Night Nurse (William Wellman / U.S., 1931):

With hands on waist and gaze like a laser, Barbara Stanwyck in her starched whites is a vision of working-girl fury, "Miss Iodine," a tiny tower. (The bandage on her chin only adds to her gallantry.) It opens with an ambulance ride filmed as a furious POV, then a brisk string of tracking shots to flood the hospital halls with snippets of proletarian life (orderlies nattering about crash victims, an anxious husband pacing as his pregnant wife is wheeled away, a bedridden Chinese paterfamilias chewing out his visiting brood). Stanwyck is the new trainee, hardnosed yet nurturing, sidestepping the hatchet-faced head nurse (Vera Lewis) thanks to a benign doctor (Charles Winninger) and flirting with a jaunty bootlegger (Ben Lyon) over a patched-up bullet wound. "That's my story, sister, and nothing less than a couple of cops with rubber hoses can make me change it." The first half is a headlong stroll around the clinic, with lovely documentary glimpses of a crowded maternity ward and a captivating solidarity flowering between the heroine and her roomie (succulent, wisecracking Joan Blondell) as they peel off their stockings and share a bed next to a skeleton. The second half is a jangling melodrama that offers a child being slowly murdered while in the penthouse next door the bourgeoisie lies sprawled on a bear rug with a champagne glass, a bluntly corrosive allegory for the country during the Depression if ever there was one. (When a bathtub of warm milk is dumped in a sink, the clown doll floating in it is oddly evocative of an Uncle Sam figurine.) William Wellman’s direction is a roughhewn marvel: Stanwyck reaches for a telephone and the thuggish gigolo (Clark Gable, malevolently smoldering) raises his fist, and the camera tilts down to the ground just in time to catch the heroine knocked unconscious. It all ends well, with a triumph of amoral practicality over institutional ethics and the happy, scrappy couple riding not off into the sunset but backwards into traffic. With Charlotte Merriam, Blanche Friderici, Ralf Harolde, Edward Nugent, and Marcia Mae Jones. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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