Old movies: the best nurses in film

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
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In this week’s old movies column, we take a look at some of the most memorable portrayals of nurses in classical film…

Nurses are the backbone of our society, despite what the government may tell you. They have kept our country alive during the worst of times and strive for quality patient care. They are powerhouses across the globe – and throughout time, have offered endless devotion to the medical field and life-saving treatment. Nurses are great and deserve to be awarded as such.

There have been plenty of movies about nurses. In fact, Jennifer Saunders depicts one in recent British comedy Allelujah. So, to mark its release, and to celebrate nurses in general, I’m looking at some famous nurse characters in classic films!

Nurse Marjorie (1920)
Dir: William Desmond Taylor

This silent film is one of the first to put a nurse in the centre of the story. Featuring Mary Miles Minter, Nurse Marjorie presents a titular character who is from an aristocratic family, and actually a Lady, but who yearns to do more with her life. She becomes a nurse in a hospital and there, she falls in love with one of her patients – a common labour leader.

Okay, there are some sketchy elements to this film – including the fact that lead actor Clyde Fillmore was 44 when this was made and Mary Miles Minter was 18, making the movie uncomfortable thanks to this very big, and obvious, age gap. The film is a little dull as well, but it is held together by the lead actress’s stunning talent, who shines as Nurse Marjorie.

A Farewell To Arms (1932)
Dir: Frank Borzage

Adapted from a semi-autobiographical book by Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms is a devastating yet poignant look at a nurse caught in the tragedies of World War One.

Starring Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper, and Adolphe Menjou, A Farewell To Arms sees English nurse Catherine have an affair with an American ambulance driver. However, thanks to jealousies and outside forces, the pair are torn apart.

Hayes and Cooper are brilliant here in this extremely sad story with an embittered end. Speaking about the finale (a somewhat spoiler alert for those who have yet to see the film) there was a special edit that made the ending a happier one for American audiences. This is a shame because the crushing end scene is necessary to understand the struggle of these two lovers pulled apart by war and emotional warfare.

Night Nurse (1932)
Dir: William A. Wellman

A nurse is thrown into the centre of a terrible murder mystery in Wellman’s incredible, if albeit silly, crime drama.

Featuring Barbara Stanwyck in the eponymous role, the film sees the young Lora Hart as she trains to be a nurse, alongside colleague B. Maloney – played by the immutable Joan Blondell. Lora is hired to look after two sickly children in private care. However, it becomes apparent to Lora that the children are being starved to death and are suffering because of a nefarious plot. It is up to her to unravel the mystery and save the children.

Also starring Clark Gable, Night Nurse is a wonderfully camp film that will make you laugh as much as it grips you. Blondell is terrific in a supporting role – as per usual – and the film has all those saucy pre-code predilections that make it even more fun. A good time is to be had here.

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)
Dir: Jacques Tourneur

Considered one of the first ever zombie movies, this Universal Monsters classic is a treat of a film.

Frances Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a young nurse who is hired to take care of Paul Holland’s wife, Jessica, who is exhibiting strange behaviour on their sugar plantation in the Caribbean. Soon, Betsy starts to fall in love with Paul, and gets mixed up in the shocking secrets of the couple.

Tourneur does imbue the movie with some artistic flare, including some impressive editing. Plus, Frances Dee is brilliant here.

However, it is schlocky and, sadly, racist. The film had mixed reviews when it was first released but film scholars now view it a bit more positively, becoming more of a cult film.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Dir Milos Forman

Perhaps this is less of a celebration of nurses, but has one of the most iconic nurses in cinematic history. The infamous Nurse Ratched is one of cinemas most memorable villains.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest sees a man who is unwillingly sent to a mental institution, which is run by the stern and sinister Nurse Ratched, who intimidates all of her patients.

Netflix tried their best to imbue Ratched with a backstory but alas fell short. After all, no one can encapsulate the cold hard glare of Nurse Ratched like Louise Fletcher, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal.

The film itself is one of three films to win in five major Academy Awards –Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay. The other two were The Silence Of The Lambs, and It Happened One Night!

Oh hey, a segue to last week’s column!

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