Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Student Nurse Florence

My fascination with in women in medicine extends to way nurses are portrayed in classic cinema.  So, this week, our group watched the 1939 film Four Girls in White. The film follows four young women who enter a three year nursing program, each for her own reasons:  Gertie Robbins (Una Merkel) wants a job which will give her three (or more) meals a day; Mary Forbes (Mary Howard) wants to be a district nurse so she can better support her small daughter; Patricia Page (Ann Rutherford) is there because her sister, Norma (Florence Rice) has entered the program.  And Norma? Norma's decided the hospital is the route to a rich husband. 

This is an interesting film, which combines humor, drama, engaging characters, and a good script.  It's a story which provides a (somewhat glorified) view of nursing education, as well as a nice bunch of stories - some romantic, some comic, some tragic.  But it really is never boring and is often surprising.  It does a excellent job introducing us to our lead character - realizing she and her sister will be late for their school orientation, Norma puts in a phony call for an ambulance, then begs a ride to the school from the answering physician, Stephen Melford (Alan Marshal).  No fool, Dr. Melford quickly figures out their ruse and exacts a punishment (he could, of course, turn her and her sister into the police, but that's never discussed).  Norma, of course, is smitten, primarily because he is a young, handsome, and unmarried physician.

We were especially impressed with Alan Marshall's portrayal of Dr. Melford.  The movie presents him as another physician of the Hollywood hero mode: a doctor who wants to work in the hospital at lower pay because there he treats people who truly need him, takes ambulance duty because a colleague needed assistance, and is a researcher trying to better mankind   It could be a tricky role, because Melford is so innately "good", but Marshall gives him a sense of humor; Melford's discussions with Norma concerning his career choices are sincere without being saccharine. At one point, according to this AFI Catalog article, Gene Raymond was set for the role. We think Marshall was a much better choice. 

An engaging actor, Marshall appeared in 24 films between 1936 and 1959 (he died in 1961, at the age of 51).  An Australian citizen, he was unable to join the US Military during World War II, and acquiesced to his wife's request that he not attempt to return to Australia to enlist (quite frankly, it would have been very dangerous just to travel TO Australia).  Instead, he did numerous bond tours, receiving the The United States Treasury Award for his work.  By 1944, he pulled back from film work - he had always disliked Hollywood, and his film work and bond tours had exhausted him.  He would return to films and to television in the 1950s, and worked steadily - often with friends like Vincent Price (in The House on Haunted Hill).  For more information on Mr. Marshall, visit this webpage that is dedicated to him.  He also worked onstage - his final role was in play of Sextette, starring Mae West.  He was appearing in Chicago in that play (along with his son, Kit), when he suffered a heart attack.

We liked Florence Rice in the role of Norma.  This TCM article is rather critical of her (as well as Ann Harding - who has nothing to do with this movie. We like Ann Harding), but we feel unfairly so.   One isn't supposed to really LIKE Norma - she's an opportunist, and the audience is never clear if her interest in Melford is because he is a doctor, with a potential for wealth, or because she really has a regard for him.  Rice is not afraid to play her as selfish and a bit unpleasant.  Her only saving grace is her loving relationship with her sister (it seems evident that the girls are alone in the world. No other family is mentioned) - that is what gives one hope that her character will eventually grow up.  We were intrigued with the use of a statue of Florence Nightingale in the story.  It serves as a barometer for Norma's growth as a person - she complains to it when her selfishness is the most egregious; it also signals her reform later in the film. It's an interesting way to heroize the character of The Nurse.

Ms. Rice had a decent career, mostly in second leads.  She was still working fairly steadily when she retired in 1943.  She married her third husband, Fred Butler in 1946, a marriage that would last until her death in 1974. 
One character in the film is a bit of a mystery.  Mary Forbes, who has been forced to put her child into a foster  home (on a farm), while she completes the three year nursing program in the city.  Though it is never stated outright, there are hints that Mary is an unwed mother.  She never mentions a husband, never says she is widowed, but she is clearly the sole support of the child.  And the character is, as is often the case for unwed mothers during the "Code" period, punished for her "sins".  It's an interesting plot point, that we suspect would have been evident to the contemporary audience. 

A number of interesting character actors appear in the film, notably Jessie Ralph as the nursing instructor, Miss Tobias, Sara Haden as Miss Bennett,  Kent Taylor as millionaire Robert Maitland, and Buddy Ebsen as orderly Express.  The relationship between Ebsen and Una Merkel provide most of the humor to the film (some of it on the silly side). 

We will leave you with this clip from the film.  As fans of the Cherry Ames books, we found the film an enjoyable look at the start of a career.

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