by Mrs. Ritchie to care for her two sick children. On her first night of duty, Lora talks to the children and hears some worrisome details regarding Nick, the chauffeur (Clark Gable). She also begins to suspect that the children are being starved to death. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell, tells Lora to never mind what the children tell her and that everything is fine. The rest of the night involves taking care of an extremely drunk Mrs. Ritchie and getting smacked around by the infamous Nick. The next day, she goes to see Dr. Ranger to express her concerns, but he won’t listen to her. She then goes to see Dr. Bell, who does listen to her, but tells her to keep working there to get more evidence.
Time goes by and the children don’t get any better. In fact, one of them winds up on the verge of death. Mrs. Ritchie is so drunk that she can’t comprehend this fact. On the other hand, the usually stoic Mrs. Maxwell has become deeply concerned. After a couple of drinks, Mrs. Maxwell lets it slip to Lora that Nick and Dr. Ranger are in cahoots to murder the children so Nick can marry Mrs. Ritchie and get to their trust funds. Lora calls Dr. Bell over and they try to get the girl to the hospital, but Nick punches Dr. Bell. Luckily, Mortie happens to be there delivering some booze and sees to it that Nick stays out of the way. In the end, Lora saves the little girl and Mortie sees to it that Nick never hurts anyone ever again.
Night Nurse does have a lot of gratuitous undressing scenes, but it’s not the most risqué pre-code I’ve ever seen. However, it is one of the grittiest and most socially aware. It deals with alcoholism, child abuse, violence against women, medical ethics, bootleggers, murder, and the fact that a lot of dangerous things can get brushed under the rug when you’re wealthy. There are also hints at drug abuse by Dr. Ranger. You sure weren’t going to see all that in any 1950s movie!
Even though this came pretty early in Barbara Stanwyck’s career, we get to see her excelling at being the tough talking dame she’d later become known for. The scene where the child is dying and Lora goes to confront the extremely inebriated Mrs. Ritchie and her friend is simply glorious. She does a fabulous job of telling Mrs. Ritchie what a pathetic excuse for a mother she is. I love seeing her stand up to Nick and to fight for what is clearly right. I also really like the relationship between Stanwyck’s character and Joan Blondell’s. I’m surprised Joan and Barbara only made one other film together, they made a good duo. Clark Gable gets relatively little screen time, but he makes the most of what time he does get. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Clark Gable be so intense and intimidating before. All in all, a highly entertaining flick!