Edgar Selwyn's film may be the closest Hollywood got to making a distaff All Quiet on the Western Front, though Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer naturally considered it a counterpart to its own The Big Parade. Co-written by Becky Gardiner and Joseph Farnham, War Nurse has a snowball effect, starting out as a service comedy of mismatched personalities serving their country, and sometimes servicing their men, during the Great War, but inexorably turning violent and lethal. You can mark the change from the way Selwyn films his action scenes. About midway through the picture, Babs Whitney (June Walker) is out for a joyride with an American soldier, Wally O'Brien (Robert Montgomery) when they almost get caught in a German bombing run. It's all done with special effects: process shots and models. Later, when the nurses are being transported to the front lines, their two-man motorcycle escort rides out ahead of them and promptly gets blown up by artillery. This scene is shot on location and it makes a world of difference in portraying the nurses' peril, especially when one of them -- a prudish character nicknamed "Kansas," played largely for comic relief (Helen Jerome Eddy) -- suddenly dashes away from the pack to help somebody, and promptly gets blown up. Later still, the climax of the picture finds the nurses under artillery fire in their makeshift hospital. As a pregnant Joy Meadows (Anita Page) goes on a hysterical rant against the war, another comic-relief nurse (ZaSu Pitts) is killed under falling timbers with no fanfare, no last words. And later still, Joy will die shortly after giving birth to the bastard son of a soldier who's already died and left a widow behind back home. This abrupt, though not necessarily unexpected, onslaught of death is in brutal contrast to the Pre-Code shenanigans in the first half of the movie: the comedy of clashing personalities, mostly at the expense of Kansas and the salacious interaction of nurses and soldiers that was the film's main selling point.
The romance stuff did little for me, perhaps because the objects of the nurses' affections did less for me, and I found myself more interested in the comedy-relief nurses. Kansas in particular intrigued me with her pathetic way of trying to get along with the other girls by inflicting culture on them with her pictures of the Louvre while the others are more interested in, for want of a better term, French postcards. Kansas has a truncated subplot having to do with some infection she contracted, played out in the film's most bizarre (or subtextual) scene, in which she for all intents and purposes flashes one of the other nurses so she can judge whether or not a rash on Kansas' chest is anything serious. The nurses reassures her but ends the scene with "Oh, Kansas..." which in context could mean many things. ZaSu Pitts, meanwhile, is more hard-boiled than she normally plays but mainly seems interested in stealing scenes. You see this especially in the scene with Kansas and her museum pictures. Cushie ends up as her reluctant audience of one before breaking away to see what the fuss is over the French postcards and finally sneering at Kansas's high culture. Pitts plays the whole scene crawling on her hands and knees, and since she's really the only thing moving on screen she inevitably dominates the scene. Anita Page has a nice mad scene, reminding us not to judge her by her oafish turn in Broadway Melody, and the rest of the nurses have their moments. War Nurse is bracketed by title cards with a greater air of solemnity about them than the film itself, as if Metro wanted to tell audiences that they'd just seen a patriotic epic instead of something possibly more unsettling. As an experimental hybrid of Pre-Code and war picture it's not half bad.