Out with the Old, In with the Even Older: The Warner Archive Presents Dr. Kildare Movie Collection

Decades before the American public became more comfortable with the concept of watching the outrageous antics of an antisocial-and-yet-still-sociopathic doctor with a strong Vicodin addiction on a regular weekly basis, they were more content with witnessing a man who actually cared about people in action. In fact, in the instance of the fictional physician Dr. James Kildare, popularity was not just limited to one format, as he was one of those rare characters who transgressed the bridges of every conceivable kind of media – branching out into film, radio, television, comics, novels (where he actually originated, having been given life by prolific author Frederick Schiller Faust).

On film, Kildare originally inhabited the body of actor Joel McCrea in the 1937 medical drama Internes Can’t Take Money. The popularity of the character warranted an entire series of movies (this was before TV, mind you, kids), wherein actor Lew Ayres – a performer with as a gentle of a bedside manner as you could possibly want for such a part – took over for the next nine films. And it is those nine features that are presented in Warner Archive’s Dr. Kildare Movie Collection, which bring us the whole of the Ayers Era from 1938 to 1942 on five discs, beginning with Young Dr. Kildare, wherein our lead uproots himself from his humble small town and heads to the Big Apple to be a big doctor.

Kildare is headstrong, to say the least. But he has a heart of gold, though his generosity constantly lands him in trouble with his superiors and peers alike. Fortunately, his better-than-average knowledge of medicine (anyone in the profession will probably drop their jaw every twenty minutes once they see the now hideously hysterical outdated procedures practiced in these films, including inducing insulin shock to cure dementia!) gets him on the good side of resident old curmudgeonly guy whom everyone else fears, Dr. Gillespie – who is played to the hilt here by Lionel Barrymore in a wheelchair. As Gillespie’s own health declines, he does his best to make the most out of Kildare, as Kildare himself tries to find the free time to woo the ladies.

Though the absence of the franchise’s origin film and its later, Ayres-less installments (wherein Dr. Kildare was not present at all – despite his name still being in the titles – and was replaced by Van Johnson and Keye Luke, the latter casting choice of which should be duly noted for) is a bit of a frowner (hopefully we’ll see the other films – informally known as the “Gillespie Movies” – someday, as I simply adore Keye Luke), the Dr. Kildare Movie Collection is a fun assortment of classic cinema just the same. And any chance you get to see character actor Nat Pendleton gleefully wielding a monkey wrench to beat the truth out of people, you must take it. But the set does goes the extra mile by including trailers for all nine films as well as an even cooler bonus item in the form of an unaired early ’60s television pilot for a series that returned Mr. Ayres to the role he quit playing nearly twenty years before.

Yes, that’s right. Not too long before TV execs chose to cast a young Richard Chamberlain in the part that would make him a household name, Ayres had a brief chance to reprise it. Alas, it was not to be – though, interestingly enough, the pilot features another handsome young fellow sporting the ridiculous stage name of Robert Redford. Even more intriguing is the fact that Mr. Redford is among the assortment of guest stars in another Kildare offering released around the same time: Dr. Kildare: The Complete Second Season, starring the aforementioned Mr. Chamberlain in the lead, with the great Raymond (“He looks like Boris Karloff!”) Massey as Dr. Gillespie.

The nine-disc, two volume collection picks up where the first left off – with Dr. Kildare still not adhering to Gillespie’s advice: “Our job is to keep people alive, not to tell them how to live,” and instead butting his nose into everyone’s business in order to make their lives better and to boost ratings. Speaking of ratings, this season featured a Nielsen grabber entitled “The Burning Sky” – a full-color special as part of a week-long promotion by NBC urging people to get color TV (although as to how they saw color on a black-and-white set is beyond me, though I could be misdiagnosing the problem there) which is the very same episode to feature Mr. Redford. Even better is the fact that a comic relief orderly at the beginning of said episode is none other than the late Harvey Korman, thus fulfilling my lifelong dream of seeing Chamberlain, Redford, and Korman all together at the same time.

Additional guest stars for the TV series include Carolyn Jones, John Cassavetes, Harry Guardino (fuck, yeah!), Beverly Garland, Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Bixby (don’t make him angry, Dick!), Olympia Dukakis, Ed Asner, Murray (Mayor of Shark City) Hamilton, Gloria Swanson, James Franciscus, Henry Silva, Robert Culp, Mary Astor, Lee Meriwether, Dub Taylor (no set is complete without him), Peter Falk (as a missionary doctor who loses his faith), Forrest Tucker, Leonard Nimoy, Ross Martin, George Kennedy, and Martin Balsam. The season clocks in at 34 episodes, and the quality here is extremely impressive. The Complete Third Season is now available from the Warner Archive as well.

Highly recommended all around.

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Luigi Bastardo

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