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Provocative Pre-Code Peach: Night Nurse

Night Nurse. Stanwyck, Blondell and Gable. Drugs, slugs and murder. Evil doctors, evil chauffeurs, kindly bootleggers and...starving children. This is one provocative pre-code peach.

So, if you happen to be in Austin Texas, please watch, tonight, this Sunday May 2nd at 7 PM. I will be introducing the Alamo Cinema Club's presentation of the 1931 pre-code classic, directed by William "Wild Bill" Wellman and presiding over the Q&A with the Alamo's Lars Nilsen.

Promoting the event,  the Austin Classic Movies Examiner sat down with me to discuss the picture, Pre-Code Cinema, and the great Barbara Stanwyck. Here's the interview. Thank you Mr. Dobies:

JM: The period between the dawn of the talkies and the Hays Office's enforcement of production code produced a lot of great films, many of which were much grittier, racier, and more realistic than the ones that followed. What do you find most compelling about pre-code cinema?

KM: So much. There’s a fascinating mixture of gritty realism and beauty, thoughtful explication of society, particularly regarding the depression, and then, flat out exploitation (but good exploitation, and there is good exploitation). There’s unique faces, young actors revealing the charisma that will make them enormous movie stars in the near future. There’s cinematic invention -- the talkies produced so many challenges for filmmakers and some of them, Wellman included, created some staggeringly beautiful moments (look at those gorgeous faces in his silent film Wings, look at that innovative, moving opening shot of the hospital in Night Nurse). These movies are old, but they feel new to me. They move. They’re fast. They’re funny and smart and usually beautifully crafted. And they’re still relevant today

JM: What makes Night Nurse such a great example of pre-code filmmaking?

KM: Night Nurse is about breaking rules. Pre-code is, essentially, about breaking rules. There’s so much discussion of ethics vs. humanity in Night Nurse that is especially interesting and again, remains timeless. And then all of the “salacious” elements. From Stanwyck and Blondell constantly dressing and undressing, Gable slugging and drugging women, starving children for money, the bootlegger as hero. And that ending! The ending is one of the greatest pre-code endings – ever. I don’t want to give it away here.

JM: What surprises does the film hold for modern audiences?

KM: Well, again, there’s that ending. But I think audiences will be surprised by how modern and timeless it feels. As much as critics then and now, thought the movie crazy and over-the-top, I find a lot of realism in it. Especially regarding how tough these nurses have to be in a man’s world. That shot of Stanwyck face to face with Gable, I mean their noses are nearly touching, and she is telling him off, is pre-feminism and stronger than anything you’re going to see in a Nancy Meyer picture. And it’s also kind of erotic. It’s Gable, after all, so no matter how evil his character is in the picture, he’s still a natural born movie star.

JM: Barbara Stanwyck is one of the great icons of Hollywood's Golden Age, but is somewhat under-appreciated for someone who had such a great career. What is it about her that you most admire?

KM: Stanwyck could do it all. Noir, melodrama, western, comedy. She was a brilliant dramatic actress and, as a comedienne, her timing was impeccable. The Lady Eve, The Mad Miss Manton and of course one of my all time favorites, Ball of Fire, where she fully conjugates “Scram,” it just doesn’t get any better than that. And she could make you cry (I challenge you to watch Stella Dallas and not be a wreck by film end). She was also incredibly sexy, but not in an overt way that interrupted who she was, her character, her acting. She was tough, smart, vulnerable, crafty and lovable. Really, she was the perfect woman/actress. I don’t know why she was not on the level of Davis or Crawford (though she was nominated for many of her roles). I think she’s certainly appreciated more now. How can you get through Double Indemnity, a movie she made mid-career when her beauty could have been fading, and not appreciate/be turned on by Stanwyck? She was even terrific on "The Big Valley."

JM: What led to your interest in classic film?

KM: Where do I start on that? The very first classic film I saw as a kid (at least the one I remember that made an enormous impression on me) was Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra on TV. Bogart and Lupino. I was seven-years-old and I promptly became obsessed with that movie, and then any classic movie I could see. I would go to revival screenings any chance I could get, and poured over books and picture books and searched for old movie magazines – everything – at a very young age. And I still revere Walsh and High Sierra. One of my all time favorite Bogart performances. In a Lonely Place is first, but High Sierra also showed his depth and sadness underneath the criminal he portrayed. I have also loved photography for as long as I can remember, and older cinema just looks better. There were master craftsmen at the lens – even in B movies. When you see a Val Lewton produced picture and think that was a B-movie, and look at what would be considered a B movie today, the difference is remarkable.

Read the entire interview here. And see the picture!



I randomly stumbled upon your blog last week and as it so happens I live in Austin so went to see "Night Nurse" earlier tonight and I have to say it was extremely cool. I was highly surprised how timeless the movie seemed, as you said it would be, and how quick the dialogue and action flowed. I did have a question for you, but since the audience kept asking questions until the end I wasn't able to ask it. My question was concerning the dialogue. Given how similar and modern the dialogue seemed to a modern movie, especially considering the nearly 80 year gap between us and the movie, I wondered about how dialogue developed following the silent era. This movie was released just a few years after the first talkie, but already the dialogue and staging was incredibly natural. Was this film atypically ahead of its time with regards to this, or was there already a generally competent use of dialogue? Also, on an unrelated note, if you're not busy next week you should check out the Marfa Film Festival which is in Marfa, TX. Looks like it's going to be pretty cool.

Miss Lisa

Stanwyck had such a distinct voice and she used it very intelligently. That's an overlooked aspect of a star's charisma: tone, inflection, projection. I don't know how many takes were generally done for her scenes, but I suspect she got it "right" most every time. She was so sharp and talented. I wonder if her obvious intelligence and wit made it less easy for audiences to project their fantasies of themselves on her. Maybe she wasn't "blank enough" or ultimately campy enough to be as revered as she deserved.

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