Modern day film fans are probably familiar with Drew Barrymore but are they aware she is descended from a family of actors that began their stagecraft in the 1840’s?! My post today is for The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted this weekend by classic film fan Crystal. Be sure to click here, to read more great pieces written by other classic film fans, about the three Barrymores that classic film fans know best: Lionel, Ethel, and John.
I decided to focus on Drew’s late, Great-Uncle, Lionel. Specifically, his role as the grumpy Dr. Gillespie in MGM’s long running film series about a young doctor, Dr. Kildare. Frederick Schiller Faust, under the pen name Max Brand, wrote for pulp fiction magazines. He created a character, a young doctor, James Kildare, and wrote a story about the young doctor in a nationally read magazine. That story caught Paramount Studio’s attention. They bought the rights of the story to make the 1937 movie, Interns Can’t Take Money, which starred Joel McCrea. Next came Metro Goldwyn Mayer and they bought the rights to the character concept of Dr. Kildare(the studio put Lew Ayres in the title role) and then made 9 successful films all about the young doctor. To me, though, topping all of these films off, like the cherry on the sundae, is Lionel Barrymore.
Barrymore began acting on the stage in 1899(!), and after a successful stage career, he began to appear in silent movies; 1911 he began to appear in some D.W. Griffith films. By the time that the Dr. Kildare series began to be filmed in 1938, Barrymore was in his 60s and confined to a wheelchair due to arthritis and a broken hip(broken twice!) that never healed properly. His character, Dr. Leonard Gillespie, is the wisest doctor and the grumpiest, at Blair General Hospital. He rolls around the halls as fast as he can, has his own clinic in the building with a large contingent of loyal patients, and his own apartment to live in too! There’s a head nurse, Molly Byrd(Alma Kruger), who Dr. Gillespie likes to bark at but we can tell that he has a fondness for this no-nonsense nurse.
The plots of the 9 Dr. Kildare films aren’t too difficult to follow, and they do present some clever medical mysteries that the young doctor has to resolve, often asking Dr. Gillespie for advice. Turner Classic Movies began airing the Dr. Kildare films on Saturday mornings, and I began to record and watch them. There’s something endearing about all of the films in this series. Dr. James Kildare is young, smart, and has ideas as to how he wants to help patients. Dr. Kildare’s parents(Samuel S. Hinds and Emma Dunn) are two loving parents who did a good job raising their only child. Of course, the senior Kildare is also a doctor in a small town and the parents hope that one day, Jimmy, will come back to it and practice medicine and give up the big city hospital. There’s Nurse Lamont(Laraine Day), who falls in love with young Dr. Kildare, and he with her. There’s Wayman(Nat Pendleton) as a big lug of an ambulance driver who wants to date Sally(Marie Blake) the wise-cracking dame who runs the hospital’s switchboard. Dr. Carew, the hospital’s administrator(Walter Kingsford), has some clashes from time to time with Dr. Gillespie and Dr. Kildare, but he usually will give the A-OK to a new treatment they want to try. An orderly, Conover(Clinton Rosemond) who is Dr. Gillespie’s butler for all intents and purposes, and Nurse Parker(Nell Craig)-nicknamed Nosey by Dr. Gillespie, rounds out the rest of the cast.
After the 9th Dr. Kildare was shown at the box office, the 10th film was about to begin shooting when the American public learned that it’s lead star, Lew Ayres, had declared himself a conscientious objector to WWII, when he had recently been drafted. (Ayers did serve as a non-combat medic and chaplain’s assistant during the war which toned down the public’s outcry against Ayers.) MGM, not wanting bad publicity for this 10th film, decided to cut Dr. Kildare from the film completely and just focus the film on Dr. Gillespie. The new story line worked and 6 Dr. Gillespie films were made. There were four actors who played new, young doctors needing Dr. Gillespie’s mentoring: Philip Dorn played Dr. Gerniede, Van Johnson played Dr. Adams, Keye Luke played Dr. Wong Howe, and James Craig played Dr. Coalt.
TCM will be airing the first Dr. Kildare movie, Young Dr. Kildare, on Thursday, August 27th, 12:30 pm ET/11:30 am CT. It’s also available to buy through TCM’s shop, as well as the Dr. Gillespie films. There are also dvds to buy of the American tv show, Dr. Kildare, for sale on the same site, so don’t let that confuse you! Amazon also has some of the Dr. Kildare films for sale, too.
Before I sign off, the names Dr. Kildare and Dr. Gillespie had become commonplace in American pop culture in the 1940s-1950s, and even Bugs Bunny had a chance to have a bit of fun. In this cartoon, Hot Cross Bunny, watch for the waskily wabbit to impersonate Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie.