Dr. Gillespie Film Collection DVD Review: Van Johnson and Keye Luke Join the Fun

In many respects, MGM’s original Dr. Kildare Movie Collection essentially served as filmdom’s first hospital show. Granted, the series was one of a theatrical nature; although television did in fact exist when the series was born, it had not yet been molded into what it would become in the ’50s. Nevertheless, the various storylines and recurring supporting characters the nine films had gives the old fashioned film franchise a very likeable “modern” quality when viewed today (as it did way back when, I should add). But the series only grew to foreshadow television after its star, Lew Ayres, left the series once America became involved in World War II.

Perhaps “left” is the wrong word there. Ayres was one of Hollywood’s promising young male leads who wound up receiving a draft notice from Uncle Sam, but his declaring of himself as a conscientious objector essentially ruined his chances of a future in the industry itself, let alone in his current regular role as Dr. Kildare. MGM’s writers and producers felt that not only would the now-disgraced actor’s presence bring down the curtain on the series, but even the mentioning of his former character’s name could serve as the proverbial axe to an otherwise profitable slew of B unit motion pictures. And so, Dr. Kildare was written out of the Blair General Hospital dramatics completely – leaving only a crippled, curmudgeonry diagnostician to run the show, to wit his superiors demand he hire a new assistant.

Sound familiar? Well, if you were even a minor fan of House M.D., it will sound a lot like a story arc from that medical TV show’s fourth season, wherein the crippled, curmudgeonry diagnostician Dr. House – having lost his entire crew – turned a simple interview process into a Reality TV show-style battle between prospective interns. And when you get to the second installment of the Warner Archive Collections Dr. Gillespie Film Collection – the aptly-titled Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant, wherein the franchise’s newly-promoted star Lionel Barrymore picks out three bright interns and declares it open season – you’ll start to wonder exactly how much more of this classic medical series inspired the writers of House M.D.over fifty years later.

But first things first. The Dr. Gillespie Film Collection begins with the effective beginning of this spin-off series, Calling Dr. Gillespie from 1942. Here, Dutch heartbreaker Philip Dorn guest stars as a handsome male physician with dreams of being an psychoanalyst who winds up being recruited by Dr. Gillespie by the head of a finishing school when one of her student’s boyfriends suddenly goes berserk and stones his own dog to death! (Yes, that’s right, kids, I said “finishing school”. And frankly, I must confess I truly wish those were still popular today, as I grow increasingly tired of twenty-somethings giving me the “Yeah, so?” look after they serve me salads with moldy chicken.)

A recently signed, up-and-coming contract player by the name of Donna Reed co-stars here as the finishing school student with a genuine psycho for a boyfriend (played by Phil Brown, who would appear as Luke Skywalker’s doomed uncle in the original Star Wars). Series regulars Nat Pendleton (who should really have a statue out there somewhere if you ask me), Alma Kruger, Blossom Rock (under her Marie Blake alias, who is better known to ’60s TV fans as Grandmama on The Addams Family), Nell Craig, and Walter Kingsford also appear in this fun outing that switches gears about halfway through and becomes a crime thriller once Brown’s character skips town and goes on a killing spree. (No wonder the Empire killed Uncle Owen: he was a deranged murderer!)

That same year, Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant arrived on movie screens. All three of ’em. Ordered to hire some help so that the smartassed aging doctor doesn’t work himself to death, Dr. Gillespie takes on a trio of intelligent young interns: the Australian-born Dennis Lindsay (Richard Quine), redheaded American womanizer Randall “Red” Adams (a not-quite-famous-yet Van Johnson), and Brooklyn’s own Chinese-American Lee Wong How (Keye Luke, once again receiving a strong role in the very industry that was not beyond casting white actors in yellowface). Each doctor is given his own assignment to carry out, with the major one (Van Johnson’s) being a case of amnesia in the newly-married bride (Susan Peters) to the son of one of Gillespie’s old dear friends.

And then there were two. With Richard Quine’s character only being on-hand for one outing, the series then focused on Lionel Barrymore and his pupils Van Johnson and Keye Luke, beginning with 1943’s Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case. An oddly-constructed vehicle, this one has that weird “two different episodes of the same TV show edited together to make one incoherent TV movie” vibe to it (much like those Planet of the Apes telefilms from the early ’80s that always perplexed the living daylights out of me as a kid), with the latter-half of the movie bringing back the psychotic antagonist of Calling Dr. Gillespie (this time played by John Craven) and the supporting beauty of Donna Reed, whom Van Johnson tries desperately to woo before Marilyn Maxwell makes her move on him. Margaret O’Brien has a brief (but prominently billed) bit as the victim of an erysipelas outbreak in this, the last of the series to feature Nat Pendleton (and his trusty monkeywrench).

By the time 1944 rolled around, MGM had given up on the “Dr. So-and-So” formula completely, christening the latest installment on the ever-changing series Three Men in White. Once more, Dr. Adams and Dr. Lee are competing for the title of Dr. Gillespie’s assistant here (in as friendly of a ’40s American fashion as possible), and are – once again – given their own medical dilemmas to solve. While Dr. Lee tries to figure out why a little girl is allergic to sweets, Dr. Adams tries attempts to learn what’s up with a strange young lady and her poor mother, who is confined to a chair due to her debilitating arthritis. Rising starlet Ava Gardner is the mysterious young woman who gives Marilyn Maxwell a run for her money when it comes to Dr. Adams’ affection in this film that subtly dives into the the quite taboo for its time act of self-medicating. Doomed funnyman Rags Ragland makes his one and only appearance as Nat Pendleton’s replacement (and does a darn fine job if I do say so myself).

By the time Between Two Women came to be in 1945, the entire Dr. Gillespie series had changed even more. The war wasn’t over yet, but the patriotism in buying war bonds was at an all-time high, as we discover in a well-to-do nightclub spot (where a young Keenan Wynn plays the MC) where rich folk buy $10,000 bonds to not only help out their country, but to get a kiss from a lovely young dancer too. Sadly, one of these dancers (Gloria DeHaven) is having a problem with not eating, which lands her in the caring arms of Dr. Adams – much to the chagrin of his rich gal pal, Ruth (Marilyn Maxwell, in her final appearance). Meanwhile, poor Sally (Marie Blake/Blossom Rock) – the series’ devoted, wise-cracking telephone operator – falls victim to a life-threatening illness.

Between Two Women not only served as the final film in the series for recent co-star Marilyn Maxwell, but also for its young male lead, Van Johnson, as well. When the film was released, Johnson was one of the hottest heartthrobs in the industry, and its trailer (and billing, wherein Johnson is now the lead, and previously-third billed Keye Luke finds himself at the very bottom of the main cast!) reflects this perfectly. The preview makes no mention of it being part of its own long-running series, instead promoting its big new star to the ladies. The marketing ploy worked, of course – as the low-budget ($436,000) B picture Between Two Women wound up grossing nearly $2,300,000 worldwide. (Interestingly, Van Johnson would later marry Keenan Wynn’s ex-wife the day after their divorce was finalized two years later.)

And then there was one? Well, sort of. With Van Johnson gone, the series pretty much consisted of Lionel Barrymore and Keye Luke at this point. But since nobody wanted to pay good money to see an old man in a wheelchair watching over a younger Asian guy, MGM decided to go for broke and completely change things once more. The previous film had not been advertised as part of the series, and thus had become a big hit for the studio, so what harm could there be in working off that formula a little bit? Sadly, the answer for that question would equate out to a great big “Oops!” for MGM and the series as a whole, with 1947’s Dark Delusion proving to not only be the last film in the franchise, but also the very worst, too.

Taking perhaps too much inspiration from Universal’s recently extinguished series of Inner Sanctum movies, Dark Delusion finds waning leading actor James Craig doing his best to look like he’s not supposed to be impersonating Inner Sanctum star Lon Chaney, Jr. while disguising his Tennessee drawl as Dr. Coalt – an unconventional physician whom none of the staff at Blair General seems to care very much for. So much so that, when an old rural doctor asks Dr. Gillespie to send someone out to cover for him for a while, he can only think of one man. In fact, he hopes he’ll never return! Since there’s nothing else audiences love to see than the guy nobody likes becoming the romantic interest in a tepid psychological thriller, the writers of Dark Delusion even go as far as to devote most of the film to Craig’s lifeless character – occasionally returning to Blair General to remind us all this is a Dr. Gillespie film (even if it wasn’t advertised as one).

Jayne Meadows, Warner Anderson, and fading singer/actress/dancer Lucille Brenner (the perfect onscreen match for James Craig, I must say) co-star in this dud that proved the series should have quit while it was ahead (and which barely made half of its budget back at the American box office). If I had to compare Dark Delusion to a more contemporary medical TV series, I wouldn’t even disgrace the final not-as-good season of House M.D. as a comparison. Instead, I would say this one was more like that final, terrible season of Scrubs. (And anyone who saw those episodes knows that that’s saying an awful lot.) Alas, a part of the series it is (officially or otherwise), and so here it is along with the others in the Dr. Gillespie Film Collection.

The Warner Archive Collection presents this delightful (for the most part) six-film set of the once-popular MGM series on three discs, with initial pressings traditionally replicated (read: not DVD-R) due to high demand from fans. Each film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, two movies to a disc, with their trailers accompanying (a nice touch). While the sands of time have left their occasional mark on the prints used for this set, the video and audio quality overall is quite lovely, and, even though that dire Dark Delusion is a bit of a hard pill to swallow, I am still prescribing the Dr. Gillespie Film Collection as required treatment to anyone who has ever even so much as had a passing interest in medical dramas and comedies (or who is just interested in learning what that Blazing Saddles joke was all about).

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Luigi Bastardo

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