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In the late 1930's, MGM struck gold when it began a series of B-movies about a small-town judge and his family, the "Andy Hardy" series. Looking around to repeat that success, the studio focused on a series of popular stories by Max Brand about an idealistic young intern in a New York City hospital. Paramount had already made a film about the character, called Interns Can't Take Money (1937), starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck. MGM acquired the rights to the stories, completed Young Dr. Kildare (1938) within three weeks in September of 1938, and had it in general release by mid-October. It was the first of what would become a series of 15 films over nine years.
Young Dr. Kildare introduces audiences to James Kildare, played by Lew Ayres, fresh out of medical school and planning to join his father's small town medical practice. Instead, Kildare accepts an internship at Blair General Hospital, under the curmudgeonly, wheelchair-bound diagnostician, Dr. Gillespie, played by Lionel Barrymore. (Barrymore had broken his hip in an accident, hence the wheelchair; later, his worsening arthritis kept him in the chair.) Gillespie drives Kildare hard, testing him and finding him worthy, and eventually becoming the young doctor's mentor, as Kildare decides to become a diagnostician. Other characters in this first film who would re-appear in subsequent ones were Nat Pendleton, as the ambulance driver and the series' comic relief; his girlfriend the switchboard operator, played by Marie Blake; and the head of the hospital, played by Walter Kingsford. Missing in the first installment was Laraine Day as Nurse Mary Lamont, Kildare's love interest, who made her first appearance in the second film, Calling Dr. Kildare (1939).
The onscreen chemistry between Ayres and Barrymore was evident from the beginning, and even before the film was finished, MGM began making plans for more. In fact, they tacked on a scene at the end of Young Dr. Kildare with the two stars announcing that there would be a series. Like the Andy Hardy series, the Kildare films would serve as an apprenticeship for some of the studio's attractive young contract players, such as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Red Skelton, and Donna Reed.
Lew Ayres was an unlikely movie star, an intellectual with a broad range of esoteric interests, who cared not at all for the trappings of fame. He had been in films for nearly a decade by the time he starred in Young Dr. Kildare, appearing in such prestigious productions as Garbo's last silent film, The Kiss (1929), the classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Holiday (1938), with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Ayres would appear in nine Kildare films. But when the United States went to war in 1941, Ayres announced he was a conscientious objector, and refused to take up arms based on his religious beliefs. It was an unpopular position, and Ayres was reviled by the press and the film industry. Variety called him "a disgrace to the industry," and MGM dropped his contract. After stints at a labor camp and as a chaplain, Ayres put his "medical training" to good use, joining the Army Medical corps as a non-combatant orderly, and serving honorably in the Pacific. After the war, he worked as an actor only sporadically, spending his time studying philosophy and religion. However, he did appear in several well-regarded films, earning an Academy Award nomination for his role as a compassionate doctor in Johnny Belinda (1948).
After Ayres' departure from the Kildare series in 1942, the series' focus shifted to Dr. Gillespie, and Lionel Barrymore continued in the role in six more films. A series of actors played young doctors hoping to fill Kildare's shoes as Dr. Gillespie's protg, including Van Johnson, Keye Luke, and James Craig. As the Kildare films began screening on television in the 1950s, a whole new audience discovered the series, and in 1961, a television series, Dr. Kildare, premiered on NBC, with Richard Chamberlain as Kildare and Raymond Massey as Gillespie. That same year, another young doctor/older doctor series, Ben Casey, starring Vince Edwards and Sam Jaffe premiered on ABC. Both shows lasted until 1966. And the template of idealistic young doctor/crusty older doctor has been repeated in television medical dramas ever since.
Producer: Lou L. Ostrow
Director: Harold S. Bucquet
Screenplay: Harry Ruskin, Willis Goldbeck, based on characters created by Max Brand
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: John Seitz
Editor: Elmo Veron
Music: David Snell
Cast: Lew Ayres (Dr. James Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), 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. Walter Carew).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri