Ben Lyon

Pre-Code Essentials: Night Nurse (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck Night Nurse

Plot

When Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) lands a job as a probationary nurse at a hospital, she quickly learns the ropes with help from Maloney (Joan Blondell). One lesson she learns is that sometimes the patients she helps will be eager to show their gratitude. For Lora, that patient ends up being Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she takes care of after he’s shot. She breaks from protocol by not reporting his gunshot wounds to the authorities, keeping Mortie out of hot water.

After becoming a full-fleged nurse, Lora becomes a night nurse for the two young children of socialite Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). One of her children has already died and Lora immediately recognizes that the two surviving children are starving to death, but Mrs. Ritchey can’t pull herself away from the booze to care. She’s deeply concerned about the treatment the children’s doctor is prescribing and about how much authority their chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) has over the family. Lora does everything she can to get help, but has a hard time getting anybody to listen to her. When she finally gets help from a doctor she trusts, he advises her to stay and gather evidence.

As one of the Ritchey children is on the brink of death, a housekeeper tips Lora off about how she thinks Nick and the children’s doctor are plotting to murder the children as a way to get their trust fund. But the only person who can help Lora save the children is Mortie.


My Thoughts

Whether you’re a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck or of pre-codes in general, you’ll love Night Nurse. This is one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best tough talking dame roles; she is an absolute boss in this movie. Watching her fight with people for the sake of protecting the children is truly a thing of beauty. I also loved seeing Stanwyck teamed with Joan Blondell. I really wish Blondell and Stanwyck had done more movies together. They are two of my favorite actresses from the pre-code era, so I wish I could see more movies where they play best friends who go around being sassy together.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Gratuitous undressing galore.

The fact that a bootlegger ends up being one of the heroes.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Sure, Night Nurse has plentiful innuendo and gratuitous undressing scenes, but the ending is very distinctly pre-code. Not only does a criminal end up being one of the heroes, the movie ends with him casually alluding to the fact that he just had Nick bumped off, then happily driving off with Lora as Nick’s body is delivered to the morgue. Not that anybody is sorry to see Nick go, but it’s a much darker type of happy ending than a lot of people typically think of old movies as having.

Lady With a Past (1932)

Venice Muir (Constance Bennett) is rich, beautiful, stylish, and very intelligent, so you’d think she’s the kind of woman guys line up to meet, right? Nope. Venice wishes she were more appealing to men, but she’s just too dull to get their attention.  She’s knows darn well that all the men she meets want someone exciting, but how does one get an exciting reputation without actually having to earn it? It turns out the answer is to make one up.

Donnie Wainwright (David Manners) is the man she longs for the most, and Venice’s friend tries to get him to talk to her.  One night at a party, he gets drunk and takes a chance on Venice and talks her into running off to Paris to elope with him. But the next day, he leaves her for another woman. Venice goes ahead with the trip and along the way, comes up with a plan to win Donnie back.

While in Paris, she meets an unemployed American named Guy Bryson (Ben Lyon) and hires him to pose as her gigolo. He helps her concoct a whole new persona with a slew of fake rumors about her love life to go with it.  Sure enough, this plan works and Venice quickly becomes one of the most sought after women in Paris. When Donny comes to Paris for a few days, of course he’s shocked to see that Venice now has a band of admirers, which Venice uses to make Donny very jealous.

However, the plan hits a snag when Rene (Albert Conte), one of Venice’s suitors, proposes to her and she turns him down. He had been very deep in debt and was hoping to marry her to save himself, but when she rejects him, he kills himself.  Meanwhile, Venice is at the train station with Donny, who proposes to her again. But when she hears about Rene, she is devastated. She never meant for her scheme to hurt anyone, so she and Guy head back to America, where they quickly realize that Venice’s new reputation has already made its way overseas. When she goes to a party, all the men flock to her, but Donny doesn’t approve of her new image. She calls him out for being a hypocrite, but he manages to win her over once and for all.

Lady With a Past is far from being great cinema, but it is a pretty likeable bit of fluff.  By far, the most far-fetched thing about this movie is that we’re supposed to believe that no man is interested in Constance Bennett.  I thought it was interesting that they didn’t try to make Venice even the slightest bit dowdy; she was glamorous and stylish the whole time. Venice is a bit socially awkward at first, but come on! Plenty of men would let that slide for a woman who looks like that.  But if you’re able to suspend your disbelief, Constance, David Manners, and Ben Lyon do a good job of making the movie fun to watch.

Girl Missing (1933)

Kay (Glenda Farrell) and June (Mary Brian) are a couple of shameless, gold digging chorus girls.  They’re on vacation in Palm Beach with Kenneth Van Dusen (Guy Kibbee), the latest rich guy they’ve latched themselves onto.  But when he comes on to June and she turns him down, Kenneth takes off and leaves the girls with the $700 hotel bill.  While they’re scheming up a way to get the money for the bill, they run into Daisy (Peggy Shannon), a rather dim chorus girl they used to work with.  She’s at the hotel to get married to the wealthy Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon), but when they go up to talk to her (and hopefully get some money), she gives them the could shoulder.  They try their luck in the casino instead, and even though Kay wins enough money to cover the bill, she looses it all when she pushes her luck to the breaking point.  But luckily for them, they run into Raymond (Lyle Talbot), one of Daisy’s ex-boyfriends.  He offers them the money for their hotel bill and train tickets out of town.

The next day, Raymond sends the money and train tickets over to the hotel, but before they leave, June runs into Henry Gibson in the elevator and flirts with him so long that they miss their train and they have to stay in town another night.  Meanwhile, Daisy and Henry have gotten married and are on their way out of town for their honeymoon.  After they get to the hotel, Daisy complains of having a headache so while she goes to lay down, Henry steps out to have a cigarette.  When he comes back in to check on her, she’s gone, apparently kidnapped.  When news of Daisy’s disappearance hits the newspaper the next day, Kay and June decide to stay and help look for Daisy.  Not that they’re terribly concerned about finding Daisy, but because there’s a $25,000 reward for any information that leads to finding Daisy.

They suspect she’s run off with Raymond and rush to tell Henry their theory, but when a detective overhears them, he assumes that they are involved and brings them in for questioning.  They tell the police their theory about Raymond, but when they question him, he doesn’t strike them as suspicious.  But later that night, they see Raymond’s chauffeur messing with Henry’s car.  They try to warn Henry, but he’s in a hurry and won’t listen, so they have no other choice but to hop in a car and chase him down.  When they finally do stop him, they’re able to prove his car has been tampered with.  Kay has the idea that if he wrecks the car, the person trying to kill him would come out of hiding.  So he wrecks the car and Kay plants a story about Henry being killed in a car wreck and sure enough, her plan works.  When Daisy hears the news, she goes to the police station.  But by now, the police have some real dirt on Daisy and even though she almost weasels her way out of the situation, Kay manages to get the truth out of her.

Girl Missing is a lot of fun.  I adored Glenda Farrell and Mary Brian in it, they made a great couple of wise cracking show girls.  The two of them made it fun to root for the characters you’re not always supposed to root for.  It’s full of snappy lines and I love a movie full of snappy lines.  Not only is it funny, but the mystery element of the movie is also pretty enjoyable.  Definitely keep an eye out for this one on TCM.  If you like The Thin Man, you would probably like Girl Missing.