Nostalgic Cinema

Private Duty Nurses (1971)

Private Duty Nurses (USA, 1971) 80 min color DIR-SCR-PROD: George Armitage. MUSIC: Sky. DOP: John McNichol. CAST: Katherine Cannon, Joyce Williams, Pegi Boucher, Joseph Kaufmann, Dennis Redfield, Robert F. Simon, Herbert Jefferson Jr., Paul Hampton, Paul Gleason. (New World Pictures)

“Wow, is that a waterbed?” This line is uttered in an early scene, when the brunette Lynn (Pegi Boucher) has a fling with her landlord (Paul Hampton). Not only is he a 60-second man with clothes back on and out the door in equal time, he is also a possessive jerk. This moment is indicative of the entire film: at once revelling in 70s hedonism, and unapologetically depicting the prices paid for bad decisions.

The second of Roger Corman’s Nurse films (following 1970’s successful The Student Nurses), Private Duty Nurses continues the winning formula with a trio of nurses (blonde, brunette, ethnic) learning about love and life, but is the ugliest of the five films, as the dark side of counterculture becomes forthright. At first this is a lovely time capsule of southern California circa 1971, with the breezy atmosphere being punctuated by music from the rock group Sky, while we watch these young nurses in their free-loving ways after hours. But writer and first-time director George Armitage has the girls grow up real fast. Perhaps the lightest story of the three is the blonde nurse Spring (Katherine Cannon) and her involvement with a rebellious patient named Domino (Dennis Redfield), who lives recklessly after his experiences in Vietnam. But even this subplot is bittersweet, as he is resentful of the hippie idealism that she embraces. Most interesting are the vignettes surrounding Lola (Joyce Williams, an African American actress who had promise), who volunteers at a clinic in the projects. The doctor (Herb Jefferson, later of TV’s Battlestar Galactica) is a militant man who constantly challenges the hospital for the absence of black doctors on its staff. Eventually, he stages a sit-in, (where he and his supporters are dressed in black surgical outfits) forcing the medical staff to reconsider. Lynn and a young doctor get involved in the case of a body washed up on show. At first, their concern is that of ecology, as this apparent drowning victim is covered in oil. But then his death opens up a caper involving drugs, rape and murder. This episode is held with the least amount of taste and sensitivity, but it stumbles along to provide a hilarious shootout: the much-needed action sequence to end the picture.

Perhaps this film is the most tonally consistent, as it does not attempt to juggle comedy and drama in equal measure. All of these subplots get darker as they progress. It is like watching the end of the era, as the freewheeling lifestyle of youth is thrust into the very adult world. The party is definitely over. But not “over” for the series of NURSE films: this was followed by Night Call Nurses (1972), The Young Nurses (1973), and Candy Stripe Nurses (1974).