About a month or so ago I received the Dr. Kildare Movie Collection to review from the fine folks at Warner Archive. The set is a nine-film, five-disc collection of the popular MGM Dr. Kildare movie series starring Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore. Watching the films in this series was my first venture into anything Kildare other than knowing about the 1960s television series of the same name that starred Richard Chamberlain. In any case, I enjoyed the films so much I thought discussing them would do quite nicely as a submission to the MGM Anniversary Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes commemorating the grand studio’s 90th anniversary.
Before I started watching the Dr. Kildare series I knew the films were low-budget or “B” movie fare so I expected really cheesy movies I’d have a difficult time getting through. Or certainly beyond the first couple. What I’d forgotten, however, was that “B” movies made by MGM were very close to “A” movies at the other studios. While the Kildare series is formulaic and even repetitive as far as the stories go the movies are also entertaining thanks to the cast. In fine form, as the charismatic, young Dr. James Kildare who often puts his job on the line when faced with tough ethical decisions is Lew Ayres. In a role tailored for him as Kildare’s curmudgeonly, but brilliant mentor, Dr. Leonard Gillespie is Lionel Barrymore. Then there’s the fine supporting cast who are a real treat. These include Samuel S. Hinds as Dr. Steven Kildare, our protagonist’s father. Hinds also played the father of one George Bailey in
Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Other regulars from the MGM stock that appear in the Dr. Kildare series include greats Laraine Day (as Kildare’s love interest), Emma Dunn, Nat Pendleton, Walter Kingsford, Alma Kruger, Marie Blake (a.k.a. Blossom Rock), Frank Orth and Horace McMahon. While you may not recognize all of these names I assure you the faces are very familiar if you spent any time watching MGM films of the era.
Dr. Kildare was the brain child of pulp and screenwriter, Frederick Schiller Faust who wrote
under a number of pseudonyms the most famous being, Max Brand. Faust worked as a writer for a number of film studios after he left Europe at the start of World War II. A prolific writer who knew his way around a Western in particular, Faust was one of the highest paid writers in the late 1930s and early 1940s, making a fortune from MGM’s use of the Dr. Kildare stories alone.
While the nine films that make up the MGM Dr. Kildare series are (by far) the most popular they weren’t the first featuring the Dr. Kildare character. That distinction goes to INTERNS CAN’T TAKE MONEY made by Paramount in 1937 and stars Joel McCrea as Kildare. That film, which was directed by Alfred Santell did poorly at the box-office (you think the terrible title had anything to do with it?) and is not considered a part of the Dr. Kildare series. I haven’t seen this one, but admit I have to look into it if only because it co-stars Barbara Stanwyck. In any case, with the poor audience attendance that resulted, Paramount had no interest in pursuing more Kildare films, but MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who also acted as head of production, was interested.
Louis B. Mayer hit pay dirt with the Andy Hardy series and MGM was producing more films in both THE THIN MAN and TARZAN series when Dr. Kildare became available. It’s only natural Mayer would be interested in more material ripe for serialization, which served MGM on many fronts. Not only were the movies in these series cheaply produced, but they proved a fantastic training ground for new and (perhaps) stale talent. Lew Ayres, who’d just completed George Cukor’s HOLIDAY on loan to MGM from Paramount could be said to have fallen into the stale category.
Lou Ayres had been a huge hit in Lewis Milestone’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT in
1930, but had hopped on loan from studio to studio for the rest of the 1930s without a hit. Mayer believed the handsome Ayres would make a great Kildare. In addition, the Kildare story featured the old, wheel-chair bound Dr. Gillespie character, which not too coincidentally would be perfect for Lionel Barrymore, a favorite of Mayer’s. According to many sources, including Scott Eyman’s compelling Mayer biography, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, the mogul made it a point to search for properties to accommodate Barrymore and mentions that the Dr. Kildare movies were made (primarily) to keep an ailing Barrymore working. The series was secured when the studio offered Ayres a salary of $35,000 a year, a great investment given the MGM series formula was as close to a certain money-maker as could be conceived. They had the popular Barrymore playing a key role, top-notch supporting talent, the series included some pretty great (guest) appearances by relative new talents who’d become big stars at MGM, the stories had the Mayer favorite “small town” theme sprinkled throughout as well as
the fast pace of the big city – plus laughs. The last primarily delivered by favorites Nat Pendleton, who plays Joe Wayman the ambulance driver and Marie Blake who’s uncredited in the first film, but returns in charming fashion in the follow-ups as hospital receptionist, Sally Green.
YOUNG DR. KILDARE (1938)
Once settled in New York’s Blair General Hospital young Dr. Kildare is chosen above the other interns by Gillespie himself to be his protegé, which serves as the series’ continuing drama as Kildare will often be challenged by the old doctor. I won’t get into the details of this movie or the rest of the series, for that matter, but know this first installment from 1938 is a perfect offering in setting the stage for the main characters and the pace for the rest of the films. Each entry in the series features guest appearances in addition to the recurring characters involved in each story, which present different moral, ethical and legal challenges by way of odd medical circumstances and cases that usually force Dr. Kildare to put his career on the line. And in almost every case, young Dr. Kildare returns home – whether physically or metaphorically – for advice or a reminder of what the right thing to do is.
YOUNG DR. KILDARE was followed (in order) by CALLING DR. KILDARE (1939), THE SECRET OF DR. KILDARE (1939), DR. KILDARE’S STRANGE CASE (1940), DR. KILDARE GOES HOME (1940), DR. KILDARE’S CRISIS (1940), THE PEOPLE VS. DR. KILDARE (1941), DR. KILDARE’S WEDDING DAY
(1941) and DR. KILDARE’S VICTORY (1942). All but the last film in the series were directed by Harold S. Bucquet, who made his directorial debut with the first film in this series. The last, DR. KILDARE’S VICTORY was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and the difference in style from the earlier movies is noticeable, it is shot more abruptly than the others, if that makes sense – not a surprise since it’s one-take Woody at the helm! In this ninth film in the series the story loses some of its edge as well.
As I mentioned, all the Dr. Kildare films follow a strict formula with nearly the exact same script set up and gags strewn about. Aside from the recurring characters you also get recurring themes, which include relationship woes, romance and major life lessons as the young doctor’s future plays out. And it’s worth mentioning the movies look great in the Warner Archive set. These are not new restorations, but rather transfers with what I view as charming imperfections that maintain the appropriate classic feel to seven-decade-old films. The set also includes a terrific promotional video that features both Ayres and Barrymore produced as part of a 1939 newsreel.
So, it’s 1942 when the last Dr. Kildare movie in the series is released and MGM has no intention of stopping the series at nine films. But, World War II happens and Lew Ayres becomes somewhat of a pariah, which forces MGM to change the future of Dr. Kildare.
According to Eyman’s book, Louis B. Mayer wasn’t beyond bending the rules if it meant keeping the stars making movies instead of fighting the war. But when Ayres said he couldn’t join the fight because he was a conscientious objector and the press began to call him a “disgrace to the industry,” there was nothing for Mayer to do. Except, that is, recall the picture that was about to be released, the next installment in the series again directed by Harold S. Bucquet, BORN TO BE BAD, reshoot all of Ayres’ scenes and retitle it CALLING DR. GILLESPIE. And a new series sans Kildare was born focused on Lionel Barrymore and his moody doctor with a big heart.
The Gillespie series wasn’t as popular as the Kildare one, but it still yielded enough interest for six pictures. The first film, CALLING DR. GILLESPIE co-stars Philip Dorn as Dr. John Hunter Gerniede, the part formerly intended for Ayres as Kildare. The second movie in this series aptly titled, DR. GILLESPIE’S NEW ASSISTANT introduces the character of Dr. Randall Adams played by Van Johnson who’d repeat the role in the next three films. I haven’t seen any of the films in the Gillespie series, but can’t wait to see them, particularly after reading that the first movie features a story line in which Gillespie is threatened by a patient who’s a psychotic killer (right up my alley). I’m hoping Warner Archive releases these movies soon as they are another small piece of MGM history.
As far as MGM goes – now that the world was at war – the dream factory continued to play its role as a primary means of escape. Metro produced movies that rallied everyone to war, perhaps most significantly William Wyler’s MRS MINIVER (1942), but the studio with “more stars than there are in the heavens” maintained its luster remaining “Hollywood at its most Hollywood” (Eyman) with theater grosses that proved they gave people what they wanted. And it’s arguable whether anyone knew what audiences wanted better than L.B. Mayer.
For all the memories and all the luster I wish an enthusiastic happy 90th anniversary to MGM!
Of interest – In the summer of 1949, MGM reunited Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore to record the radio series, “The Story of Dr. Kildare,” scripted by Les Crutchfield, Jean Holloway and others. The supporting cast included Ted Osborne as hospital administrator Dr. Carough, Jane Webb as nurse Mary Lamont and Virginia Gregg as Nurse Parker, labeled “Nosy Parker” by Gillespie, with appearances by William Conrad, Stacy Harris, Jay Novello, Isabel Jewell and Jack Webb.