So You Want to be a Nurse: Tricks of the Trade, Pre-Code Style
You know how it goes: You score a new job you’re stoked for and arrive day one full of positivity, high hopes, good cheer, and ambition. And then someone who knows the ropes bursts your bubble and brings you back down to reality. That’s Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, respectively, at the very beginning of Night Nurse (1931).
Maloney (Blondell) pushing Lora (Stanwyck) off Cloud Nine with a simple look.
Lora Hart (Stanwyck) puts her best foot forward to nab a job as a nurse probationer at the local hospital. There, Lora and roommate Maloney (Blondell) learn the ins-and-outs of the medical field, eventually graduating to full-fledged nurse status. But all the schooling in the world doesn’t quite prepare them for their first assignment, where Maloney serves as day nurse and Lora night nurse to a pair of adorable sisters… who are being starved to death for their trust fund by their drunken mother Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam) and her scheming chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable). As Lora tries to convince honest Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) of the severe malpractice going down, she works diligently to save the children, fighting against corrupt forces whose nurturing tendencies stop at their own pocketbooks.
Surprisingly, the picture delivers a healthy dose of hart – heart, that is – within the treacherous child death plot it’s got going on. For those of you angling to enter this admirable profession, below are some tips from Night Nurse, prescribed specifically for pre-Code use. (That said, you may want to keep this list at your bedside, as you’ll notice how well some of the below pointers can serve outside a hospital’s walls, too.)
1. Make friends in high places
It can be hard to get your foot in the door by yourself in any career. Networking helps, but if you’re a real newbie, cross your fingers that you run into someone, literally or figuratively, with connections. Like the Chief of Staff at a hospital. Nice legs are a bonus which may or may not seal the deal. (This is a pre-Code, after all.)
2. “Rules mean something”
Sure they do, but hey, sometimes rules are meant to be broken, especially if they are administered by a staunch Nurse Superintendent. A good example would be when a bootlegger stumbles into the hospital with a bullet wound and begs for help… without wanting to make an official report. Or when you sneak back to your quarters a good one and a half hours late after an evening out. I mean, a 12 am curfew for your only free night seems a bit lame, doesn’t it? After all, you only live once, right?
3. Get used to little privacy
Basically, this means undressing anywhere and everywhere with doors wide open, because obviously, that’s standard operating procedure in pre-Code hospitals. “I guess everybody around here has seen more than I got,” Lora recognizes. She sure is right. There’s really nothing to hide when an intern strolls in proclaiming: “You can’t show me a thing. I just came from the delivery room.” Alright, then.
4. Keep away from interns
This is a given, isn’t it? “They’re like cancer – the disease is known, but not the cure,” Maloney teaches Lora early on. Since the goal for single ladies is to put a ring on it, Maloney explains that rich patients who believe a nurse saved their life are the only ones who can do a girl any good – specifically, appendicitis cases. (And though interns will marry you, they’ll simply install you in their front office when they start their own practice, and who would want that?!)
5. Get cozy with your roommate
Living and working together isn’t easy, especially in a high-stress environment like a hospital. If you find yourself sharing quarters, make the best of it. Extra points if your roomie is cool with you hopping in her bed if you get frightened by something… like a skeleton an intern hid under your covers.
6. Buck up – You’ll observe things you never thought you’d see
And you better get used to it! It’s always good to have supportive friends to help get you through the strenuous times, like a daunting assignment assisting with a big surgery. In this specific case, Lora receives encouragement in liquor form, thoughtfully sent by her bootlegger pal Mortie. You’ll be happy to know that Lora didn’t take a swig of the stuff before walking into the surgical theater, but considering that this is the Prohibition era, that hooch is swell pre-Code medicine to keep on hand for treatment off the clock.
7. You’re going to witness some corrupt sh*t – keep your morals and ethics about you
“If he wants to murder those youngsters, we’ll make him use a gun,” Dr. Bell deadpans to Lora, who visits him to seek assistance after realizing the nefarious conspiracy going down in the Ritchey home. Despite any WTF things you may overhear on the job, remember to keep calm and report what you see. Though some doctors (looking at you, Bell) hold their medical ethics high – like, above doing the right thing, at first – always follow your intuition. Oh, and fight evil. Even if evil comes in the dashing form of Clark Gable. That’s doubly dangerous.
Heck, one of this woman’s babies was already run over and killed, and here she is boozing it up with her pet pup. Obviously, this is a fantastic parental specimen.
8. You’ll learn that others aren’t as caring as you
“Why, nursing people has always seemed sort of second nature with me,” Lora asserts at the beginning of the film. Sure, but that’s certainly not true for everyone; for instance, some ladies simply don’t possess the motherly instinct. Case in point: Mrs. Ritchey, who would rather care for a case of booze – or a dog – than her kids. “Why do poor little children have to be born to women like you?” Lora laments. Good question. But incompetent women have become mothers in the past and will in the future, so in those cases, it’s up to you to step in with that nurturing nature!
9. It’s good to know how to defend yourself
No one wants to experience a fist to the face, right? Well, Lora does, and somewhere along the way, she learns how to fight back. Self-defense skills come in handy if you find yourself targeted by, say, a touchy patient, shady chauffeur, or leering drunk – all animals who could learn a thing or two about bedside manner.
10. Sometimes you gotta beckon a bootlegger to track down a doctor to spare an innocent life and save the day
OK, hopefully, this won’t be of use to anyone after 1934. Because #precode.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.