During the 1930s and '40s MGM was the biggest studio in "Hollywood" and liked to claim that it didn't make B-pictures, that its production polish was such that even what were essentially its lower-half, bottom of the bill program pictures - the Andy Hardy Movies, their Tarzan films, the Thin Man movies, etc. - were produced with a level of care and with budgets rivaling most studios' A-pictures.** This is true to a point, though judging by The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939) not always the case.
This Roan release of the now presumably public domain MGM production was the third of 15 "Dr. Kildare / Dr. Gillespie" movies MGM made during 1938-1947. The company's top series were deliberately paced at about one every other year; roughly two Kildare movies were produced annually, though that's still awfully leisurely compared with the rate series were cranked out by studios like Universal and Fox.
The Kildare / Gillespie movies have largely sat unreleased on home video, but judging by The Secret of Dr. Kildare this is understandable. Though it's fun to watch the cast do their best, dramatically as well as scientifically the picture has dated quite badly.
At the gargantuan Blair General Hospital, young Dr. Kildare (Lew Ayres) tirelessly works for curmudgeonly but paternalistic Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore), wheelchair-bound because, as Hospital Chief Dr. S.J. Carew (Walter Kingsford) puts it, "his legs are hopelessly crippled." Carew brings Paul Messenger (Lionel Atwill), "the seventh-richest man in America," to see Dr. Gillespie, but the grumpy old doctor makes Messenger wait in line like everyone else.
Messenger, it turns out, is worried about daughter Nancy's (Helen Gilbert) strange behavior, thinking perhaps that she might have inherited the same disease that killed her mother. Gillespie assigns Kildare to the case, insisting that he work undercover so as not to alarm the young debutante.
Gillespie, meanwhile, has worked himself into a state of total exhaustion. Also suffering from terminal cancer - the very mention of the word sent shudders down audiences' spines back then, so it's rather surprising the film mentions it by name - Gillespie is determined to spend his last days developing new treatments to fight pneumonia, even if it kills him. In a complex scheme to get Gillespie to take some time off, Kildare pretends to abandon his morals for the Big Money awaiting him in Messenger's employ. A disgruntled Gillespie finally goes on medical leave.
In another subplot, Dr. Kildare's father (Samuel S. Hinds) may also be terminally ill, and the young doctor's mother (Emma Dunn) plots to keep the news from her son. (This subplot is resolved in an especially unsatisfying, quite unbelievable manner.)
The Secret of Dr. Kildare may have been made in 1939, but director Harold S. Bucquet shoots it with all the pizzazz of an early talkie, circa 1929. The picture is incredibly static with no visual flair anywhere. Most B-films, particularly series entries, tended to run 60-75 minutes, but this runs 84 long minutes and seems to go on forever. The first 16 minutes or so are set entirely in Dr. Gillespie's office, and there are few cuts and practically nothing but the same four or five medium shots. Bucquet seems to have been content to let Barrymore run with his long passages of dialogue, but while the actor's delivery is colorful it's much more in the tradition of the early-20th century American stage than a 1939 movie. Barrymore could be excellent in the right part with good direction, such as his memorable work in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Key Largo (1948), but here his eye-rolling, grandly-gesturing Gillespie is almost something like parody.
Making matters worse is Gillespie's occasionally hilarious rants against his weak-willed patients. An alcoholic man who dares suggests he might have inherited the disease from his father (since proven to be true in many cases) is raked over the coals by an outraged Gillespie, who considers the very idea baloney and insulting filial disloyalty.
Indeed, virtually every patient seen in The Secret of Dr. Kildare would in today's climate have cause to sue Blair General for malpractice. The film's main story sees Kildare doing very little actual healing, with the young physician acting more the amateur psychiatrist in this one.
What's left is the fun of watching the fine cast of character actors doing what they do best. Ayres is unusually natural by 1930s movie standards, almost like a young Jack Lemmon. Though he would become a busy character player in later years, his career was derailed during the war when he became a conscientious objector during World War II, despite eventually serving with distinction as a medic. Besides Atwill and Hinds, series regulars Nat Pendleton, Laraine Day, Alma Kruger, and Marie Blake/Blossom Rock also appear.
Video & Audio
The Roan Group's release of The Secret of Dr. Kildare uses a 16mm and/or 35mm print that looks okay if a bit on the dark side. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
Supplements include an Introduction by New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick and an Interview by Lloyd Kaufman about the series with historian Frank Thompson. Both have pretty much the same things to say, though viewers unfamiliar with the series may find it interesting.
The seven-minute The Life of a Child Star: Bill Winckler Remembers His Father Bobby Winckler is entertaining enough, but what's it doing here? Winckler is nowhere to be found in The Secret of Dr. Kildare. Even more bizarrely is Radiation March, an apparently Troma-produced short that ranks among the most incongruous DVD supplements of all-time.
The Secret of Dr. Kildare is worth a look if only for classic movie fans to sample what the series is all about and interested in getting a handle on its appeal. It seems unlikely that Warner Home Video will be releasing a boxed set of the films anytime soon, but even if they do, this isn't a bad way to test the waters.
** Reader Sergei Hasenecz takes issue with my reference to MGM's Tarzan and Thin Man series, which I had incorrectly assumed played at the top of the bill when doubled with other studio's movies (e.g., Universal or Columbia) but which were on the lower part of the bill when paired with other, bigger MGM movies (i.e., A-pictures starring Clark Gable, etc.)
Sergei writes, "While the Andy Hardy movies came out fairly often (15 movies in 10 years from 1937 to 1946) and many of them could be considered Bs by MGM standards, both the Tarzan and Thin Man series were A pictures and always topped
the bill, however formulaic both series became. They were never 'lower-half, bottom of the bill program pictures.' MGM limited their production of the Tarzan and Thin Man movies because they were considered special. They
were A pictures with A budgets, even if the studio did tighten the belt a notch on the last couple of Tarzan movies. For that matter, did any of the Hardy movies actually show as
second features?" Good question, Sergei. Anyone out there know the answer?
Stuart Galbraith IV talks about Invasion of Astro-Monster in an audio commentary track that's just one part of Classic Media's upcoming Godzilla Classic Collector's Edition. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.