Monday, July 27, 2015

Young Dr. Kildare

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

Young 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 minutes.

In 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.

Dr. 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.

However, 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.

Brand 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 Companion (1996).

Now 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 in 1938.

For 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 with Ayres.

The 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.

When 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.

Although 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, M.D. 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.

Young 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.

Cut 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 interns.

Later, 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.

Kildare 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.

The 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.

Once 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.

Fortified 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.

Now 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 time later.

However, 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.

The 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.

The 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 out.

We 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.

As 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 General.


When 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.

After 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 Red Cross.

After 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 series.

Marie 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).

Truman Bradley later went on to host the heralded television series, Science Fiction Theater (1955-57).

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