Max Brand

Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (1940, Harold S. Bucquet)

I wonder, did Lew Ayres ever feel like Jimmy Kildare was a heel? I mean, he’s an unbelievably nice guy–he won’t propose to nurse Mary Lamont (Laraine Day sleepwalks through almost all of Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case, since there’s only one scene where she needs to do anything) because he doesn’t want to make her wait until his internship is over. If it means he loses her to wealthy neurosurgeon Shepperd Strudwick, well, so be it. In fact, he’s such a nice guy… he’s going to risk his career (and prison time) to make sure Strudwick doesn’t get a raw deal–and, presumably, can then marry Day.

Ayres is okay–he certainly doesn’t play the role with any self-awareness–he’s believable as the impossibly well-meaning Kildare. Maybe it isn’t those good intentions, maybe it’s a lack of consideration for himself. It’s selflessness as a certifiable condition. Every single one of these movies, Ayres ends up doing something illegal and he never worries about it. Usually his mom tells him it’s the right thing to do. In Strange Case–the urge to say “in the case of Strange Case” was unbearable–he’s got to force insulin shock treatment (for schizophrenia, they just call it insanity in the script) on a patient in order to save Strudwick. The obvious, putting the John Doe patient’s picture in the newspaper, doesn’t occur to Ayres or any of the hospital staff (they don’t even call the cops). I read up on insulin shock therapy, just because the film’s treatment of it is so goofy. The insulin causes patient John Eldredge’s brain to devolve to a primeval state, then the mind repairs itself. There are a couple of explanations of this phenomenon, first from Samuel S. Hinds (as Ayres’s father… who visits just in time for every movie) then from Ayres. It sounds absurd both times and I had to look it up. Couldn’t find anything about the primeval state… but it’s interesting a film from 1940 doesn’t question evolution. Of course, 1940 is before the G.I. Bill dumbed down American high schools.

Anyway, Strange Case is fine. There’s not much plot to it–Eldredge doesn’t even show up until the halfway point–and it just allows for the cast, now on their fourth picture in the series, to go crazy. Every performance in the film, from the supporting cast members who got saddled with perfunctory scenes before, is great. Walter Kingsford, Frank Orth, Alma Kruger and Horace McMahon (well, I’m not sure he was in any of the other ones, but it’s implied here) all have these fantastic scenes, just because there’s not enough story so they get more material and they’re wonderful. Emma Dunn and Nat Pendleton, who usually do get material, get even better material here. Dunn’s got her best scene in the four films in Strange Case.

And, of course, Lionel Barrymore is outstanding. He and Ayres have a good banter here, even if the movie–as usual–has him firing Ayres for a few minutes.

Bucquet’s direction is phoned in. He’s fine in his composition except for close-ups. It’s like he wasn’t going to do any, then came back and shot them. The close-ups don’t match. It must have driven editor Gene Ruggiero nuts trying to put the picture together.

Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case is a perfectly inoffensive (narratively, anyway) seventy minutes. It would have been a fine to sit through at an air conditioned movie house on a hot summer day… except it opened in April.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Willis Goldbeck, story by Max Brand and Goldbeck; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by David Snell; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Shepperd Strudwick (Dr. Greg Lane), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Walter Kingsford (Dr. Walter Carew), Alma Kruger (Molly Byrd), John Eldredge (Henry Adams), Nell Craig (Nurse Parker) and Marie Blake (Sally).


The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939, Harold S. Bucquet)

Watching The Secret of Dr. Kildare is about two things–seeing Lionel Barrymore’s fantastic performance (even as he’s spouting expositional dialogue, it’s riveting) and finding out the deep dark secret of patient Helen Gilbert. It’s the third film in the series and the staples are already in place–Lew Ayres, under some false pretense, stops working for Barrymore. Ayres’s parents, Samuel S. Hinds and Emma Dunn, show up for some contrived reason. Laraine Day is heartbroken Ayres doesn’t know she loves him. Nat Pendleton flirts with Marie Blake before having one fantastic scene involving a fist fight. The script’s just loose melodramatic threads to get these set pieces into place, held together by the cast’s likability, Barrymore’s talent and the mystery to be solved.

What’s most distressing about the film is its length. It only runs eighty-four minutes but halfway through, it’s already at a near standstill. It’s excruciating at times because the titular Secret is one the audience knows and the film’s present action is a couple weeks. There’s no tension to it–it’s just a matter of how everything will be fixed by the end, not if. The script doesn’t take any chances, it’s all paint by numbers. The mediocrity makes every decent moment in the film seem fantastic, whether it’s Ayres picking up Day for a date or Barrymore fishing with assistant George Reed. The occasionally inventive developments–like Grant Mitchell’s crack “doctor” and Sara Haden’s wacko–get Secret‘s heart rate up, waking the viewer.

While the script gives Barrymore a complex, textured character, Ayres’s Dr. Kildare–especially considering the film’s title bares his name–gets a lukewarm treatment. Ayres gives a fine performance–though Bucquet and editor Frank E. Hull hold reaction shots too long–but there’s no enthusasim… not just from Ayres, but from the film itself. He’s the least interesting character in the film, when he’s not around Barrymore, Dunn or Pendleton, it’s hard to believe Ayres could stay awake to deliver his lines. The scene with his fellow interns offers three other characters who give the impression of being far more interesting. Ayres’s romance with Day is boring–she’s far more lively in her scenes with Barrymore. When it’s just Ayres and Gilbert, only the change in setting, from the hospital to a skyscraper observatory for instance, keep the film moving. If it weren’t for Haden’s loon, the second half (when Barrymore and Ayres are bickering) would be static.

Bucquet, besides that annoying editing laziness I mentioned before, does a decent job. He keeps the scenes with Barrymore, those long expository scenes, interesting. But he doesn’t do anything to overcome the script’s shortcomings.

Besides Barrymore, there’s some fine acting from Pendleton (who has almost nothing to do, but approaches it with relish) and Lionel Atwill. Atwill’s a fine character actor, it’s a shame he’s mostly known for his work in horror films. Gilbert’s okay… as the film progresses, she gets more histrionic. Day has nothing to do.

It’s hard to get involved with the film or invested in it, because there’s little sign the filmmakers had any interest either.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Harry Ruskin, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Lionel Atwill (Paul Messenger), Helen Gilbert (Nancy Messenger), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Sara Haden (Nora), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. S.J. Carew), Grant Mitchell (John Xerxes Archley), Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd), Robert Kent (Charles Herron), Marie Blake (Sally), Martha O’Driscoll (Mrs. Roberts) and Nell Craig (Nurse Parker).


Calling Dr. Kildare (1939, Harold S. Bucquet)

Someone thought Calling Dr. Kildare was a good idea. Sitting through the turgid eighty-six minute running time, that thought occasionally popped into my head. Someone thought this story was a good idea. Lew Ayres’s young Dr. Kildare (this one’s set three months, give or take, after the first entry) has a spat with Lionel Barrymore and ends up fired. Or he quit. It’s unclear, because the spat is so minor, it’s impossible to accept what follows as a logical progression of events. It’s not even melodrama; it lacks any events. Ayres ends up doctoring a fugitive while romancing his sister. But apparently MGM wanted to put contract actors like Emma Dunn and Samuel S. Hinds (as Ayres’s parents, who live far away–enough–from New York City, where the principal action is situated), because Ayres ends up hanging out with them for a few minutes of running time. There’s not enough going on in Calling Dr. Kildare to even make up an A plot, much less a full feature (and it’s got more than enough time).

Ayres is fine–if unimpressive–as Kildare. His best scenes are with Barrymore (it’d be impossible for someone not to have good scenes with Barrymore, but more on him in a bit), but there’s some decent stuff with him in the hospital with his fellow interns. Or at the local bar, hanging around Nat Pendleton’s well intentioned lug of an ambulance driver. The bar and the hospital are complicated, detail rich sets. The hospital’s got these huge rooms, tall ceilings–it’s a wonderful area for filmic action to play out. Instead, Calling Dr. Kildare takes place in basements and smaller sets. The script tries to fill it with enough material, enough locations for Ayres to visit, to be a full narrative. But it fails.

Calling Dr. Kildare is one of those excellent examples–it’s got a fine cast and a capable director (Bucquet has some exquisite shots here)–but the script is terrible. It’s predictable and listless. Nothing about the film’s intentions don’t seem requisite. While Ayres basically keeps his head above water, Barrymore is bounding off the surface. Every scene with him is spectacular. He’s got amazing scenes with Pendleton, Alma Kruger and Bobs Watson. As it plods and flounders along, Calling Dr. Kildare is still worth a look just to see what Barrymore’s going to do.

Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast doesn’t make out well. Lana Turner’s woman in distress is a tad unbelievable (though she and Barrymore do have a great scene together), but at least she’s a part of the narrative. Laraine Day’s role is an inflated minor part. She’s got almost nothing to do–it’s a shock to see her in the bar during one scene, just because the film keeps her immobile for most of the narrative.

Where Calling Dr. Kildare misses the mark worst is the opening. It’s a deceptive open in Ayres’s hometown, with his parents. It’s not a totally empty scene–they burn off a few minutes sending Hinds (also a doctor) out on a call. Well, later on when Ayres finally does visit home, the film follows the medical thread, not the other (homecoming) one at all. It makes the eventual return awkward and inorganic.

In order, I wanted Calling Dr. Kildare to be good, better, okay, then over. But Barrymore’s great anyway.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks and Lester White; edited by Robert Kern; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. James Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Lana Turner (Rosalie Lewett), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Lynne Carver (Alice Raymond), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. Walter Carew) and Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd).


Young Dr. Kildare (1938, Harold S. Bucquet)

Young Dr. Kildare is very hard to watch. Not because it’s bad or because it’s insanely rare, but because Elmo Veron is one of the worst editors I’ve ever seen on a Hollywood film. Some of the fault–for shooting too many medium-long shots–belongs to director Bucquet, Veron’s incompetent eyes and ears for film cutting makes Kildare a constant intrusion. It’s like someone clanks a hammer repeatedly against a pan whenever the film cuts to a one-shot. It’s like Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.” It’s unacceptable. There’s no reason a film should have such bad editing.

Otherwise, Kildare’s a not quite genial (the case gets solved because hospital intern Lew Ayres lets paramedic Nat Pendleton convince him they need to beat men with a wrench) medical drama. Well, not exactly… there’s a case, a few of them even, but it’s mostly a setup for the subsequent series. MGM must have had some idea there’d be more, since the movie stops instead of concludes. But back to the lack of geniality… Ayres goes so far as to cover for Pendleton’s incompetence, an incompetence directly responsible for a patient’s death. And then they’re friends. So, while Ayres is defending patient confidentiality, he’s also just covered up a case of manslaughter. The movie never discusses it in those terms and wipes the whole thing under the carpet, but it does have a particular subversive air about it… the big secret can’t be spoken because of the Code and such.

Ayres is okay as Kildare… his performance is, not joking, severely hampered by lots of his lines coming in those terrible one-shots. Lionel Barrymore is awesome (playing a wheelchair bound “House M.D.”) and Pendleton is good. Jo Ann Sayers is pretty good as the case, but Ayres’s romantic interest, Lynne Carver, has no chemistry with him. Their scenes together come off so bland–partially the script’s fault, but still–it’s like he’d just gotten done cutting the underwear off her doll collection.

The movie works pretty well, utilizing Pendleton perfectly for the needed humor (as it becomes clear, both to Ayres and the audience, Barrymore isn’t being funny when he’s being funny).

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Elmo Veron; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Gillespie), Lew Ayres (Dr. James Kildare), Lynne Carver (Alice Raymond), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Jo Ann Sayers (Barbara Chanler), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. P. Walter Carew), Truman Bradley (Jack Hamilton), Monty Woolley (Dr. Lane-Porteus), Pierre Watkin (Mr. Robert Chanler) and Nella Walker (Mrs. Chanler).


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