From Angel to Devil: Images of Nurses In Film
By Barbara Eisner Bayer
Heroic angel: the 1920s and 1930s
Sometimes, however, the angel is martyred. Nurse Edith Covell (1930) tells the true story of a nurse who helped men escape from the Germans during World War I to safety in Holland and France. The title character is ultimately betrayed and shot to death for heeding her conscience.
Military might: the '40s and '50s
The 1943 film So Proudly We Hail stars Paulette Goddard, Claudette Colbert, and Veronica Lake as Red Cross nurses stationed in the Pacific during the World War II. Strong and courageous, they exhibit pride in duty and country. Also to be reckoned with is Donna Reed, starring in the 1945 film They Were Expendable. Reed is a WW I army nurse who deals with constant tragedy while maintaining her grace and dignity. These images do nurses proud.
By the 1950s, images of nurses on the silver screen became more personal, as plot lines focused on their romantic (rather than their professional) lives. Some examples include Patricia Neal in Operation Pacific (1951), Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific (1958), and Jennifer Jones in the 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms.
Consciousness, or lack of it
This decade also saw the birth of a new genre-the nurse film. Roger Corman, creator of these exploitation pics, wanted to put assertive and independent women back on the screen. This led to a series of five features, including Student Nurses and Private Duty Nurses, that portray RNs as sex objects in uniforms.
In 1975, one of the most famous, and perhaps most negative, image of a nurse hit the screen in the character of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As she tries to maintain order at any cost in a chaotic mental asylum, Nurse Ratched establishes the stereotype of nurse as witch. Her sadism ultimately leads to the death of one patient and the electroshock treatment of another (played by Jack Nicholson). Louse Fletcher captured the Academy Award for Best Actress, the first time an RN brought home an Oscar.
Reel getting real
Nurses in the new millenium
Will filmmakers continue to reflect the public's changing perception of nurses? A1999 survey carried out by MORI, the largest independently-owned market research company in the United Kingdom, discovered that 80 percent of the people polled regarded nurses as "extremely hardworking" and "caring and understanding." Only 6 percent of that group regarded nurses as sex objects. So grab your popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the more positive images of nurses on the silver screen. Image is everything.
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