‘Says me. In a big way, sister’: Barbara Stanwyck’s lipstick in Night Nurse (1931)

In Ten Cents a Dance (1931) Stanwyck’s right lip curls up into a sneer as she tells Monroe Owsley ‘You’re not a man. You’re not even a good sample’ which sounds as good as a divorce decree from a habitually disappointed wife. In Baby Face (1933), Barbara Stanwyck stands up to her father who has pimped her out from the age of fourteen. Her mouth shoots more fire than an acetylene torch. Little wonder she didn’t melt his face off when she assures him that he’s lower than any man and that she’ll hate him as long as she lives. After he dies a minute later in a moonshine distillery explosion, Stanwyck’s outburst was canny foreshadowing. In both cases, she wears a painted mouth.

Perhaps the best example of Stanwyck’s snarl in pre-Codes occurs in Night Nurse (1931) because she exercises intense lip aerobics to put six different people on notice, which must be a record in her film credits. Each time she faces an opponent, and grows incandescent with rage, her mouth fishhooks to the right side. Stanwyck’s mouth loses symmetry as it heaves to one side, creating a look that is grotesque, awe-inspiring, and ultimately beautiful in the way it surrenders glamour for power.

Throughout the picture, she wears a dark vermillion lipstick that provides emphasis for her ‘Get Outs’. Dark lip rouge calls attention to her mouth and the contours of her rage. Perc Westmore, head of the makeup department in Warner Brothers, who carried a singular contract-for-life status in the studio, chose the shade wisely. Against her stark-white nurse’s uniform, the deep red shade makes her lips more prominent. Stanwyck’s lipstick seems to mirror Dr Bell’s remark about her character’s allegorical name, Lora Hart: ‘sturdy instrument the heart’. It’s a good name for an empathetic nurse. Lora Hart doesn’t wear her heart on a sleeve—she wears it on her lipstick.

Dressed in an immaculate white uniform, Stanwyck’s dark red lippy stands out in every scene from her first night caring for two children in the Ritchey household. Joan Blondell plays Maloney, Stanwyck’s colleague from nursing school who works the dayshift. Throughout their medical training, whenever the question about duty of care came up, Lora Hart clung to steadfast ideals, even when Maloney joked about wanting to set fire to the hospital. If Maloney questions her dedication to her medical oath, Lora gives a resolute ‘Says me. In a big way, sister.’

On the first night of the job, Maloney refers to the Ritchey home as a palace, full of suites with built-in kitchens and sitting rooms. In reality, the place look more like an asylum with tiny spaces that feel airless and claustrophobic. At a glance, everything seems above board, but the longer Lora stays in the house, the more she realises their wealth hides all manner of nasty business.

In the Ritchey home, doom waits around every corner and each adult turns their back on abuse. Hart’s young charges Nanny (Marcia Mae Jones) and Desney (Betty Jane Graham), cherubs in sausage curls, are prisoners in a nightmarish modern fairy tale. Why are the girls given only milk when they’re just out hospital recovering from malnutrition? Why do they not see their mother? And who is this Nick the chauffeur who frightens the girls? No one seems willing to intervene, except the novice young nurse who witnesses the ghoulish deeds.

By the end of the first night, Stanwyck has treated two desperately ill girls and discovered their mother in a drunken blackout. Then, she’s almost raped by one man and punched in the face by another. Things aren’t what they seem, which leaves the night nurse disoriented. Mrs Ritchey, played by Charlotte Merriam, wears a thousand dollar gown yet acts like a hobo passed out in the Bowery. When Clark Gable enters, he saves Lora Harte from a rich souse in a tuxedo played by Walter McGrail, who had pinned her to the floor. Viewers gauge the force of Gable’s punch by the way the drunk man’s shirt front buckles open—Gable knocked his button studs off when he put his lights out.

Gable enters with inky lacquer hair, wearing polka dot pyjamas under an ornate silk kimono. He looks like a swell in leisure clothes, as if he could be Mr Ritchey, the man of the house. Initially, Lora mistakes him for someone responsible and in charge, because he’s the only other sober adult in the house, but he doesn’t want to listen, nor will he let Lora ring for a doctor. Gable demands a stomach wash for the lady of the house, and drives the message home by taking the nurse’s arm in a vice grip. 

Stanwyck keeps her mouth level while she figures things out, but once Gable introduces himself as Nick, the chauffeur, the man who terrifies little Nanny and Desney, fear takes hold. The camera glides in for a close up of Barbara Stanwyck’s face, and her mouth opens like a soft rosebud under rain as she exclaims in surprise. She is overtaken by the hulking menace when she tries to do the sensible thing and ring for a doctor. The chauffeur socks Lora in the jaw and knocks her unconscious, but luckily it happens off camera, so viewers are spared the vicious attack.

Nick carries Lora across the hall to the children’s suite as though she were a limp bouquet. Once she regains consciousness, the nurse finds blood splashed across her chin, which matches the colour of her lipstick. Just outside the door, Nick leans against a door smoking a cigarette. With one look, he dissuades Lora from taking any more chances. The way she takes the blow and rubs a sore chin suggests that she’s accustomed to violence from men.

Wellman isn’t interested in making a picture where Stanwyck waltzes in and dominates the home just because she has a flippant sass mouth and wears a nurse’s uniform. Everything about the Ritchey house is unsettling and strange—it’s a place where cruelty waits behind doors and heavy drapes. She’s in the worst kind of trap—one where vipers hide in a nest of money, protected on all sides from scrutiny by a fledgling nurse, who looks like she hasn’t had a decent meal since the market crashed. No one listens to what she has to report.

In confrontations with two doctors, Stanwyck’s mouth heaves more and more to the right side of her face, as she tries to get help for the children. Ralf Harolde sits behind an Art Deco desk flaring his nostrils and twitching as he plays Dr Ranger, a coke-sniffing private physician, who ignores Lora’s concerns. Lora snaps at him ‘Don’t think you can muzzle me, Dr Ranger’. Next, she loses her cool when Dr Bell (Charles Winninger) hides behind medical ethics as a reason for not taking action against another doctor. Lora nearly snaps his head off when she wonders if there’s any humanity to save poor little babies from being murdered. Dr Bell advises Lora to stay on the job and look out for the little girls. Lora upholds her medical oath as she swallows her rage and flatters Dr Ranger so he will reinstate her position.  She accepts $100 from Mrs Ritchey to smooth over a sordid night. Between furtive sips of hooch, the rich dame hands over a century note like it was a tip to a powder room attendant.

Stanwyck’s lips curdle with scorn for Mrs Ritchey in another scene when the mother is drunk and refuses to see her sick daughter. Nanny sinks very low, weak from starvation, and fearing the girl will die, Lora interrupts a party looking for the girl’s mother. Slumped against the bar, yowling for drink, the rich mother is insensible yet dressed to the teeth. In a starched white uniform, Lora threatens to drag the platinum blonde by her hair. Mrs Ritchey passes out and turn into dead weight. Hands on hips, Lora dumps a melted ice bucket over her, cursing her by saying, ‘you mother’. The tuxedo rapist attempts a reprise of the night before, only this time, Stanwyck is ready for him. As she punches him in the neck, the right side of her mouth jerks up toward her cheekbone. Stanwyck’s dark ruby mouth looks exquisite as it contorts with rage. Finally, she fights back, and the blow she strikes matches the raw fury she shows us with her mouth. A barbaric yawp worthy of Whitman echoes her medical oath, as she strikes a blow for the weak, the powerless. Lora Harte draws a line in the sand, or in this case, the fancy carpet loom. After he slithers off to nurse his wounds, she throws a wine bucket at him from across the room which lands like a brick.

Watching Barbara Stanwyck’s lips twitch and snarl and heave toward her right ear reassures me that there is order in the universe. Stanwyck resets the balance of power, bravely standing up to people who turn one dirty trick after another. In red lipstick, Barbara Stanwyck’s maw of fury brings a much needed reckoning in Night Nurse. She turns from glamour-puss to gorgon and it’s magnificent.

Although she shouts abuse at doctors, a dipso socialite, a lecherous drunk, and a drunken housekeeper, the inevitable return of the chauffeur reminds us that she wages an uphill battle. As the angel of death, Clark Gable trades wings and a robe for shiny jackboots and a Stygian touring uniform. Gable looms in a doorway like Poe’s raven when he first appears in his chauffeur regalia, as he spies on Lora and the bootlegger Mortie, played by Ben Lyon. Gable is the immovable force, blocking exits, hovering like dread omniscience. Nothing escapes his notice.

During the climax, the inevitable showdown between nurse and chauffeur plays like a study of opposites. Stanwyck wears bleached whites next to the stove, pouring bottles of milk into a tin tub with little Nanny folded up like a plucked chicken. Wellman’s blocking for the scene layers tension inside the narrow galley kitchen with Gable, a menace, who is buttoned to the throat in jet black, who fills the doorway and shrinks the room.

The housekeeper, in a drunken haze, looks like Mrs Poole highjacked from Thornfield, as she reluctantly helps Lora solve the conspiracy between Dr Ranger and Nick. The men plan to starve the girls and once they’re dead, and siphon their inheritance from the booze-hound mother. Lora’s first priority is Nanny, which means she’ll try anything—even a milk-bath for a cure. Nick hovers like a storm cloud over the nurse and cherub. After she grows weary of his bully routine, Lora gives it to him on the level, telling the chauffeur they make electric chairs for the type of thing he’s doing. She turns to face him, sticking her chin up at him, her right lip jerks across her cheek, when she reads him the riot act: ‘You think because you can come in here and strong arm a couple of women that you can put over a racket like this?’ Nick has the brawn but not the brains. Lora Hart has a mouth on her, but even so, she needs the help of a real thug to put this beast down for good.

William Wellman was a standout among macho kingpins in breeches whose reputations as director on a film set preceded them, from tales of dangerous stunts or working conditions, rapid fire shooting schedules, and a deep resentment of any sign of weakness. Louise Brooks gave an account of working with him on Beggars of Life (1928) that seems more like fraternity-hazing than a professional film production.  Yet Barbara Stanwyck’s childhood would have made Little Dorrit weep, which led her to develop a violent allergy to self-pity in all its forms. She was as hard-nosed as any tough guy on the set. By the time she met Wellman, she had cultivated talent that no longer needed coaxing from a director, as Capra claimed was necessary when he shadowed her throughout their first picture together. By 1931, Stanwyck easily summoned the emotional fire she needed for the camera.

Wellman recognised the fighter in Stanwyck and praised her work ethic. The director was impressed that Stanwyck had committed the entire script to memory, not just her own lines, and declared his love for her, according to his namesake son and biographer in Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel. She was letter perfect in each scene. And she didn’t complain about rough treatment, such as the a scene where Gable throws her across the room against a wall. Victoria Wilson notes each day on set, Stanwyck worried over the schedule as if she were one of the producers. The crew even joked about her drive to finish the picture early and under budget.

I’m not the only one riveted by the raw power that Barbara Stanwyck projects with her mouth, before she disciplined her lips to remain symmetrical, beginning with her final pre-Code picture, Gambling Lady (1934). In Bob Altman’s Kansas City (1996), Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a woman who styles herself after Jean Harlow. At one point she takes Miranda Richardson by gun point to a cinema to see Hold Your Man from 1933,  and confesses that she’s already seen it several times. From her first scene in the picture, Jennifer Jason Leigh really channels Barbara Stanwyck, pure and simple. Just like Stanwyck, Jason Leigh stretches her lips as though they resented being confined to her mouth. Jennifer Jason Leigh also narrated a documentary about Barbara Stanwyck’s career, and she demonstrates how closely she studied Stanwyck’s work in Altman’s picture. Along with her screen idol, Jason Leigh communicates disillusion and an inability to accept things the way they are, rather than in the way she would like them to be. In these crazy days, we need more women who put men on blast and speak truth to power.

Says me. In a big way, sister.

I was supposed to give a presentation on Stanwyck’s lipstick for the Screen Star Makeup Conference, but since it was cancelled due to the pandemic, I’ve written it in essay form to share,)