Film In Focus
By Ed Garea
Registered Nurse (WB, 1934) – Director: Robert Florey. Writers: Lillie Hayward & Peter Milne (s/p). Based on Night Duty, a play by Florence Johns & Wilson Lackeye, Jr. Cast: Bebe Daniels, Lyle Talbot, John Halliday, Irene Franklin, Sidney Toler, Gordon Westcott, Minna Gombell, Beulah Bondi, Vince Barnett, Phillip Reed, Mayo Methot, Renee Whitney, Virginia Sale, Ronnie Cosby, Edward Gargan, Louise Beavers, Harry Ekezian, & Tor Johnson. B&W, 63 minutes.
Registered Nurse is an entertaining programmer from Warner Bros. and director Robert Florey. Florey crams a lot of plot into only 63 minutes while making us feel the film is longer. It boasts solid performances from its stars, and despite some rather poorly written plot contrivances, manages to entertain and see us through until the end.
The film opens with a shot of Sylvia Benton (Daniels) descending a staircase at a country club while the whispers of other members play about her. They are whispering how she can stay married to such a dolt as Jim Benton (Westcott). Although socially prominent, he seems to prefer a drink or two, or three, to the company of his wife, as we witness when she walks over to the club bar to remind him that he promised the next dance to her. Jim doesn’t want to be bothered and tells her so in rather rude terms, so rude that Bill (Reed), the fellow standing next to him at the bar, offers to dance with her instead. This enrages Jim, who cuts in and attempts to take it outside with Bill. Cooler heads prevail and rush Jim outside. Jim’s had enough; he’s leaving and demands Sylvia accompany him. Sylvia tells him it would be better if she drove, given his condition, but Jim declines her offer, hitting the pedal hard as they speed along.
While in the car, an interesting conversation is going on. Sylvia is fed up with Jim’s antics. She’s had enough and wants a divorce. That’s fine with Jim, who tells her not to expect any alimony. Sylvia replies that she doesn’t need any alimony from him; she still has a valid R.N. license and can work in a hospital. Florey then cuts to the speedometer on Jim’s Lincoln and we know it’s only a matter of seconds before the inevitable crash. And, sure enough, he fails to negotiate a corner and crashes the auto in a ditch. Sylvia gets out unhurt and goes to the driver’s side to check Jim’s pulse. As the scene fades, we’re pretty sure he didn’t make it, but it ends on that ambiguous note.
In the next scene we cut to a New York City hospital where Sylvia is applying as a nurse. She tells Supervisor of Nurses, Miss McKenna (Bondi), that she is unmarried. Next comes a montage of the years passing until the present day. Not only is Sylvia established in the hospital, she has two doctors madly in love with her: the flirtatious Dr. Greg Connolly (Talbot) and the older, serious, Dr. Hedwig (Halliday). It is here where the film takes a turn into an ensemble drama, somewhat along the lines of Grand Hotel, but closer to previous Warner ensemble offerings such as Life Begins (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933). It’s a “life behind the scenes” type of film as Sylvia and her fellow nurses – Beulah Schloss (Gombell), Gloria Hammond (Methot), and Ethel Smith (Whitney) – as they treat all manner of patients.
Sylvia’s bedside manner is impeccable, as she calms wrestling manager Frankie Sylvestrie (Toler), who demands to be released by the hospital, even though he suffered a broken leg in a fight. She also calms patient Sadie Harris (Franklin), who is hospitalized with a swollen eye and a broken jaw suffered in a fight with boyfriend Frankie. We also learn that she’s the madam of a local bordello (this is Pre-Code, after all), and that she wants no part of Nurse Hammond treating her. Sylvia calms her and takes charge. In addition, she ends up calming a nervous husband worried about his wife, and has quite the tear-jerking scene after Dickie (Cosby), a young boy she and Dr. Hedwig have been treating in the children’s ward, suddenly dies.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sylvia also acts as a moral support to her fellow nurses, bucking up Nurse Schloss in her romance with Officer Pat O’Brien (gotta love that name) while fielding passes from Doctors Connolly and Hedwig. Both doctors are pursuing “Ben,” as they call her, fervently, with Hedwig actually proposing to her. Connolly is also wishing to propose. We learn that Connolly is involved with Nurse Hammond, but is keen to dump her for Sylvia, a point Hammond makes to Sylvia.
Later, as Sylvia and Greg are alone in the cafeteria, Greg broaches the subject of marriage and Sylvia tells him the reason she cannot accept. It seems she’s been married for the last five years, although separated for the last three. Greg asks why can’t she get a divorce. Sylvia replies that it would be impossible. When Greg presses her on the subject, she leaves. Hedwig now enters and Greg spills the beans to him.
Sylvia, who has been a rock of calm in this storm of nerves, suddenly goes to pieces one day when Hedwig operates on a psychopathic woman in an attempt to restore her sanity. We know that the situation is coming to a head, and it spills over at a party Sylvia and Greg are attending. He vows his love to Sylvia, telling her that he has stopped seeing all other women. It’s then that Sylva tells him the reason she cannot get a divorce. It seems that Jim survived the crash, but has become violently insane and is confined to a mental institution. Because of his condition, the law will not allow her to divorce him.
As if this isn’t enough, the soap now gets thicker. Schloss’s fiancée, Officer O’Brien, is shot during a holdup and dies in front of her at the hospital. Sylvia abandons her problems to help Schloss deal with her loss. As this is going on, guess who walks into the hospital? Why, Jim, of course. Seems he escaped from the looney bin, and during one of his few sane moments has decided to come to the hospital. While he is speaking to Dr. Hedwig in his office about an operation to cure his insanity, who should come sauntering in but Sylvia? To say she’s surprised to see him is an understatement. He needs her consent for the operation as he’s legally certified, and she’s not sure as the operation is dangerous, but Hedwig talks her into consenting.
Meanwhile, Greg tells Sylvia they should continue their affair even if Jim recovers. After Officer O’Brien was killed Greg told Sylvia they should grab happiness while they can because they never know when life will end. Both remarks are not taken well by Sylvia.
While Jim is in his room preparing for the operation, Sylvestrie comes to visit. Pretending not to know that Jim is Sylvia’s husband (he overheard Sylvia and Hedwig talking), he relates Sylvia’s story and tells Jim the right thing for the husband to do would be to commit suicide. And that is exactly what Jim does a short while later, jumping from a hall window. While this frees Sylvia, she decides to quit. When she visits Hedwig in his office to say good-bye, he asks if she’s marrying Greg, to which she answers “no.” Hedwig then asks her what she’ll do. She’s not sure. How about traveling, he proposes. He’d like to take her to Europe with him. Then he proposes and she accepts. But first, he has an emergency operation, and before she resigns, Sylvia tells him she’ll stand in as his nurse.
Amidst all this drama there’s one weak attempt at comedy. As Sylvestrie is convalescing, he is visited by two of his wrestlers: El Humid (Ekezian) and Sonnevich (Johnson). They bring him flowers and he tells them they should be in Miami for the show there. Sonnevich replies that they’re about to leave, but asks a favor of his boss. He knows that El Humid is scheduled to win, but couldn’t he win instead? He has a girl down there he’s interested in romancing. El Humid is against it. “You won last time,” he tells his opponent. “Yeah, well, you can’t wrestle, anyway,” Sonnevich fires back. One word leads to another, and before long the two are embroiled in a set-to right in Sylvestrie’s room, with Sonnevich sent sprawling over the promoter’s bed, as the doctors and nurses try to break them up. Cut quickly to the next scene and we see both grapplers bandaged and in bed. When they’re finally released they get into it again and we see the nurses simply remaking their beds. Johnson, who does most of the speaking during their scenes, is almost unrecognizable with a full head of hair and a voice that can be understood, unlike the accented guttural tones he used in Plan 9 From Outer Space. (How director Florey ever got a name such as “Sonnevich” past the censors, I’ll never know.) Ekezian would change his ring name to “Ali Baba” in 1935, and on April 25, 1936, he became world’s champ by defeating Dick Shikat.
As I said at the beginning, this is an entertaining programmer, though not really a good film. It’s more for those who love Pre-Code films or medical melodramas. Director Florey keeps things going at a good pace and brought the picture in ahead of time and under budget, a habit he’s was known for, especially later in his career, and one that probably helped him get work, as he was not a particularly outstanding director.
Stars Daniels, Talbot, and Halliday are all fine, given the limitations of the script. Daniels lays it on a little thick during the scenes where she zones out upon hearing of a patient’s mental illness, but otherwise pulls off a decent performance. I’ve always been of the opinion that Daniels was the most underrated and ill-used actor on the Warner Bros. roster. She was great as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, and her Ruth Wonderly in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is far superior to Mary Astor’s portrayal of the role in 1941. I could never see Bogart’s Sam Spade being nuts about Astor’s Wonderly, but I can easily see why Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade would be crazy about Daniels as Wonderly. Also check out her performance sometime as Lily Owens with Edward G. Robinson and Aline MacMahon in the 1932’s drama, Silver Dollar.
Talbot is excellent as the smarmy cad and Halliday makes the most of his role as more of a father figure than a romantic lead. Talbot shines in a scene where the madam, Sadie, is admitted. When he stops by to visit her she greets him as “Dr. Gregory.” Talbot looks shocked and tells her he’s “Dr. Connolly.” None of this escapes the attention of supposed girlfriend Nurse Hammond, who was also in the room.
But it’s the supporting cast that makes the film interesting. As wrestling promoter Sylvestrie, Toler almost steals the movie, and Irene Franklin, as his madam girlfriend, works well with him. The nurses are all fine, with Methot getting some good screen time. It’s the most I’ve ever seen of the Portland Rosebud in a film, save for Marked Woman. Edward Gargan as O’Brien, the boyfriend of Schloss, only seems to be in the film as a sort of filler between scenes of what’s going on with Sylvia. Veteran actor Vince Barnett shines as Jerry, the orderly. He has a great scene at the staff party, serving drinks to McKenna (Bondi) and Miss Dixon, a probationary nurse (Sale). He’s serving them “Pink Suspenders,” but offers to make them a “Bosom Caresser,” so-called he says, “because it warms you all the way down.”
One thing that tickles a lot of people who have seen the film is the amount of smoking going on, especially with the doctors and nurses. In one scene, the nurses make a point of striking their matches against a “No Smoking” sign posted in their break room. But those were different times back then; patients could even smoke in their rooms.
The advertisements for the film claimed, “Every scene is a shock,” and that “It will run your temperature up to 105.” Well, not quite, but that’s what ads are for.
This was Bebe Daniels’s last film for Warner Bros., and I’m surprised they used her in an obvious Kay Francis vehicle. She did one film after this, Music is Magic for Fox, and moved with husband Ben Lyon (whom she married in 1930) to England, where both became successful on the West End stage. The Lyons also had their own radio show in London called “Life With the Lyons” and stayed in England during the war, even broadcasting during the height of the Blitz. They were the most popular couple on English radio and their program vied with Tommy Handley’s “It’s That Man Again” for the number one position in the radio ratings. They parlayed their radio success into a couple of films, the last one being The Lyons Abroad (1955).
Daniels was making a personal appearance in Chicago when she discovered that $6,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from her hotel room. Al Capone, a big Daniels fan, put out word that whoever stole the jewelry had better return it “or else.” The jewelry was all returned the very next day.
She was a cousin of actors DeForest (Star Trek) Kelley and Calvert DeForest (Larry “Bud” Melman on David Letterman's show).