Dr. Kildare (MGM, 1938) – Director: Harold S.
Bucquet. Writers: Max Brand (story), Harry Ruskin & Willis
Goldbeck (s/p). Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Lew Ayres, Lynne Carver, Nat
Pendleton, Jo Ann Sayers, Samuel S. Hinds, Emma Dunn, Walter
Kingsford, Truman Bradley, Monty Woolley, Pierre Watkin, Nella
Walker, Marie Blake, Leonard Penn, & Virgina Brissic. B&W, 82
the late 1930s, MGM, always on the lookout for a solid, profitable,
and hopefully long-running B-series, given the success of the “Andy
Hardy” films, focused their sights on a series of popular stories
by Max Brand (real name Frederick Schiller Faust) about an idealistic
young intern, James Kildare, working in a New York City hospital. It
mattered not to the suits at the studio that Paramount had already
made a film about the character, called Internes Can’t Take
Money, in 1937, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck. MGM
acquired the rights to the stories from Brand, and set about planning
the film, to be titled Young Dr. Kildare.
Kildare was first introduced to audiences in a pulp-fiction story,
“Internes Can’t Take Money,” published in Cosmopolitan in
March 1936. Brand followed it with “Whiskey Sour,” published
in Cosmopolitan in April 1938. As originally
conceived by Brand, Dr. Kildare was an aspiring surgeon who left his
parents’ farm to practice at a big New York City hospital where,
through his work, he comes frequently into contact with members of
the underworld. Paramount’s adaptation followed this pattern.
when Brand was contacted by MGM about the Kildare rights and informed
that MGM hoped to create a series starring Kildare, he made major
changes to the storyline. Dr. Kildare’s specialty was now
diagnostics instead of surgery. The character of Kildare’s superior
and mentor at the hospital, Dr. Gillespie, was added and the
underworld elements discarded. Brand also restarted the story from
Kildare’s first arrival at the city hospital.
totally cooperated with MGM on the film series beginning with the
first release, Young Dr. Kildare. He wrote several
original Kildare stories, which were first serialized in magazines,
later republished as novels and adapted into films by MGM (but not
published as movie tie-ins). This would be the case with Calling
Dr. Kildare (1939), The Secret of Dr.
Kildare (1940), Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (1940,
published as “Dr. Kildare’s Girl” in Photoplay the
same year), Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940), Dr.
Kildare’s Crisis (1940), and The People vs. Dr.
Kildare (1941). After this film, the Brand-MGM partnership
came to an end. Brand would author one more published Kildare story,
“Dr. Kildare’s Hardest Case” in 1942. An unfinished story, “Dr.
Kildare’s Dilemma,” was published in two parts in a Los Angeles
fanzine titled The Faust Collector in February 1971
(Part 1) and January 1973 (Part 2). A restored fragment of the story
was included in a book collection titled The Max Brand
that the film was in the planning stages, the next task was to
assemble a cast and a director. Lew Ayres was cast as Dr. Kildare.
His intelligent, youthful looks belied the fact that he had been in
films for nearly a decade, beginning with an unbilled role in the
1929 comedy, The Sophomore, for Pathe. His best-known
roles were as Paul Baumer in Universal’s All Quiet on the
Western Front (1930), and as Edward Seaton, Katharine
Hepburn’s alcoholic brother, in Holiday, for Columbia
the role of Kildare’s superior and mentor, Dr. Gillespie, a
brilliant but curmudgeonly physician whose career is now hampered by
his confinement to a wheelchair, the studio cast Lionel Barrymore.
For Barrymore, an actor who normally did not want to be cast in
B-movies, the tides of circumstance led him to accept the role: He
had broken his hip in an accident. It was the arthritis he contracted
from the accident that confined him to the chair and available to
play the character of Gillespie for the rest of the Kildare series
and beyond. At least Barrymore could take solace in that he escaped
being Judge Hardy in the Hardy Family sequels and playing second
banana to Mickey Rooney. In the Kildare films, he shared star billing
other cast members who would appear in subsequent films were Nat
Pendleton as Joe Wayman, ambulance driver and the comic relief, Marie
Blake as Sally Green, hospital switchboard operator and love interest
of Wayman, Nell Craig as Nurse “Nosey” Parker (this sobriquet,
hung on the nurse by Dr. Gillespie, later became a popular term),
Walter Kingsford as Dr. P. Walter Carew, the head of the hospital,
and Frank Orth, as Mike Ryan, the proprietor of Sullivan’s Café, a
bar/restaurant where the doctors come to eat. Harold S. Bucquet,
whose directorial experience had been confined to assistant director
on features and directing shorts, was given the chair, with the real
power wielded by producer Lou L. Ostrow.
filming began, the onscreen chemistry between Ayres and Barrymore was
so strong that MGM decided to make a sequel or two. As a matter of
fact, the studio tacked on a scene at the end of Young Dr.
Kildare with Ayres and Barrymore announcing their adventures
would be continuing. Public reaction made it a consistent moneymaker
for the studio, and 15 films were cranked out over a period of nine
years before MGM finally threw in the towel. As with the Andy Hardy
series, MGM used the Kildare movies to showcase some of their younger
contract talent: Ava Gardner, Red Skelton, Lana Turner, Donna Reed,
and Barry Nelson. Bonita Granville, signed from Warner Brothers,
where she played juvenile roles (most notably Nancy Drew) was signed
by MGM with the hope of placing her in adult roles, and she played
such in The People vs. Dr. Kildare. Because there was a
noticeable lack of chemistry between Ayres and Lynne Carver, who
played Kildare’s girl, Alice Raymond, in the first film, Laraine
Day joined the cast as Nurse Mary Lamont to become Kildare’s love
interest beginning with the second installment, Calling Dr.
Kildare. Alma Kruger also became part of the cast in that film as
Molly Byrd, Chief of Nurses and a thorn in Gillespie’s side.
the Kildare series featured what at the time was cutting edge
medicine, the films seem horribly dated in that aspect today, given
the advances in medicine and medical shows such as ER and House,
They also tied such concerns as social conditions and poverty to
their effects on a patient’s physical and psychological health. But
let’s face facts – audiences do not come for the technology, they
come for the human drama, and the Kildare series was chock full of
that commodity. A doctor on the front of the battle for life against
death is tailor made for the movies, and it was the adventures of
Kildare and Gillespie who put their careers, and sometimes their
lives, on the line to help cure a patient that made the films a must
see back when they were released, and they continue to fascinate
audiences even today.
Dr. Kildare opens with Dr. James Kildare, fresh out of
medical school, returning to the family home in Dartford,
Connecticut, to see his mother Martha (Dunn), father, Dr. Steven
Kildare (Hinds), and girlfriend Alice Raymond (Carver). The family
has eagerly been awaiting his arrival as they have a surprise for
him, which they show to him when he returns to the family home. It’s
his own office, right next to his father’s in the family abode
(they converted the house’s parlor). They even amended the shingle
on the outside to include him. But Jimmy, grateful as he is to the
family for their efforts, has other plans. He informs them his dream
is to become a diagnostician, and towards that end he has applied to
Blair General Hospital in New York as an intern at $20 a month in
order so that he can study under the foremost diagnostician, Dr.
Leonard Gillespie. Jimmy’s father is disappointed that his son
won’t be joining him in the family practice, but he tells his son
that he understands his desire and supports him fully.
to Blair General Hospital, where we see Kildare and the other hires
being greeted by Dr, Carew (Kingsford). Gillespie bursts in to size
up the newcomers. He asks for a volunteer to come forward and
diagnose him on the spot. No one except Kildare steps forward.
Looking Gillespie over, Kildare tells the older man that he has a
slight discoloration on his fingernail, but needs to check his
epitrochlear gland in his elbow to be sure. (Not only is there no
such gland, there are no glands in the elbow.) Gillespie strongly
disagrees and proceeds to belittle Kildare in front of the other
the interns joke in their dorm and are kidding Kildare about his
confrontation with Gillespie, when the young doctor is informed that
Gillespie wants to see him in his office. Gillespie shows Kildare a
group of children in his clinic and challenges the young doctor to
diagnose each child, which Kildare does to Gillespie’s
satisfaction. Later, in Gillespie’s office, Kildare is again asked
by Gillespie to diagnose him. Kildare opines that the melanoma is
cancerous and Gillespie may live for only another year. Gillespie
gets mad and throws Kildare out of his office, although later we
learn that Kildare’s diagnosis is correct and that Gillespie may be
a brilliant doctor, but he is a terrible patient.
finds himself assigned to ambulance duty, working with driver Joe
Wayman (Pendleton), who at first does not trust the young intern. On
their first call, they speed to a bar, where a man has collapsed.
Putting aside the obvious conclusion that the man is merely drunk,
Kildare suspects heart trouble. They are about to load the man into
the ambulance when another call comes in – an attempted suicide
case. Before leaving, Kildare tells Wayman to administer oxygen to
the man all the way to the hospital. Wayman, thinking the man is
merely drunk, fails to give him oxygen and the man dies before
reaching the hospital as a result. When it’s revealed that he was a
prominent politician, Kildare is called to Carew’s office to
explain. Kildare tells Carew the man’s death is his fault entirely
and refuses to implicate Wayman. Carew removes Kildare from ambulance
duty and assigns him to assist in surgery. Wayman, however, is deeply
touched that Kildare took the fall and pledges loyalty to his new
friend. This is an interesting juncture in the film because, in
covering for Wayman, Kildare has, in effect, confessed to
manslaughter. The film never discusses it and takes it no further,
instead sweeping it under the rug, so to speak, because it can’t be
discussed anyway due to the strictures of the Code.
attempted suicide case, however, is becoming more interesting. The
victim, Barbara Chanler (Sayers), is the daughter of a millionaire,
yet Kildare has found her in a tenement trying to do away with
herself. The nurses in her ward tell Kildare that Chanler has
attempted once again to take her life. Kildare comes down to speak
with her. It turns out she has a deep, dark secret. Kildare learns
part of that secret and she swears him to secrecy.
again, Kildare gets into hot water when psychiatrist Dr. Lane-Porteus
(Woolley) is called in. He determines that young Chanler is suffering
from schizophrenia, but Kildare disagrees. He avers that she is sane;
that she was driven to attempt suicide by an ordinary reason. But
when Dr. Carew asks him to reveal Chanler’s secret, Kildare
refuses, and Carew suspends him for insubordination. Despondent,
Kildare retires to Sullivan’s Hospital Café for a beer to think
things over. Alice, who has come down to the city from Dartford along
with Jimmy’s parents, surprises him there. He tells her that he
plans to return to Dartford, and when he sees his parents, he
pretends that nothing is wrong. But he cannot fool Mom, who knows
something is bothering him. She tells him to do what he thinks is
right, no matter what the consequences. Kildare later visits
Gillespie, who hints – rather broadly – that Jimmy should ignore
hospital rules if he wants to properly diagnose his patient.
by both Mother and Dr. Gillespie, Kildare goes to Barbara’s
fiancée, John Hamilton (Bradley) to see what he may know. Hamilton
tells him that he and Barbara argued about her desire to go to the
Blue Swan Club with dubious racehorse owner Albert Foster (Penn).
Jimmy and Wayman visit the Blue Swan Club to see if they can get to
the truth. Using what Barbara had told him – that she had been with
Foster that night and had gotten very drunk, going with him upstairs
to a private room – and speaking with those involved, Kildare
learns that nothing really happened. Foster had recognized her, and
fearful of what her rich father could do if he took advantage of her
in this condition, simply dumped her on the street.
that he knows the truth he swears Barbara to secrecy, telling her not
to mention that he has visited. He coaches Barbara on how to act with
Lane-Porteus – to say that she tried to kill herself over an
argument with John. That would help keep her from being
institutionalized. Lane-Porteus declares Barbara to be fine a short
the hospital board is unaware of these new developments and fires
Kildare for insubordination. Jimmy tells his parents and Alice that
he is ready to return to Dartford as his father’s partner.
Suspecting what really happened, Gillespie visits Barbara and learns
the whole truth. Gillespie now drops in on Kildare as he is busy
packing. He tells Jimmy that all long he has been testing him to see
if he has what it takes to be his assistant. He reveals to Kildare
his system of “stooges,” placed strategically about the hospital.
Their job is to keep him apprised of everything that goes on. One of
his stooges is Joe Wayman, the ambulance driver. Now, Gillespie tells
Kildare that he is certain of the young doctor’s integrity and
competence. He offers Kildare the job as his assistant, informing him
that the melanoma diagnosis was correct, and he hopes to pass along
as much as he can before the cancer kills him.
trappings that would guide the later Kildare films were set in Young
Dr. Kildare, such as the characters not only of Kildare and
Gillespie, but also the supporting players. Nat Pendleton, as Joe
Wayman, fills in the comic relief role because the audience discovers
that Gillespie isn’t being funny even when he’s being funny. (Red
Skelton would later take on the comic relief duties when Pendleton
wasn’t there.) Though the films in the series rarely exceed 90
minutes, the producers still manage to give the audience a continuity
by layering in the supporting players’ personalities into the
various subplots, so that watching the chronologically, as audience
then did, one could see the development of the characters and the
little idiosyncrasies they develop. We see the growth of Kildare and
his relation with his mentor, Gillespie, as they fight hospital
bureaucracy and the stubbornness of their patients to get to the
truth and help cure what ails them.
series also takes advantage of the fact that medicine makes a nice
background and environment for drama, and the Kildare series takes
advantage of this by deftly blending medicine with aspects of both
soap opera and detective capers. Kildare will often step outside the
confines of Blair General to assume a combined role of sleuth and
therapist, righting the patient’s wrongs and gaining a better
understanding that, along with the medicine, will be used more and
more with each subsequent film. Kildare’s concern for the welfare
of his patients goes beyond what merely ails them to what caused the
patient to become that way and what can be done outside of the
medical cure to insure the patient’s complete recovery. And when he
gets in too deep he can always count on the curmudgeonly advice and
influential offices of Dr. Gillespie to dig himself and the patient
see it in the first film as Kildare defies hospital authorities to
try to find the reason why a young woman would try to do herself in.
He goes outside hospital grounds and procedures in order to find the
basis of her illness. And Gillespie, who seems as if he’s aiding
those trying to bury the good young doctor, is merely standing by on
the sidelines – all-seeing, all-knowing, until his interference is
necessary to the outcome.
noted earlier, Ayres is fine as Kildare. But it is Barrymore who is
the heart of the series. In the first film, he comes off more as
Kildare’s adversary, but later, in film after film, we see the love
he feels for his protégé becoming more and more apparent, thanks in
large part to the humanity with which Barrymore imbues the character
of Gillespie. Barrymore so dominated the series that, after Ayres
left in 1942, the series continued, only now centered on Gillespie
and his search for Kildare’s successor. It would take another six
films before the audience finally tired of the doings over at Blair
the United States went to war in 1941, Lew Ayres registered as a
conscientious objector, refusing to take up arms because of his
religious beliefs. MGM responded by dropping his contract, and Ayres
soon became reviled by both the film industry and in the press.
time in a labor camp and as a chaplain, Ayres put his training in the
Kildare series to good use, joining the Army Medical Corps and
serving honorably in the Pacific campaign, winning three battle
stars. He also donated all his salary as a corpsman to the American
the war, Ayres returned to Hollywood, but worked as an actor only
sporadically, spending the bulk of his time studying philosophy and
religion. He did appear in several well-regarded films, such as The
Dark Mirror (1946) with Olivia de Havilland, The
Unfaithful (1946) with Ann Sheridan, and the psychotronic
classic, Donovan’s Brain (1953), with Nancy Davis.
Ayres also earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as a
compassionate doctor in Johnny Belinda (1948). The
rest of his career was spent in television as a guest star on many
Blake, who plays switchboard operator and receptionist Sally Green,
was born Edith Marie Blossom MacDonald. Her younger sister was MGM
singing star Jeanette MacDonald. She later became well known as
“Grandma” on The Addams Family (1964), renaming
herself Blossom Rock (she was married to actor Clarence Rock until
his death in 1960).
Bradley later went on to host the heralded television series, Science
Fiction Theater (1955-57).