This article is part of the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon: https://charsmoviereviews.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/medicine-in-the-movies-blogathon-announcement-may-26-28-2017/comment-page-1/#comment-584
Dr. Jimmy Kildare is a familiar name to most people, but few people know when the name was first used in entertainment. Almost everyone knows about the 1960s television series about Dr. Kildare, but not many people know that the character had been portrayed in film by two different actors in the pre-war Code era and on the radio by the second of these actors; the first film was Interns Can’t Take Money from 1937 with Joel McCrea and the second was the Dr. Kildare series from 1938 to 1942 with Lew Ayres. Lew Ayres in this series made the character which was originally created by Max Brand for Cosmopolitan famous, and it also elevated him to greater fame. I will discuss the Dr. Kildare series in terms of the individual films, the characters, and the continuity between the films.
Each of the nine Dr. Kildare films is a fascinating, entertaining movie by itself.
In Young Dr. Kildare from 1938, you are introduced to the charming, honest young intern who trades the ease of his father’s country practice for the challenge of an internship at the prestigious Blair General Hospital in New York City; while risking his new career by defying rules regarding a psychopath he believes to be sane, he struggles with the curmudgeonly but brilliant old Dr. Gillespie, a gifted diagnostician, and becomes
Jimmy meets his future sweetheart, the beautiful Nurse Mary Lamont, in Calling Dr. Kildare from 1939, but he is greatly enamored by a beautiful golddigger who flirts with him so he will treat her brother; he gets in trouble for treating this young man, who was accused of a murder.
In The Secret of Dr. Kildare from the same year, Dr. Gillespie is working himself to death with pneumonia tests, so Jimmy forces him to take a break by quitting his job as assistant; Dr. Gillespie and Mary Lamont both think that Jimmy just wants to make more money by treating a millionaire’s daughter who thinks she is going blind.
In Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case from 1940, Jimmy must perform a dangerous procedure on a lunatic to restore his sanity and save two doctors’ careers; meanwhile, he must choose between accepting an important position which will allow him to marry Mary immediately and remaining at Blair while perhaps losing his beloved forever.
In Dr. Kildare Goes Home from the same year, Jimmy returns to his hometown to help his father with a surplus of patients which are weakening him, yet he finds that many of the stubborn people refuse to accept him; he and a few other young doctors start a healthcare program, the success of which may decide their future and that of the whole community.
In the third film that year, Dr. Kildare’s Crisis, Jimmy and Mary rapidly approach the altar, but her brother’s arrival causes their relationship some strife, since Jimmy believes his future relative has epilepsy; soon, Mary fears she has it too and considers breaking their engagement to save Jimmy the burden of a sick wife.
When Dr. Kildare performs a roadside surgery on an ice-skater who was in an automobile accident in The People vs. Dr. Kildare from 1941, her legs become paralyzed;
Jimmy faces a malpractice suit which may end his medical career unless he discovers the true cause of her paralysis.
In Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day from the same year, Jimmy helps Dr. Gillespie treat a conductor who is going deaf so that the older man will leave afterwords for cancer treatment, but this keeps Dr. Kildare away from the preparations for his wedding; when Mary is killed by a truck on the eve of their wedding, Jimmy loses all desire to practice medicine, and Dr. Gillespie has to save him from his apathetic grief.
When Dr. Kildare defends a young intern and nurse who are fired by Blair General Hospital over a ridiculous rule in Dr. Kildare’s Victory from 1942, his job is at stake more than ever before; meanwhile, a debutante on whom he performed heart surgery is determined to bring romance back into the mourning doctor’s life by throwing herself at him.
The recurring characters who are seen in multiple movies during the series are what lend the stories their charm and integrity.
As the films’ names imply, Jimmy Kildare is the main character in the series, since every story is centered around his medical career, romances, and problems.
Dr. Gillespie is the stern, gruff contrast to Jimmy’s gentle charm, and he provides clever dialogue, medical insight, and usually the solution to Dr. Kildare’s problems.
Mary Lamont is Jimmy’s sweetheart in seven out of the nine films, and she is mentioned in the last film even though only a photograph of her is seen; she is always sweet, loving, and entirely confident in Jimmy, but she has enough fire in her personality to challenge his adventurous spirit.
Nurse Molly Byrd is the head nurse at the hospital, and she is both Dr. Gillespie’s nemesis and best friend; she acts stern and forbidding, but she is always quick to dispatch her stooges to help Doctors Kildare and Gillespie and ready to offer a kind word of support and consolation.
Dr. Stephen Kildare, Jimmy’s father, is a quiet, patient source of wisdom and support in the first five films as well as the eighth; he is very proud of Jimmy’s success in the medical profession, and he respects his son’s decision not to join his practice even though it conflicts with his own plans and wishes.
Mrs. Kildare, Jimmy’s mother, provides some of the tenderest scenes in the first through the fifth and the eight film as she gives Jimmy wise, gentle maternal advice; the rest of her dialogue contains delightfully unassuming wittiness, humor, and boasts about her girlhood beauty. Dr. Carew, the hospital’s stuffy but kindhearted director, Sally, the comical telephone operator, Joe Wayman, the boisterous, fun-loving ambulance assistant who can get the truth out of anyone with his monkey wrench, and Nurse “Nosey” Parker, Dr. Gillespie’s timid, maltreated assistant, complete the standard cast which occupies and enlivens the varied stories of Dr. Kildare.
Unlike television sitcoms, old Hollywood movie series usually had a lot of continuity from one film to the next. While old television shows often featured the same supporting actors in many different roles, the Dr. Kildare series only used each actor as one character; once a person had become a character in the series, he could have no other role in it. There is fine continuity in the series for the first six films; up to 1940,
the series is perfect. In The People vs. Dr. Kildare, it is evident from the very beginning of the film that something has changed, since even the credits are different; the MGM lion background has been replaced with an illustration of bottles with the medical
Also, this film introduces two goofy new characters, a couple of bumbling orderlies, who do nothing but waste screen time with their pointless, ridiculous slapstick antics.
However, the series really changes because Dr. Kildare himself changes; his lines, actions, and manner seem different, especially regarding patients. He tells a woman
she can never have a baby in a heartless manner; even though it is her own fault because of drinking, he usually told bad news sadly, not disinterestedly.
Even worse, he slaps a hysterical woman whom he finds injured on the roadside; she was out of control, but the real Dr. Kildare never would have reacted like that. He calmed patients with soothing words, not violent actions. Also, Dr. Gillespie is not as gruff and ruthless as he was in previous films; he is sweeter and more tender. My sister, Rebekah, says that they traded characteristics, and Dr. Kildare became Dr. Gildare while Dr. Gillespie became Dr. Killespie. The real reason the series changed then was that, unlike the first six films, this film was not a direct adaptation of a story by Max Brand; it was a combination of two Brand stories. The next film, Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day, was not from a Max Brand story at all; it was an original story written by Hollywood writers. Dr. Kildare’s character is more like it formerly was in this film, and the film goes along quite well until sometime in the middle of it, when Mary Lamont is crossing the street while looking up at a sign, and she gets hit by a truck. In the next scene, Jimmy has arrived at the hospital to find that his fiancee is upstairs in a hospital bed, badly injured.
He goes to her room, and she dies after a few last words to him. Within five minutes of Mary’s accident, the whole series is completely changed and, if you asked me, ruined. The reason for Mary Lamont’s death is one of the stupidest ones in film history. MGM wanted to get Laraine Day out of the series so she could be in other roles, so they decided to kill Mary. They could have written her out of the series so easily without obliterating the character, but I will leave the complete list of my complaints about and solutions for this film for another article. After Mary has died, Jimmy refuses to go home with his parents; instead, he goes off by himself and nobody hears from him for weeks. When Dr. Gillespie does see him again, he looks horrible; please pardon the italics, but I feel they are necessary to express how bad he looks.
He looks like he hasn’t changed his suit, combed his hair, or shaved since the last time he was seen, but worse than that, there is absolutely no emotion in him. He eventually rejoins the medical profession after he cures the patient whom he and Dr. Gillespie had been treating, but he never is the same. For that matter, neither is the series. In the final film, I think one can sense the fact that the writers were trying to salvage a broken and splintered series. When they killed Mary, they also murdered the story. Dr. Kildare gets into his usual troubles, but the main point of interest is Cookie Charles, the glamour girl on whom he performs open-heart surgery. This is the only medical inaccuracy I have detected in the series. Jimmy is a diagnostician. What is he doing performing open-heart surgery? It is not as though he is the only doctor in the hospital, since the whole staff of Blair seems to be watching him from the gallery. This same Cookie takes a fancy to Dr. Kildare, and she lets him know in a manner which is far from subtle. She is the first love interest aside from Mary that Jimmy has had since Rosalie in the second film. Although Cookie uses every trick she knows to interest Jimmy, it is evident that he will remain a bachelor, since he never can love another woman besides Mary. It is just as well that Lew Ayres went to war after this film, since there was nothing more to be done in the series. If Jimmy ever became interested in another woman, I know that I would feel he was being unfaithful to Mary. On the other hand, if the series continued, it would have been monotonous and frustrating for Jimmy to remain loveless. The filmmakers must have felt like idiots after Lew Ayres revealed himself to be a conscientious objector right after Dr. Kildare’s Victory was filmed, since they knew that the series would not continue after that. They must have wished desperately that they had preserved Mary for one more film. Unfortunately, they did not have enough foresight in 1941 to realize that America would be joining the World War soon, and their leading man would be drafted, sent to a conscientious objector camp, and eventually admitted to the medic corps.
Having reviewed the Dr. Kildare series in terms of the individual films, the characters, and the continuity between films, we see that the first six belong to a perfectly coordinated, charming series, but the filmmakers lost the story and their heads in 1941. Every film has a unique synopsis; each one presents an interesting medical case while furthering the story of Jimmy’s career and romantic life. The series is given its charm and integrity by the recurring characters who appear throughout it. The series has excellent continuity throughout the first six films, but it changes in The People vs. Dr.
Kildare, since the films are no longer taken directly from Max Brand stories, and it is never the same. Don’t hesitate to investigate this little-known film series which
celebrates the medical career, but I suggest you stop at Dr. Kildare’s Crisis, since that is where the true story ends.
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