PRIVATE DUTY NURSES: Odd Woman Out At The Corman-Flick Hospital

When Roger’s Corman’s fledgling outfit New World Pictures hit box office gold with The Student Nurses, it was inevitable that a sequel would follow.  Its blend of sex, light humor and quasi-feminist themes was perfect for the era and, better yet, something that could easily be replicated.  As a result, another four official New World-produced “nurse films” followed over the next few years and their salability played an important role in making New World a viable indie production and distribution outfit.

The first of these was Private Duty Nurses, written and directed by George Armitage, an up-and-coming writer who had penned the script to one of Corman’s last directorial ventures, Gas-s-s-s.  That was an extremely odd, almost non-commercial entry in the Corman filmography and the same could be said of Private Duty Nurses.

On the surface, Private Duty Nurses seems to fit the New World nurse film profile.  The plot covers the basics, setting up three nurses and roommates who work at the same hospital and have their own personal plotlines.  Lola (Joyce Williams) is the African-American of the group, who becomes awakened to radical politics after getting involved with a free clinic doctor (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) who wants to see more diversity at the hospital.  Spring (Kathy Cannon) is a free spirit who falls for her patient Domino (Dennis Redfield), an embittered Vietnam Vet with a motorcycle hobby that could endanger his still-healing head injury. Lynn (Pegi Boucher) get involved with a doctor and helps him investigate a potential pollution issue at the beach, which could be dangerous for them both.

However, Armitage only gets the formula half-right.  Despite covering all the content bases – a little suspense, a little soap opera, a little lefty politics – his storyline lacks the humor and action that are so important to Corman’s nurse films.  Another surprising element here is that the women aren’t as independent as they are in the other film of the series: though the ladies are the main characters, the men really drive the plot and call the shots.  As a director, Armitage tends toward self-conscious artsiness: the film is shot well and uses beachside locations to picturesque effect but lacks the kinetic touch that this kind of film needs to keep from sinking under the soap-opera pileup of plot threads.

The performances are professional but the male actors fare best because they get the most interesting characters: Jefferson brings energy to his crusading doctor role and Redfield is suitably intense as the Vietnam vet.  There’s also some scene-stealing method theatrics from Paul Hampton as the landlord, who awkwardly seduces Lynn early in the story.  Of the women, Cannon fares the best as her character is allowed to have the most personality.  One final thing worth noting in the casting department is the presence of Sky, a band that plays in the bar scenes: the singer guitarist is one Doug Fieger, who would later found and front The Knack.

In short, Private Duty Nurses is the least of the Corman nurse films because its take on the formula is too skewed and lacking in commercial verve.  The series would soon right itself with Night Call Nurses (also penned by Armitage) and Armitage would go onto direct some excellent films later in his career, namely Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank.  Sadly, his nurse film is mostly memorable for being the odd woman out of the series.

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