I’ll admit, when faced with the daunting task of writing about, let alone viewing, the nine Dr. Kildare movies that make up WAC’s Dr. Kildare Movie Collection made between 1938 and 1942, I was a tad anxious, and judgmental. This was going to be quite the Herculean effort. But this is the generation of binge viewing, when many of us happily watch an entire TV series in a weekend. So how could this be any different?
I settled in, and soon after I had moved onto the second film in the series, I found, strangely, I was invested in these characters; their continuing story arcs, and the quaint world they inhabited.
The series, based on the contemporary stories by writer Max Brand, followed a young doctor, fresh from medical school, who, thinking he will take on the world, learns humility and a greater understanding of mankind through his internship at Blair General Hospital in New York city, under the cantankerous yet understanding tutelage of Dr. Leonard Gillespie.
While Dr. Kildare’s character may have first appeared in the 1937 drama, Internes Can’t Take Money, with Joel McCrea playing the role, the first “official” Dr. Kildare film, released in 1938, starred Lew Ayres in the role of Young Dr. Kildare. Ayres, already a well-established actor since his star-making turn in the immortal anti-war film, All Quiet on The Western Front, in 1930, was the perfect persona to take on the well-meaning and selfless doctor. MGM knew a moneymaker even before cameras started rolling for Young Dr. Kildare, and had prepared scripts for the series.
What makes the Kildare film series so engaging is the filmmakers’ successful layering of supporting players’ personalities and the strict continuity the films held, so that watching them chronologically, you really become attached to the subplots and little idiosyncrasies of the characters, that follow realistically from story to story. You get to see the subtle growth of Kildare, the depth of character of his mentor, Gillespie, and the inclusive family that the hospital staff becomes.
But the most enjoyable aspect of the series is Lionel Barrymore as the crotchety Gillespie, who in the first film comes off as almost horrible in his treatment of Kildare, but later, film after film, the love he feels for the young intern becomes more apparent. And it’s not just the smart dialogue and writing, but the heart and soul that Barrymore imbues the old man with that makes him a lasting and fully realized character. In fact, Barrymore’s Gillespie threatened several times to overshadow Kildare, so much so that when the series ended in 1942, a new series, featuring Barrymore’s Gillespie, picked right up and continued without Kildare for six more films.
The WAC collection, however, focuses on the main nine MGM films, and there’s more than enough here to capture even the most casual viewer’s imagination.
Young Dr. Kildare begins with the young man returning to his small town of Parkersville after finishing medical school. The elder Dr. Stephen Kildare (played by ubiquitous “father” actor Stephen S. Hinds – best known as George Bailey’s dad in It’s a Wonderful Life) and mother both hope son Jimmy will join in his small town family practice. They’ve even had a shingle made to hang on the door, and turned their living room into a second examining room. It’s with a heavy heart that the young graduate reveals to his parents that he wants to help save mankind, and sees himself as a trailblazer, accepting an internship in the big city hospital, Blair General. Even his sweetheart, Alice Raymond, who grew up next door to him, has hopes he’ll settle down and marry her. But there’s no stopping the career driven Kildare.
Once he arrives at Blair General, Kildare soon realizes the world of real medicine is a tough road. As one of many interns, he is making $20 a month (!) and living at the very whim of head physician Dr. Gillespie, a seemingly cruel and hateful taskmaster. Wheelchair bound and appearing decrepit, Kildare makes the offhanded observation that an apparent melanoma on the old man’s hand is cancerous. He’s off to a bad footing with Gillespie, who makes an example of him time and again. (Interestingly, Kildare’s diagnosis is correct, and a running theme throughout the series, as Gillespie proves like most physicians, to be a terrible patient, ignores the increasingly numerous symptoms).
Gillespie runs a tight ship, and has several staff members (which he calls “stooges”) placed strategically about the hospital to keep him apprised of every thing that goes down. One of the carefully placed spies is ambulance driver Joe Wayman (ubiquitous 1930s “goon” Nat Pendleton) who, at first suspicious of the eager Kildare, soon becomes his best friend, wielding a wrench on anyone who crosses the good doctor.
These are the trappings of the Kildare series, that continue to grow and mature with each film. They also include Sullivan’s Hospital Café, a bar-restaurant adjacent to the hospital run by the friendly Irishman Sullivan, who has a homespun story or old world proverb for every occasion, and Nurse Parker, the gossip who works the switchboard, on and off again girlfriend to driver Wayman, who also sticks her nose in everybody’s business (and becomes the inspiration for the term “Nosey Parker”).
In this first entry, Kildare revives a nearly dead woman in a tenement room, then takes her to the hospital, where the resident psychiatrist determines she needs to be committed to an asylum. Kildare thinks differently. As will characterize the series, Kildare steps outside the confines of the hospital to play detective, therapist, sleuth and agent of the “human spirit,” righting wrongs and understanding mankind more with each passing scenario. When things seem to be at their worst, and Kildare almost loses his position, Gillespie intercedes, explaining he was testing Kildare all along and offers him the position of assistant.
Calling Dr. Kildare (1939) is one of the stronger entries in the series, and picks up three months after the first film leaves off. Gillespie is still a hard case, and in an attempt to test Kildare’s mettle, tosses him into a street clinic where he must tend to all manner of injury. But, ever the puppeteer, Gillespie has young and beautiful Nurse Mary Lamont (Laraine Day) keep an eye on Kildare and report all information back to him. Soon Kildare is swept into a street shooting where a juvenile lies bleeding in an alley. He tends to his wounds and is convinced by a very young and beautiful Lana Turner, playing the kid’s sister, not to involve the authorities. The rest of the story, Kildare works to clear the name of the young hooligan, and falls for Turner, who is actually just stringing Kildare along so he’ll help her brother. By the end, Kildare has learned his lesson, created an even stronger bond with Gillespie, and begins courting Nurse Lamont.
The Secret of Dr. Kildare (also 1939 –they definitely cranked these out) finds the young doctor working with Gillespie to find a cure for pneumonia, while working harder to get his benefactor to seek out treatment for his cancer. Simultaneously, Kildare discovers the reason behind a young patient’s psychosomatic blindness.
Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (1940) introduces competition for Nurse Lamont’s affections as a young brain surgeon joins the Blair General Staff. The surgeon, Dr. Gregory Lane (Sheppard Strudwick, a poor man’s George Sanders) is considered brilliant by Kildare and Gillespie, but can’t break his darn streak of losing patients during surgery! Meanwhile, Kildare is offered a high paying job at a medical research institution. He tours it with Lamont, and she is hoping he will take the position, since he has explained to her that the only reason he hasn’t asked her to marry him is he’s still only making $20(!) a month! But he’s pulled between the great status and pay of the job offer, with Gillespie’s need for an heir to his position at Blair. When Kildare turns the job down, Nurse Lamont believes there’s no future for their romance and begins accepting suave and debonair Lane’s advances. But Kildare is a (painfully) fair man, and doesn’t let his own feelings for Lamont interfere with his beliefs that Dr. Lane just hasn’t hit his stride with the dying patients. When he assists Lane with an emergency surgery, he convinces Lane to go with his gut and finish the delicate procedure. At first the patient comes out of anesthesia behaving like an insane person, and Lane believes his bad luck with brain surgery continues. But Kildare proves the patient was always emotionally “troubled.” Kildare injects the man with insulin, which allows his sanity to return (um, ok) and reunite with his wife. This happy ending leads Kildare to ask Lamont for her hand in marriage, which she accepts. A strange case indeed!
Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940) finds the young physician returning to Parkersville to help run his father’s small town practice when he falls ill. Feeling pulled between his obligation as a good son and caretaker of his small town, and the need to return to Blair and assist Dr. Gillespie, Kildare comes up with the ingenious (and very modern) plan to start a local clinic in town, using out of work doctors to fulfill the needs of the small burgh.
MGM knew they had a winning recipe with the romance between Kildare and Nurse Lamont, and so found as many ways as possible to forestall the wedding and keep the young lovers always at arms length. In Dr. Kildare’s Crisis (1940) Lamont’s brother (well, hello Robert Young!) comes to New York to visit, and Kildare uses his deductive powers to determine “Doug Lamont’s” strange behavior (hearing things and losing attention) is symptomatic of epilepsy. It’s up to good ol’ Dr. Gillespie to find a way to explain to Nurse Lamont, not only that her brother suffers from the hereditary disease, but she could carry it as well. A poignant and dramatic entry into the series.
The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941) finds Kildare performing emergency surgery on ice skating superstar Frances Marlowe (Bonita Granville) after a critical car accident. Kildare saves her life, but upon recovery, Marlowe discovers her leg is paralyzed and sues the good doctor and the hospital. Thankfully, Dr. Gillespie discovers that the ice skater may be suffering from a rare spinal disorder.
Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day (1941) is the most shocking of the series. Mary Lamont and Kildare prepare for the impending wedding. However, when Kildare is called away on an emergency, he is unable to go to his own stag party. Lamont decides to go in his stead, and with wedding bells in her eyes, steps in the path of an oncoming truck! Kildare races to be at her side, but only arrives in time to hear her say; “This is going to be a lot easier for me than it will be for you.” Devastated, Kildare realizes he has sacrificed everything for his career in medicine and thinks of quitting the practice. In reality, Laraine Day as Nurse Lamont was gaining great popularity, and in their campaign to move her out of the series and into greater leading roles, MGM decided to kill her off. Combined with inclusion of comedian Red Skelton in an extended scene with suitcases, this was the most unusual and uneven of all the Kildare’s and a harbinger of its impending end.
Dr. Kildare’s Victory (1942) was the end of the era and the last of the Kildare’s with Ayres in the role. It was also the first (and last) in the series to be directed by someone other than Harold S. Bucquet. While there are some fun elements (a cigarette rolling contest between Barrymore and the head nurse) the fire was out, and the exhausted series ended.
Kildare, of course, saw a new life on television, where Richard Chamberlain donned the doctor’s coat for 6 successful seasons.
Lew Ayres went on to reprise the role with Barrymore on Radio, and even attempted an ill-fated pilot (an interesting curio, included in this collection).
I ended my weekend of Kildare exhausted, but ultimately energized that I had found a series (albeit film) as good as any from the Golden Age of Television, that warmed the heart, as well as my chair cushion. When enjoyed at a more leisurely “installment plan,” Dr. Kildare is definitely worth checking into the Blair General waiting room.
Due to the popular nature of this series and to meet demand, Warner Archive will release initial quantities of Dr. Kildare Movie Collection in a traditional replicated, pressed format. After those pressed copies are sold, the set will be released in the usual manufacture-on-demand format (MOD) typical to most Warner Archive titles.