Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Robert Loves a Nurse

Robert Montgomery stars as Lieutenant Wally O'Brien in War Nurse (1930).  The film opens at the outbreak of the First World War.  American women from all parts of the country and all walks of life daydream about becoming a war nurse.  Each has their own reason, and their own view of the mission.  The film follows the lives of  Barbara (Babs) Whitney (June Walker), Joy Meadows (Anita Page), Cushie (ZaSu Pitts), Rosalie "Brooklyn" Parker (Marie Prevost), and Marian "Kansas" (Helen Jerome Eddy) as the women venture to France to nurse the wounded. 

Though Mr. Montgomery is given top billing, this film really is about the nurses - all of them.  Sure, Babs is our "heroine", but each of the women has an interesting backstory and a distinct personality.  We grow to like all of them, and to admire their dedication to an awful and dangerous job.  The men in the story are the window dressing; the women are its heart.

Some movies are eternal, and it doesn't really matter when they are filmed.  Some are time capsules of their era.  In a sense, War Nurse is both.  This film looks back 12 years to "the War to end all wars," yet we know what the characters and filmmakers do not.  That, in a scant 8 years, the world will be at war again.  And though the technology may change, the effects of war and the work of the nurse do not.  We can empathize with the characters because their struggle represents the struggle of all nurses in a war zone. 

Based on the book 1930 book War Nurse: The True Story of a Woman Who Lived, Loved and Suffered on the Western Front (AFI Catalog), this is an excellent and compelling story.  We only had one minor complaint with the film, the levity that was inserted into the script felt forced and flat.  Not that one wants the film to be oppressing, but often the wisecracking just didn't belong.  It sometimes seemed to interrupt the flow of the action, and we were eager for the story to continue.
June Walker, in the role of Babs, is just wonderful.  Her scenes with Mr. Montgomery have a real feeling of truth.  We were especially impressed by the scene in which Wally visits her in her small flat.  Their interplay is excellent, and you come out of the scene sympathizing with both of them for different reasons.  Ms. Walker had a long career, in both television and theatre.  In 1926 (after making one short silent and one silent feature), she married writer/actor Geoffrey Kerr.  They had one child, actor John Kerr.  The marriage lasted until 1942, after which Ms. Walker made a few movies, but primarily appeared in television, working until 1960.   She also had a long career on Broadway, beginning in 1919, and working until 1958.  She appeared in 34 plays including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926, as Lorelei Lee), Waterloo Bridge (1930, as Myrna), and The Middle of the Night (1956).  Ms. Walker died in 1966.   

Hedda Hopper is appealing in the small part of Matron Townsend, an experienced, no-nonsense nurse, who looks over both the male patients and her nurses (see this TCM article).  Robert Ames as Robin Neil is also good.  Ames died the year after this film was released.  A severe alcoholic, Ames was trying to recover, but it is suspected that his sudden withdrawal from alcohol resulted in his death (which was attributed to delirium tremens).
We were especially intrigued with ZaSu Pitts as Cushie (her work in the film is briefly noted in this New York Times review).  With her sad face and voice, Ms. Pitts sound career was frequently in comedies.  In the early 30s, she was often partnered with Thelma Todd, in what has often been referred to as Hal Roach's feminine version of Laurel and Hardy (like Stan and Ollie, Thelma and ZaSu also used their real names in these films).  During the silent era, Ms. Pitts received much deserved praise for her work in Greed (1921); in the sound era, a film to not miss is her performance in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).  She worked steadily, easily moving into television in the 1940s (she was a regular on The Gale Storm Show - also known as Oh, Susanna); her last film was released after her death from cancer in 1963: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Ms. Pitts was also an author: she penned a book Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published just after her death. Her unusual name was a combination of her two birth names EliZA SUsan (pronounced "Zay-soo").

Though a precode film, the characters of Joy and Robin are both punished for their sins (for more on the plot, and an interesting discussion, visit this Pre-code.com review).  For a modern audience, the lack of background music and special effects (a bombing sequence is very clearly backscreen projection), can be surprising.  Regardless, you are still seeing a grim picture of the war, without viewing a lot of blood and gore.  

We'll leave you with this clip from the film.  We highly recommend it.

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