Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ Dr. Kildare Movie Collection

The good folks at the Warner Archive Collection have released a stupendous 9-film, 5-Disc Collection of all of the Dr. Kildare films starring Lew Ayres as Kildare and Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie.  I was knew very little of the Dr. Kildare films so listening to George, Matt and D.W. talk about it on the Warner Archive podcast, watching the films and doing a bit of research online was a very satisfying way to approach this unfamiliar territory.

The films in the Dr. Kildare Movie Collection include:

Young Dr. Kildare (1938)
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)
Dr. Kildare's Victory (1942)
Bonus: unaired MGM-TV pilot for Dr. Kildare from 1960 with Lew Ayres

Lew Ayres stars as the young Dr. James Kildare. He's just finished medical school and is on the brink of a fantastic career as a doctor. He's the son of a small town practitioner, Dr. Stephen Kildare (Samuel S. Hinds) whose footsteps he should have followed but instead chose to become an intern at the fictional Blair General Hospital in New York City. He shows promise as a diagnostician and the ornery but visionary Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) takes Kildare under his wing. While Kildare only makes a measly $20 a month at his new job, he has access to a top facility, a big medical library, labs and a wide of variety of patients and cases. Dr. Kildare is rebellious and ambitious but at the same time has a generous and kind heart. He truly believes in helping people get better. His rebelliousness gives him an edge but at heart he's the same sweet wholesome doctor his father is. A common thread throughout the entire series finds Kildare breaking hospital rules and regulations in order save his patients.

It's almost unfair to call these the Dr. Kildare movies because what makes these films so special is the cast of unique characters that make up the world of Blair General Hospital and Kildare's hometown.

Samuel S. Hinds as Dr. Stephen Kildare and Emma Dunn as Mrs. Martha Kildare

At home there is Dr. Stephen Kildare (Samuel S. Hinds), Dr. James Kildare's father and the patriarch of the Kildare household. He's very proud of his son even if he is a bit disappointed that he didn't join him in his home practice. Dr. Stephen Kildare is a sweet and patient old man who is well-respected as the community's doctor but isn't as brilliant as his prodigal son.

Mrs. Martha Kildare (Emma Dunn) is the wise mother and matriarch. Nothing gets past her and she's always around to give good advice to her son. Her husband might be oblivious at times but she never is. Most mother characters in these types of serials are often homebodies whose worlds don't extend much past the household and who can be a little flighty and easily confused. Mrs. Kildare is not that type of character. She's as smart as she is charming and easily became my favorite character of the series.

At Blair General Hospital there is Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore), a crusty old man with a bad temper and gruff personality. However, he has a big heart and is passionate about what he does. Each film features a tender scene in which Dr. Gillespie gives some health and life advice to patient. Dr. Gillespie is so well-respected at Blair General Hospital that his influence gets Dr. Kildare out of hot water on more than one occasion and his stool pigeons are always on the look out for juicy gossip and insider information to bring back to him. While the focus of the series is on Dr. Kildare, Barrymore's portrayal of Dr. Gillespie steals the spotlight. His character is always on the verge of death because of a melanoma on his left hand and elbow. Perhaps this was a convenient plot point in case wheelchair bound Barrymore could no longer continue the series. But Barrymore's Dr. Gillespie continues on through the whole series and beyond (more on that later).

Other characters at Blair General Hospital include:

Laraine Day (left) as Mary Lamont and Alma Kruger (right) as Molly Byrd

Nurse Mary Lamont (Laraine Day) - She's the nurse assigned by Dr. Gillespie to spy on Dr. Kildare in Calling Dr. Kildare (1939). Kildare and Lamont fall in love and become engaged. The climax of their relationship can be seen in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day. Throughout the series, Kildare grows to rely on her talents as a nurse and as a confidant and trustworthy supporter.

Nurse Molly Byrd (Alma Kruger) - Byrd is the tough no-nonsense head nurse that keeps Blair General Hospital and all of its orderlies, nurses and doctors in check. She's the only person who can put Dr. Gillespie in his place. Byrd and Gillespie are a couple without the romance and rely on each other in matters both personal and professional.

From left to right: Conover (George Reed), Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore),
Nurse Parker (Nell Craig) and Dr. Carew (Walter Kingsford)

Dr. Walter Carew (Walter Kingsford) - Dr. Carew runs Blair General Hospital and is the enforcer of its rules and regulations. He often butts heads with Dr. Kildare, who doesn't care for hospital rules, and on a couple occasions even fires or suspends him. Carew greatly admires and respects Gillespie. His character's main purposes to contrast with Kildare's.

Conover  (George Reed) - Conover is Dr. Gillespie's personal orderly and his right-hand man. He loves gambling, maybe a little too much. Conover often has to trick Gillespie for the doctor's own good.

Nurse Parker (Nell Craig) - This bug-eyed nurse lives in constant fear of Dr. Gillespie who loves to bark orders at her and confuse her from time to time. She's the polar opposite of Molly Byrd.

A scene from Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941) includes Sally, Mike Ryan, Maisie, Vernon Briggs,
Conover plus other minor characters.

Wayman (Nat Pendleton) - Paramedic who assists Dr. Kildare on emergency cases. When Dr. Kildare takes the rap for Wayman's neglect of a particular patient, Wayman feels he owes a lot to Kildare. When Wayman isn't flirting with Sally, he's often found helping Dr. Kildare out of a jam. He's in the first 6 films then mysteriously disappears only to return in the three Dr. Gillespie films that followed.

Sally, the telephone Operator (Marie Blake) - Sally is the wise-cracking dame who fields hospital calls (mostly complaints or propositions) as well as the amorous attentions of Wayman and orderlies. She and Dr. Gillespie have the funniest lines of dialogue in the series.

Mike Ryan (Frank Orth) - Mike Ryan is the Irish bartender at the convivial Sullivan's Hospital Cafe who strikes a friendship with fellow Irishman Dr. Kildare. Ryan eventually takes over the cafe and rebrands it with his own name. He loves to flirt with Mrs. Martha Kildare and is always trying to get the interns and orderlies to eat his special Irish grub.

Nurse Maisie (Gladys Blake) - Nurse Maisie is Sally's back-up and manages the hospital intercom. She's Sally's rival for the orderlies' attention and is a big flirt.

Vernon Briggs (Red Skelton) - Skelton provides comic relief in two of the series most dramatic films. He's the orderly who thinks he's a wise guy but is always getting fooled. I wish they had introduced Skelton earlier and kept him longer in the series. Every scene he's in is a delight to watch.

Notable guest appearances include Tom Conway, Bonita Granville, Nils Asther, Robert Young, Lana Turner and Gene Lockhart.

The Dr. Kildare movies were always meant to be a series. At the end of the first film, Lionel Barrymore and Lew Ayres come out and announce that there will be many films to come. The Dr. Kildare series ended in 1942. Lew Ayres was a conscientious objector to WWII and because of public outcry did not appear in films during the war. The series was popular enough that they continued on without Ayres and what followed was three Dr. Gillespie films:  Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942), Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (1942) and Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943). The second film introduced Van Johnson as Gillespie's new assistant. I really think that Warner Archive should have either included those three movies in this set or at least followed up quickly with a single Dr. Gillespie set. One of those films includes Susan Peters, one of my favorite actresses.

The Dr. Kildare movies are a delight to watch and Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore are a dynamic duo. There are some outdated notions about medicine and treatment including a controversial approach to epilepsy and insulin shock therapy. However, the theme of the entire series focuses on preventative care and mind-over-body which still applies today. The overall gist I got was that medical science has advanced in leaps and bounds but there are still improvements waiting on the horizon.

This series isn't perfect though. I don't want to spoil things for you but one of the later films in the series is a shocking let-down. Also, I found the Dr. Kildare character difficult to connect to. He comes from a privileged situation. If anything goes wrong during his internship at Blair General Hospital, he has a cozy position at his father's home practice waiting for him as a fall back plan. This allows Dr. Kildare to take some risks. Not all of us have this convenience. I think his character would have been much more interesting if he had everything to lose.

I thoroughly enjoyed these films and would watch them again. In addition to the 9 Dr. Kildare films and their trailers, there is also a 26 minute unaired 1960 MGM-TV pilot for a Dr. Kildare show starring Lew Ayres. It features a very young Robert Redford which is probably the main draw for contemporary viewers. Lew Ayres portrayal of an older Dr. Kildare is charming. He's kind of half Kildare, half Gillespie. This pilot is bittersweet to watch. Lew Ayres was all set to play Dr. Kildare but made it clear that he wouldn't continue if the network was going to show cigarette ads during the commercial breaks. This unfortunately was a deal breaker and Ayres was dropped. The series was re-fashioned with Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare. While I couldn't connect with Dr. Kildare as a character, I find Lew Ayres as an actor and as a man endlessly fascinating! The recently published biography Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector is now at the top of my wish list.

The Dr. Kildare Movie Collection is available in a 5-Disc DVD-MOD set from Warner Archive. You can also purchase it at the TCM Shop.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received the Dr. Kildare Movie Collection from Warner Archive to review.


  1. First of all, hurray for Warner Archive Wednesdays! I really love this feature.

    Thanks for the detailed review of the Dr. Kildare set. It's interesting to read your impressions as someone seeing the movies for the first time. I've never seen them myself, other than a few bits here and there on TCM, but after reading your post I think I'd like them.

    Your comment about mothers in these kinds of series often being flighty homebodies is so true! Thinking of Andy Hardy's mother in particular, bless her heart. ;-) It's nice that they went in a different direction for the character of Mrs. Kildare.

  2. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were describing a modern day TV show. Was there continuity between movies? (Probably not.)

  3. My first thought: GENERAL HOSPITAL :P

    I think I'm going to have to check these movies out! Thanks for the great post Raquel!

  4. Raquel, I was delighted to find a new Warner Archive Wednesday post! I haven't yet seen any of this series and I'm really looking forward to it, given how much I love "B" series. I enjoyed your overview of the characters I'll be meeting and was especially interested in your description of Emma Dunn as Dr. Kildare's mother. Thanks for a great preview!

    Best wishes,


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