I have to admit that the start of my new job on top of some of my other writing commitments have kept me from following through on some of the blogathons that I’ve signed up for lately, which really disappoints me. Nothing makes me feel worse than missing the opportunity to talk about any and all aspects of Old Hollywood, but I couldn’t be happier to get back in the game by honoring the King of Hollywood himself, none other than Clark Gable! It appears that the wonderful Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is celebrating Dear Mr. Gable midway through the year for no particular reason as I can’t find any significant Gable-related dates of note in June, but paying tribute to a star just for the fun of it is definitely something I can get behind. My history with Gable, however, is a little bit complicated. There’s no denying that I admire him as an actor as I’ve seen over a dozen of his films, but at the same time I always feel a little bit squeamish when I hear anyone call him exceptionally sexy as he’s always reminded me of my dad (which is ironic considering the fact that it’s Father’s Day weekend). Despite the fact that I’d rather not think of him in a physical sense, I’ve still held a deep fascination and curiosity about Gable’s career, especially the largely-unexplored first few years of his work in pictures. Everything clicked for me when I realized that I owned Night Nurse (1931) on DVD yet still hadn’t seen it, and after that I knew exactly which feature of his I wanted to write about.
As you might expect from the title, the main character of this film is actually Lola Hart (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who appears to be desperately searching for a job. She applies to a hospital with a promising program which pays women for their nursing education while giving them hands-on opportunities in the medical field as well. It seems like just the position for hopeful Lola, but her dreams are quickly shattered by Miss Dillon (Vera Lewis), the hospital’s strict Superintendent of Nurses, because Lola lacks a high school diploma. As she leaves the hospital in disappointment through the revolving door, she smacks right into the esteemed and respected surgeon and director of the hospital, Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), who apologizes by allowing the hospital to overlook her lack of education, giving her a chance to prove herself as a nurse. She commences her medical training alongside rebellious fellow nurse B. Maloney (Joan Blondell). The two become fast friends, but get into trouble together after staying out too late and are relegated to positions on the ER’s night shift. While there, Lola meets a lovable bootlegger (Ben Lyon) who has fallen victim to a gunshot wound. The nurse-in-training finds him endearing and realizes that it’s the law for her to report all gun-related injuries, but at the same time she knows that if she follows through with her duty he could face prison, so she risks her career by looking the other way and letting the nameless man go free.
Eventually Lola and Maloney complete their education, and afterwards the two land alternating positions at the home of the wealthy Ritchie family as round-the-clock nurses for the Ritchies’ two sick children, Nanny and Desney. Originally Dr. Bell, the same doctor who was responsible for setting Lola on her career path, used to be in charge of the childrens’ case, but he has recently been replaced by the shady and relatively unknown Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde), and since this change the two childrens’ health have been rapidly deteriorating. Now that Lola is a licensed medical professional, she realizes as soon as she arrives to her new position that the children show signs of starvation, but when she attempts to bring the matter to the attention of Dr. Ranger, he tells her to keep out of the situation if she knows what’s good for her. Lola pretends to follow his instructions in order to keep tabs on the Ritchie family and the childrens’ care, and slowly but surely discovers a web of malpractice and treachery. She unearths a plan orchestrated by the Ritchies’ chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) to keep the childrens’ mother (Charlotte Merriam), who is attracted to her employee, in a constant state of drunkenness so he and Dr. Ranger can slowly kill the children. After that, Nick plans to marry Mrs. Ritchie and make off with the girls’ lucrative trust fund. By the time Lola figures out Nick’s plan, Nanny is so malnourished that she faces death. She has no choice but to involve Dr. Bell and the bootlegger she befriended to help her save the child’s life, but will she succeed and stop the evil chauffeur before it’s too late?
Astonishingly, the part of Nick was originally slated for none other than James Cagney, who was enouraged to back out of the production after the incredible box-office success of The Public Enemy (1931). The film firmly cemented his place in history as a leading man in iconic gangster movies, and the role of the villainous chauffeur in this film was thought to be beneath him by the spring of 1931, so the part was given to relative unknown actor Clark Gable. According to an interview with Shirley Eder in April of 1981, Stanwyck watched her costar reach the stratosphere overnight: “On the picture’s first day in New York at the Strand, the theater marquee read: ‘NIGHT NURSE STARRING BARBARA STANWYCK’. The second day, the marquee read: ‘NIGHT NURSE STARRING BARBARA STANWYCK CO-STARRING CLARK GABLE’. By the third night, it read: ‘NIGHT NURSE STARRING BARBARA STANWYCK CLARK GABLE.'” Despite this meteoric rise to fame, Gable actually appears in only three scenes, which is whittled down to two if you only count those in which he has any dialogue. Still, his presence in the film is a constant and formidable one, and he builds up an otherwise meager role into that of an incredibly memorable antagonist. While ultimately this is Barbara Stanwyck’s film above all else, it proved to satisfy a continuous curiosity for me about Clark Gable’s early career. You might not want to watch Night Nurse (1931) for Gable above all else, but if you’re looking to discover this thrilling pre-code, you won’t be disappointed by anyone in this star-studded cast.