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Three Men in White

Three Men in White(1944)

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teaser Three Men in White (1944)

"This Girl is Sick...Love Sick!"
- Tag line from the trailer for Three Men in White

By the time MGM's successful and lucrative movie series set in Blair General Hospital reached its 13th installment with Three Men in White (1944), the dynamic duo of Dr. Kildare and Dr. Gillespie had undergone a few changes. Actor Lew Ayres, who shot to stardom as the intense and eager young Kildare, had offended the sympathies of patriotic WW II audiences when he declared himself a conscientious objector. MGM made the decision in 1942 to drop him from the popular movie franchise after nine films, and the series changed its focus to the crusty yet benign Dr. Leonard Gillespie, played by Lionel Barrymore. The senior actor had been wheelchair-bound for several years after breaking a hip and suffering intense arthritis that nearly immobilized him, but audiences accepted and loved the new Barrymore-on-wheels as he continued his busy career.

Three Men in White was the fourth Blair General Hospital entry sans Kildare. (The character had been introduced in a 1937 Paramount film but was quickly adopted by MGM.) With Ayres unavailable as the white-coated sidekick, writers, including Kildare veteran Willis Goldbeck (who also directed several entries, including Three Men in White), vamped for one movie until they settled on rising MGM contract player Van Johnson, who made his debut in the eleventh film of the series, 1942's Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant. (Johnson had been in a serious car accident towards the end of 1942 which left him with a steel plate in his skull, and precluded military service.)

Johnson's Dr. Randall "Red" Ames, along with Chinese intern Dr. Lee Wong How, played by Keye Luke, would continue in their roles as friendly rivals for Dr. Gillespie's medical approval until the end of the series in 1947 at movie number fifteen (though Johnson missed the last entry). Keye Luke's presence was one of MGM's inspired concessions to wartime sentiments; China was a U.S. ally and in fact at the end of Three Men in White Luke's character goes off to join the Chinese Army medical corps.

While medical matters set the plots in motion, some of the chief appeal of the popular doctor dramas lay in the notion of handsome and dynamic young medicos finding romance. Three Men in White was lucky to have a couple of the most beautiful young starlets in Hollywood close by to administer the proper va-va-voom to the tireless Dr. Ames. The ravishing MGM starlet Ava Gardner, a natural beauty who had traveled to Hollywood from a sultry South Carolina tobacco farm, piqued the public's interest through her marriage to MGM superstar Mickey Rooney in early 1942, a short-lived liaison that was over in less than a year-and-a-half. She spent the early 1940s doing walk-ons and one-liners, often uncredited, including a small bit in which she uttered her first onscreen lines in 1942's Calling Dr. Gillespie, the first Kildare film without Kildare.

Gardner would always remember the kindness and professionalism of Lionel Barrymore, who stayed after his usual early quitting time (for health reasons) to do the scene with her. As Gardner related in her autobiography: "...even though I was terrified at the idea of opening my mouth and having to produce words, I thought, What a wonderful old gentleman...what lovely old-fashioned manners. Mr. Barrymore taught me something I never forgot: he taught me what "respond" really means to an actor."

Gardner was joined in the glamour girl department by the vivacious blonde Marilyn Maxwell, a singer who was picked up by MGM and made her screen debut in 1942. She had originated her role as socialite social worker Ruth Edley in 1943's Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case, and reprised the role here and in Between Two Women in 1945. Both Ava Gardner as Jean Brown and Marilyn Maxwell as Ruth Edley constituted the prime distractions to the interns' concentration, with frequent played-for-laughs interactions offering light comedy counterpoint to otherwise sober medical situations. Ava would remember "...Marilyn Maxwell and I were chosen from the studio's starlet pool as potential seductresses, primed to test Van Johnson's resolution...in those days, with the eyes of the Hays office everywhere, we had to play it strictly for laughs." Gardner had a field day playing drunk and pawing the solicitous young intern, though her character was actually a hard-working young woman who was caring for her arthritis-disabled mother. Maxwell connives and contrives for face time with Dr. Ames, who has become downhearted and decides to move to Chicago and resume his internship there. (Don't worry; he doesn't go, and Miss Edley doesn't get him into the church, either.)

The usual Blair General denizens were still around, including Alma Kruger as Head Nurse Molly Bird, who had been with the series since the very beginning and would finish out the saga. Nell Craig as Nurse "Nosey" Parker came onboard in the second feature and would also stay until the end of the series. Walter Kingsford as Dr. Walter Carew was in since the first picture and would stay for all but the last entry. The part of the bumbling ambulance driver was originally played by Nat Pendleton, but in Three Men in White the new driver character was named Hobart Genet (for this movie only) and played by MGM comic relief specialist Rags Ragland. Rags started out as a boxer, transitioned to burlesque as a raucous comic, then made it to Broadway. He was picked up by MGM in the early 1940s and made regular appearances in comedies and musicals with his unique comedic style.

Lightweight but serviceable, Three Men in White was at least good enough to keep the franchise going; two more movies would follow until the series ended in 1947. Critics knew enough not to expect much from the plot, and instead found nice things to say about the feminine pulchritude on display. The Hollywood Reporter called Gardner and Maxwell "two of the smoothest young sirens to be found." Variety thought the drama slightly weak and the romance a little far-fetched: "In this day and age it's difficult to believe that a good-looking boy will dodge a better-looking gal for eight reels, hesitant even for a first kiss...Marilyn Maxwell makes a toothsome blonde menace, and Ava Gardner is attractive as a girl with a problem." The New York Times thought it "a pleasant interlude" and particularly commented on the venerable Barrymore, saying "...he looms larger than the hospital or, if you please, the picture. As a matter of fact any novice actor must view uneasily an opportunity to get before the camera with this mellow scene pirate...."

The Hippocratic Oath wins out over sweet nothings in the end of Three Men in White, and all good interns good to their beds alone and unsullied. Though he might not have said it exactly, we can be sure that the esteemed Dr. Gillespie in Three Men in White surely knew this one fact, and he ought to know: a pretty girl is like a malady.

Director: Willis Goldbeck
Screenplay: Martin Berkeley, Harry Ruskin; Max Brand (characters)
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Harry McAfee
Music: Nathaniel Shilkret
Film Editing: George Hively
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie), Van Johnson (Dr. Randall 'Red' Ames), Marilyn Maxwell (Ruth Edley), Keye Luke (Dr. Lee Wong How), Ava Gardner (Jean Brown), Alma Kruger (Molly Bird), Rags Ragland (Hobart Genet), Nell Craig (Nurse 'Nosey' Parker), Walter Kingsford (Dr. Walter Carew), George H. Reed (Conover)
BW-86m.

by Lisa Mateas

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