by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Registered Nurse, a 1934 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag, turned out to be a quite impressive movie: on the cusp of the so-called “pre-Code” era (it was filmed in December 1933 and released in March 1934), it opens at a country-club party at which Sylvia Benton (Bebe Daniels) is getting increasingly appalled at the antics of her husband Jim (Gordon Westcott), a far-gone alcoholic who, when she asks him to dance, angrily brushes her away because he’s more interested in finishing his drink. When another man, Bill (Philip Reed, who at first I thought might be the young Ray Milland — who did turn up in some pretty quirky roles in his early years, including a small part in the marvelous The Man Who Played God, with George Arliss and Bette Davis in her first Warners film), dances with her, Jim takes umbrage — even though he was so drunk I thought he was going to say, “Who are those two guys dancing with my wives?” In fact, Jim takes such loud, obnoxious umbrage that the management throws him out, and he insists on Sylvia leaving with him. Sylvia suggests that it would be better if she drove their car, but he insists on driving himself, grinning madly as he speeds up the car towards the inevitable accident.
Before the crash we get a neat piece of exposition in which she says she’s had enough of him and wants a divorce, he says she’ll never get any alimony, and she says she doesn’t mind because she’s still got a valid R.N. license and can always get a job as a hospital nurse. When the crash happens we get to see a few of her professional skills as she stabilizes her husband’s condition and checks his pulse; we’re not told his fate but it’s left carefully ambiguous whether he’s alive or dead. Then Sylvia relocates to New York City and gets a hospital job, telling the people who hire her, including Dr. Hedwig (John Halliday), that she is unmarried. (In the 1930’s and 1940’s companies frequently had employment policies banning the hiring of married women on the ground that it was their husband’s, not an employer’s, duty to support them. Some things have changed for the better.) She works in as a nurse and soon the film — based on a 1930 play by Florence Johns and William Lackaye, Jr. alternately called Miss Benton, R.N. and Night Duty, scripted by Lillie Hayward and Peter Milne, and directed by the almost always interesting Robert Florey — turns into a sort of Grand Hotel with white dresses and bedpans, as Sylvia and her fellow nurses — Sadie Harris (Irene Franklin) and Schloss (Minna Gombell), who’s dating a cop called (I kid you not!) Pat O’Brien (Edward Gargan — odd that a character in this story would have the name of a real actor, especially one under contract to the same studio at the same time!) — treat all manner of patients.
Wrestling promoter Frankie Sylvestrie (Sidney Toler pre-Charlie Chan) and his girlfriend McKenna (Beulah Bondi) get into a fight and both end up in the hospital, he with a broken leg and she with three cracked ribs — he’s ready, even with a broken leg, to beat up any nurse that tries to take care of him, but Our Sylvia is able to calm him and get him to accept treatment (though even she can’t persuade him to go under anaesthesia). Two of his wrestlers, Sonnevich (Tor Johnson, considerably younger and with less of a thick accent than he was in his Ed Wood days 20 years later) and El Humid (Harry Ekezian), visit him and get into an argument over which one is supposed to win their next (fixed) bout — which ends up with them fighting an unscheduled event in Frankie’s hospital room and both needing medical attention themselves. Sylvia, who somehow gets the nickname “Ban” after the first half of her last name, also ends up calming an anxious husband worried about his wife, and there’s a tear-jerking bit in which she loses Dickie (Ronnie Cosby), a cute, tow-headed kid being treated in the children’s ward.
At times this movie seems to be a compendium of Warners’ Greatest Hits — not only the love triangle between Sylvia, Dr. Hedwig and the younger, hunkier and playboy-ish Dr. Greg Connolly (Lyle Talbot — odd to see a 1930’s movies featuring two actors who later worked for Ed Wood!) but the troop of various proletarian types that go in and out of the hospital seeking and receiving care. About the only opportunity they missed was having Dorothy Brock, the character Bebe Daniels played in 42nd Street, show up at the hospital to have her broken leg set; the sight of Bebe Daniels setting Bebe Daniels’ leg would certainly have had a quirky appeal! Then, just because the movie has to build to a climax sometime, we get the big revelation that Sylvia can’t marry either of the two doctors who admire her because she’s still married — after the car accident in the first reel Jim Banton turned violently insane and has spent the last three years in an asylum, and since he’s not in his right mind Sylvia can’t divorce him — when Jim escapes from the institution and turns up at the hospital where Sylvia works. Dr. Hedwig examines him and declares that he can perform a delicate brain operation that has a good chance of restoring him to sanity, and he agrees to do so with Sylvia assisting.
Dr. Connolly, who earlier used the shooting death of Schloss’s cop boyfriend Pat O’Brien to try to persuade Sylvia that she should become his lover, marriage or no, proves himself the asshole he is (well, Lyle Talbot is playing him, after all!) when his only concern for Jim Banton is the hope that he’ll croak so Sylvia will be free to marry him. Frankie pushes his wheelchair into Jim’s hospital room and, pretending not to know who he is, says that Sylvia’s estranged husband should do her the favor of hurling himself out of the hospital window (I guess back then hospital windows still opened!) and allowing her to be happy with someone else. Just before the operation is supposed to take place, Jim climbs to the edge of the window and indeed hurls himself off it — I would have rather seen the plot resolve with the operation being a success, Jim returning to sanity and then voluntarily agreeing to give Sylvia a divorce — and Sylvia, having seen through Dr. Connolly, accepts the much older Dr. Hedwig and they embrace at the fade-out. (Offhand I can’t think of another movie in which John Halliday actually gets the girl.)
Though Daniels is playing a part that on another week in Warners’ history might have gone to Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, she’s an underrated actress (I still think she played the female lead in the 1931 Maltese Falcon better than Mary Astor did in the remake, and she also turned in an awesome performance as Baby Doe Tabor, or whatever they called her, in the 1932 film Silver Dollar) and she’s just fine here, at once authoritative and sufficiently kind and gentle that one can readily believe she has an unusually good bedside manner. The acting (save for one obnoxiously drawn comic-relief character who does the dishes for the hospital) is generally quite good, and while this isn’t a script that allows Florey to do anything especially creative behind the camera, he stages the action effectively and keeps the film moving so fast (a specialty of the Warners hands) that it packs an awful lot of plot into just 62 minutes.
The film also has quite a lot of people lighting each other’s cigarettes; though there’s a “No Smoking” sign in the nurses’ break room, the nurses themselves show their contempt by striking their matches on it — and with the standards of the modern age it’s hard to believe that in 1934 a doctor and a nurse could eat together in a hospital cafeteria, both of them would be smoking like chimneys and nobody would notice or care.