This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

18Jul/11

ESSENTIAL PRE-CODE: NIGHT NURSE

NIGHT NURSE, involving child endangerment, alcoholism, murder, and Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell frolicking in their undergarments, is a great example of pre-Hays Code Hollywood

NIGHT NURSE (William A. Wellman, 1931)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Tuesday, July 19, 2:45 & 7:00
Series continues through August 11
212-727-8110
www.filmforum.org

It’s hard to believe that the Hays Code, a set of standards initiated by two religious figures and named after chief censor Will H. Hays, was enacted and enforced, to varying degrees, in Hollywood from 1934 all the way up to 1968. Film Forum is looking back at some of the racier movies made right before the code took effect in the series “Essential Pre-Code,” consisting of fifty films made between 1931 and 1934, all being shown in 35mm prints. One of the best examples of pre-code films is William A. Wellman’s rarely screened 1931 doozy, Night Nurse. The first of five collaborations between Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck, Night Nurse, based on Dora Macy’s 1930 novel, stars Stanwyck as Lora Hart, a young woman determined to become a nurse. She gets a probationary job at a city hospital, where she is taken under the wing of Maloney (Joan Blondell), who likes to break the rules and torture the head nurse, the stodgy Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis). Shortly after treating a bootlegger (Ben Lyon) for a gunshot wound and agreeing not to report it to the police, Lora starts working for a shady doctor (Ralf Harolde) taking care of two sick children (Marcia Mae Jones and Betty Jane Graham) whose proudly dipsomaniac mother (Charlotte Merriam) is being manipulated by her suspicious chauffeur (Clark Gable). Wellman pulls out all the stops, hinting at or simply depicting murder, child endangerment, rape, alcoholism, lesbianism, physical brutality, and Blondell and Stanwyck regularly frolicking around in their undergarments. It’s as if Wellman is thumbing his nose directly at the Hays Code in scene after scene. Although far from his best film — Wellman directed such classics as Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), A Star Is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), Beau Geste (1939), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) — Night Nurse is an overly melodramatic, dated, but entertaining little tale with quite a surprise ending. Night Nurse is screening at Film Forum on July 19 as part of a triple feature with Howard Bretherton and William Keighley’s Ladies They Talk About, starring Stanwyck in one of the earliest women-in-prison movies, and William Dieterle’s Lawyer Man, which pairs Blondell with the always charming William Powell. The series continues through August 11 with such films as Rouben Moumalian’s Love Me Tonight, Frank Tuttle’s Roman Scandals, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, Howard Hawks’s Scarface, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (bestiality!), nearly all of which are part of double or triple features.

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