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NIGHT NURSE: Modernity Ward

Yes, it's going to be that kind of party.

NIGHT NURSE, with special guest, film writer Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun) will play as the next Cinema Club screening at Ritz this Sunday. Cinema Club shows incorporate an audience discussion with the programmers and guest expert. Expect it to be provocative, entertaining and a lot of fun. Go ahead and get those tickets here.

You know that sensation you get from old movies sometimes, that they're winking at you across an expanse of years, sneaking in a private dirty joke here and there? Well, NIGHT NURSE isn't just winking, it's not sneaking; it's kicking down the door and getting wild. It's one of the glories of pre-code cinema. The only real analogue we can think of is the 'nurseploitation' films of the '70s. Those movies were bold for their time, NIGHT NURSE, made 40 years earlier, is downright brazen.

One of the most salacious and entertaining pre-code features. NIGHT NURSE could certainly never have been made under the censorious "production code." It's vulgar, it's rude, it's full of innuendo - in other words - it's great! Barbara Stanwyck, fresh from New York, is at her sexy, gum-chewing best as a young nurse who uncovers a horrifying case of child neglect and murder while working for a wealthy family. She uses her wiles (and her bootlegger boyfriend's shady underworld connections) to set things straight. The sequences in the nursing school, showing Stanwyck's training and indoctrination, tell us more about the lot of poor women during the depression than a dozen history books.

There's a kind of gallows humor in NIGHT NURSE. It whistles a happy tune as it sashays through the graveyard of mortality, corruption, class and gender inequality. Director William "Wild Bill" Wellman, wasn't the type to smooth over the rough edges. They're all there, part of his hard-boiled, blunt but fluid style. And just as James Cagney was Wellman's ideal male hero, Barbara Stanwyck was a female reflection of the little tough guy, the scrapper, the one who never quits. She was a heroine for streetwise shopgirls and rebellious daughters. Stanwyck was game, an aristocrat of nerve, the tough nut who represented the best features of modern American womanhood: strength, insolence, moral  intractability and sexual self-determination. To audiences outside the big cosmopolitan cities she must have seemed like a neon beacon pointing the way to new ways of relating to men, other women and themselves.

In NIGHT NURSE the working girls played by Stanwyck and Joan Blondell are much more noble than the Park Avenue lushes they work for. The contrast between the nurses' native wisdom, their decency born of hardship, and the physical and spiritual dissipation of the so-called upper class sophisticates is stark. It illuminates the class conflict simmering away in the pre-Roosevelt '30s, an era pregnant with imminent and maybe not so hopeful change, a time when the horizon crackled with the portent of unrest, deep dissatisfaction with the social order and a lack of trust in authority. As far as anyone knew, the whole thing may have been on the verge of crumbling, as several much older civilizations across the ocean had already.

So the simple common sense and common values that Stanwyck represented must have looked like the cure for what ailed the body politic. Stanwyck herself was a child of the inner-city, an orphan who came up the hard way, dropping out of middle school to help support herself, working as a hoochie-coochie dancer and chorus girl in New York speakeasies and theaters. With her great determination and talent she rose to the legitimate stage and finally films, but even many years later, after decades of success, she could still bite off her words and move with the animal grace of the streets. Here, in her youth, she lacks some of the polish she would later develop but has such vitality and charisma she makes refinement and technique look like empty affectation.

Watch the way Stanwyck's energy and personality drive her scenes, she has the fire and pepper of Broadway and the semi-legit stage. At times the other performers seem to be struggling to stay at her level. One of her most appealing qualities is that she's no glamour-puss. At a time when women's pictures were populated with the patrician likes of Norma Shearer and Ruth Chatterton, Stanwyck was the smart girl next door. But while beauty fades, talent doesn't. And if Stanwyck started with less beauty than the others (and that's debatable), she also started with far more talent. She was loved by fans, her directors, costars, seemingly everyone. NIGHT NURSE is Stanwyck's show. Sure, there's a story here, and it's wild and untamed, but ultimately it's a celebration of a new, modern breed of woman, and Stanwyck is it. (Lars Nilsen)

News Categories: General News, Austin, Coming Soon


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