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'Nurse' screening illuminates racy 'pre-Code' films

Chris Garcia

‘Why do poor little children have to be born to women like you?" hisses Barbara Stanwyck, barely containing a roar.

She's the title nurse in William Wellman's 1931 "Night Nurse," a tight, scrappy pre-Code melodrama screening Sunday at the Alamo Ritz as part of the venue's newish Cinema Club series.

Stanwyck's indignation is well-placed, something an audience can cheer. Assigned to care for two ailing little girls, her nurse, Lora Hart, is repelled by the children's living conditions. While their single mother, a widow, lives the high life as a frivolous blackout drunk, Hart realizes that the girls are being starved to death so that the mother and her sinister chauffeur Nick (a pre-stardom, pre-mustachioed Clark Gable) can cash in the trust fund that their late father left them.

"Night Nurse" shows its pre-Code bona fides with a kind of relish. Hollywood pre-Code films are generally lumped into the period between 1929 and 1934, when restrictions on what could be depicted in movies hadn't been cemented. Those restrictions would be codified by the priggish Production Code (that's when we started seeing married couples sleeping in separate twin beds).

As film historian Mick LaSalle writes, pre-Code movies "tend to be racier, sexier, more adult, more cynical, more socially critical, more honest and more politically strident than the films produced by Hollywood on up through the early 1960s."

Moviegoers have seen it all these days, so it can be tricky for the contemporary viewer to discern what makes "Night Nurse" such a compelling artifact, one that also happens to be highly entertaining.

First, there's all that lingerie. Early in the film, Stanwyck and her new nurse pal, played by Joan Blondell, do a lot of casual dressing and undressing. ("You best slip off your dress," a gum-snapping Blondell tells Stanwyck. "I guess everyone around here has seen more than I've got," Stanwyck replies as she unzips.)

By today's standards, the scenes are debatably sexy. We see the women fussing in bras and slips, hardly flouncing about, and it almost reminds you of seeing your parents changing.

"It's not the most shocking pre-Code movie, but for 1931 it certainly has scenes that are surprisingly racy and wonderfully Peek-a-Boo," says Kim Morgan, a Los Angeles-based film writer who will discuss the movie after Sunday's screening.

"Night Nurse" begins breezily, with Stanwyck and Blondell trading repartee like sassy gals, working girls who study potential suitors with dollar signs in their eyes. When a salivating young intern tries to flirt with new nurse Stanwyck, he tells the women he's just come from the maternity ward.

"What are you doing here, baby frightener?" Blondell cracks. Then she tells Stanwyck, "Take my advice and stay away from interns. They're like cancer — the disease is known but not the cure."

Then this: "The thing to do is land an appendicitis case. They've all got dough."

The laughs fade as the film tackles moral issues of medical corruption, pernicious greed and murder. Nurse Hart — a not-so subtle name; beneath the flint she's all heart — fights the machine and places herself in danger in the process. When she calls for help to save the children, Gable's Nick slugs her in the face, bloodying her chin and knocking her cold.

Also remarkable is who she turns to for help, a lawbreaking bootlegger who attains hero status by film's end, something that wouldn't be allowed once the Code was installed. (Criminals had to be shown in a bad light and be punished for their sins against society.)

The bootlegger plot line is "decidedly pre-Code," Morgan says. "There's a reason director William Wellman was called ‘Wild Bill.' "

"Night Nurse" might not be as nakedly risque as Stanwyck's later pre-Code "Baby Face" (1933), but its darkness, violence and troubling themes stand in high relief among melodramas released during the Code's reign.

"The movie has a heavy cult following among those who love pre-Code movies and Stanwyck," Morgan says. "The picture's especially intriguing because it so wonderfully straddles exploitation, social drama and pure cinematic beauty. There are some gorgeously shot sequences here."

One of those sequences shows Gable bursting into a room and beating a guy to the floor before we ever see Gable's face. It's all bustling feet and fists. It represents faceless evil, sheer malevolent suggestion.

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‘Night Nurse,' presented by the Alamo's Cinema Club, featuring a discussion with film writer Kim Morgan

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth St.

Cost: $8.50

Information:www.originalalamo.com