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Film / Dr. Kildare

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Dr. Kildare was a series of sixteen feature films from 1937 to 1947. They dealt with the life and struggles of an idealistic young doctor, James Kildare.

The character was first introduced in the short story "Internes Can't Take Money", written by Max Brand note  and serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1936. Paramount adapted the story into a feature film the following year, with Joel McCrea starring as Kildare. MGM, seeing more potential for the character where Paramount didn't, made a deal with Brand to produce a series of Kildare films, adapted from additional magazine stories. The first of these, Young Dr. Kildare, was released in 1938, with Lew Ayres making his first of nine screen appearances in the title role. Also introduced was the character of Dr. Gillespie, Kildare's crusty old mentor, played by Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore played Gillespie in every film for the rest of the series, fifteen in all, eventually becoming the star of the series.

Ayres, who was a pacifist, applied for conscientous objector status in 1942 to avoid combat duty in World War II. The resulting bad publicity led to his dismissal from the Kildare series (although Ayres asked to, and eventually did, serve as an Army medic in the Philippines). Six more films were made with Barrymore, as Gillespie, mentoring a new set of idealistic doctors.

The MGM series is also notable for featuring a number of young actors and actresses in early roles prior to their becoming big stars. Among those who appeared in Kildare films before achieving A-list status were Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Laraine Day, Donna Reed, and Ava Gardner.

The film series later spawned a radio drama, which reunited Ayres with Barrymore and ran in 1950 and 1951. Better remembered is the television adaptation, starring a young Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare and Raymond Massey as Dr. Gillespie, which ran on NBC from 196166 and was very popular.

One of the earliest examples of the Medical Drama, establishing several tropes, such as the idealistic young doctor with the crusty old doctor as a mentor, and the plot centering around a mysterious illness that the young doctor must diagnose.


  • Internes Can't Take Money (1937)
  • Young Dr. Kildare (1938)
  • Calling Dr. Kildare (1939)
  • The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939)
  • Dr. Kildare's Strange Case (1940)
  • Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940)
  • Dr. Kildare's Crisis (1940)
  • The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941)
  • Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941)
  • Dr. Kildare's Victory (1942)
  • Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942), in which the series continued without Lew Ayres and the character of Dr. Kildare
  • Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (1942)
  • Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943)
  • Three Men in White (1944)
  • Between Two Women (1945)
  • Dark Delusion (1947)

This film series demonstrates the following tropes:

  • Artistic License Law: The People vs Dr. Kildare not only has a judge agree to put a malpractice suit on hold while the plaintiff has another surgery, but it's also called The People vs. Dr. Kildare, when the other party in the case isn't the people, it's a woman Kildare operated on who's suffering from an injured leg.
  • Artistic License Medicine: A lot, throughout the series. In the first film, Internes Can't Make Money, Kildare performs emergency surgery on a gangster stabbed in a bar. He uses violin strings, utterly unsuitable in Real Life, for sutures.
  • As You Know: Some clunky exposition at the beginning of Dr. Kildare's Strange Case establishes that 1) Dr. Lane the brain surgeon has become Kildare's rival for the attentions of Nurse Mary Lamont, and 2) Dr. Lane's professional career is not going that well ("the undertaker's friend").
  • Babies Make Everything Better: This is Gillespie's advice to a young married couple in Dr. Kildare Goes Home, after diagnosing in the opening scene that there's nothing wrong with the wife other than an unhappy marriage. Although, given the line where the husband says that they won't be adopting a baby, the whole exchange might be code for the couple needing more sex.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: The patient that Dr. Kildare has been surreptitiously watching in The Secret of Dr. Kildare is taken to a quack who promotes himself as a "Nature and sub-healer" using "electro-vibrations".
  • Bat Deduction:
    • Kildare's diagnostic skill often verges on the psychic. In Dr. Kildare Goes Home, he decides that a local man is seriously ill based on nothing more than his own gut instinct and the patient's habit for blowing pressure out of his ears. Otherwise the man looks perfectly healthy and Kildare's father has already pronounced him fit. Turns out that the man has meningitis.
    • One of Kildare's two replacements, Dr. Adams, gets in on the Bat Deduction act in Between Two Women. He goes out to a nightclub, where he deduces something is wrong with the singer based on nothing other than the look in her eyes. The singer then collapses backstage, and it's later revealed she hasn't eaten or drank anything in four days.
  • Betty and Veronica: The first of Laraine Day's seven apperances as Nurse Mary Lamont came in Calling Dr. Kildare, when Kildare is faced with a choice between a color-reversed Betty and Veronica. The Veronica in this instance is Lana Turner herself, playing a murder suspect's glamorous sister. Kildare chooses the Betty, of course, which is fortunate as the Veronica was just using him.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: After one of Dr. Lane's patients dies on the table in Dr. Kildare's Strange Case, Kildare and Mary (who was assisting in the surgery) go to the nursery and talk about how life "balances out" death.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Not one word of explanation is given in the movies for the disappearance of Jimmy Kildare. One might assume that Kildare had gone to work elsewhere, but this doesn't fit well with earlier films in the series where Kildare turned down lucrative employment opportunities to stay with Gillespie. Kildare's disappearance makes for awkward moments, like the scene in Three Men in White where Gillespie worries with Molly Byrd about his efforts to train a successor, without mentioning the guy he spent nine movies training.
    • The disappearance of Dr. Adams in Dark Delusion after four films as Gillespie's assistant is also somewhat jarring. Van Johnson, like Laraine Day before him, left the series after becoming an A-lister.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: The nervous, jittery Patient of the Week in Dark Delusion lights a cigarette and carelessly tosses the match away, starting a fire that nearly burns down the house.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: In Young Dr. Kildare, our hero works on a woman who tried to commit suicide by gas, attempting artificial respiration for half an hour before she starts breathing again. Afterwards, she's perfectly fine. It is exceedingly unlikely that a patient clinically dead for 30 minutes could be revived, and if they were, it would be with massive brain damage.
  • Courtroom Episode: The People vs. Dr. Kildare, in which Kildare is the defendant in a malpractice suit.
  • Darker and Edgier: The main plot of Calling Dr. Gillespie involves a deranged psychopath murdering people, with a climax in which the murderer is roaming the halls of Blair General, attempting to find and kill Dr. Gillespie.
  • Demoted to Extra: Dr. Gillespie and everyone else at Blair General are greatly reduced in importance in series finale Dark Delusion, which mostly deals with new arrival Dr. Coalt investigating the case of a disturbed young woman in suburbia.
  • Dr. Jerk: Dr. Gillespie. Reduced to a wispy old man in a wheelchair from an accident, he's become bitter and cantankerous from not being about to act on his own. However, it's pretty obvious that he's a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, given his habit of calling Dr. Kildare "Jimmy" and his obviously paternal feelings for his protege. Dr. Gillespie is most jerkish with people who have recklessly damaged their health. His Establishing Character Moment in his first scene (Young Dr. Kildare) has Gillespie telling a patient that he has six months to live, and that the patient might as well keep drinking, since he ignored Gillespie's advice and damaged his liver beyond repair. Poor put-upon Nurse Parker seems to be a lightning rod for bringing out the Dr. Jerk side of Gillespie, as he never misses a chance to yell at her.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: As noted above, the first film did not include Gillespie and featured Joel McCrea, not Ayres, as Dr. Kildare. It was also made by Paramount, with MGM picking up the property after Paramount lost interest.
  • Easy Amnesia: Seen in Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant, when the patient is a newlywed wife who has a sudden and total onset of amnesia, but of course otherwise is unaffected in a typical use of the trope. Justified in this instance, as it turns out she's faking it to get out of the marriage.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: "Extra, extra, all about the big murder!" is how Calling Dr. Kildare lets Kildare and the audience know that the young hoodlum Kildare just treated is implicated in a murder.
  • Flat Character: James Kildare, M.D. Dr. Kildare is impossibly perfect and noble and virtuous and brilliant. When Mary says "Everything Jimmy does is perfect" in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day, she means it, and the series does too. Compare Dr. Gillespie, who is also a brilliant doctor but has plenty of character depth—his general irascible crankiness, his regrets over not having a family life, his youthful dalliance with Molly Byrd.
  • Foreshadowing: In Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case Gillespie remarks that violent prison breaks are always caused by one person being crazy enough to think he can shoot his way out. In the climax of the film, mentally unstable Roy Todwell does just that.
  • Genius Cripple: Brilliant, wheelchair-bound Dr. Gillespie.
  • Hypochondria: A frequent plot device in the series. Used with a case of hysterical blindness in The Secret of Dr. Kildare. In Dr. Kildare's New Assistant, one of the new assistants has a patient with strange skin rashes, which mystifies the assistant until Gillespie figures out that the rash is psychosomatic, brought on by stress. In Between Two Women, the Patient of the Week has a psychosomatic problem that causes her to be unable to eat. It turns out that she blames herself for another woman, a romantic rival, having died of malnutrition. Her problem is solved when Dr. Adams tells her that the other woman's malnutrition was brought on by severe binge drinking.
  • Induced Hypochondria: The patient at the center of The Secret of Dr. Kildare is a young woman who is a little bit nervous and sometimes has stress headaches—but a meddling friend convinces her that she's seriously ill, and takes her to see a quack.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: In Calling Dr. Kildare, Thomas Crandell says of the unseen murderer that "Nick said he ran upstairs." Dr. Kildare never told Crandell that Nick said that, which is how Kildare immediately figures out that Crandell is the murderer.
  • Is There a Doctor in the House?: Played straight (and word-for-word) in Between Two Women when a nightclub singer collapses backstage. Played for laughs at the end of the movie when Ruth faints after Dr. Adams kisses her.
  • Kick the Dog: The first sign that something is very wrong with Roy, the mental patient at the heart of Calling Dr. Gillespie, comes when he picks up a rock and kills a dog.
  • The Mentor: Dr. Gillespie is this initially, as Kildare's crusty-but-wise mentor who is dying of a then-uncurable disease. Gillespie is eventually cured, but he continues to play this role, steering Kildare and Kildare's successors to the correct diagnosis of the Patient of the Week.
  • Maybe Ever After: In Dr. Kildare's Victory, Cynthia "Cookie" Charles, a good-looking socialite, sets her sights on Dr. Kildare when he saves her life after a theater sign falls on her. Kildare for his part is having difficulty getting past the death of Nurse Mary Lamont. The film ends with Cookie reminding Kildare that she has to come back in a week so he can see her scar. Ayres' dismissal from the series left this as an unresolved cliffhanger.
  • Medical Drama: Ur-Example, establishing several tropes.
  • Mood Whiplash: The tragic death of Nurse Mary Lamont in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day is immediately followed by some comic business with Red Skelton trying to manhandle Dr. Gillespie's luggage at the train station.
  • No Guy Wants to Be Chased: In Three Men in White and Between Two Women Dr. Adams is being pursued by Ruth the hospital volunteer, who is both ridiculously gorgeous and rich. He tries to avoid her for...some reason, apparently. Unsurprisingly, when she finally breaks up with him in Between Two Women, he gets much more interested.
  • Napoleon Delusion: In Dark Delusion, a patient beats Gillespie at gin rummy. Gillespie is mortified when it turns out the patient wandered off from the psych ward, where he was hospitalized because he thinks he's Napoleon.
  • No Name Given: Nell Craig played Nurse Parker, Dr. Gillespie's beleaguered office nurse, in fourteen films. Gillespie shouts "PARKER!!!" at least Once an Episode. Her first name is never mentioned.
  • Patient of the Week: Ur-Example, as most of the films in the series had Dr. Kildare or his successors diagnosing a new strange case.
  • Pink Elephants: In Dr. Kildare's Victory, a severely intoxicated man is running through the halls of Blair General trying to find his pink elephants.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Nurse Molly Byrd, head of nurses at Blair General, has a spouse-like relationship with Gillespie even though they aren't married, although they apparently dated a few times decades ago.
  • Playing Sick: See Easy Amnesia above.
  • Poorly-Disguised Pilot: Dark Delusion seems like a backdoor pilot for a Dr. Coalt series, with Gillespie and the staff at Blair reduced in importance while Dr. Coalt ministers to an attractive woman in the small town of Bayhurst. The movie ends with Dr. Coalt, who has been fired from Blair General due to his brusque bedside manner, accepting a job in Bayhurst. If there were plans for more films, nothing ever came of them.
  • Quitting to Get Married: The rather retrograde sexual politics of this series are on display in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day, when it is simply taken for granted that Mary will quit her job as a nurse at Blair General in order to be Mrs. Kildare.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot
    • Ayres' dismissal from the series, due to his application for conscientious objector status.
    • The formerly ambulatory Lionel Barrymore was committed to a wheelchair around the time the series started, due to severe, chronic arthritis.
    • Laraine Day played Nurse Mary Lamont in seven Kildare films, but by the early 1940s her career as a leading lady was starting to take off, so she told MGM she wanted out of the series. Nurse Mary thus died in a car accident just before marrying Kildare in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941).
  • Running Gag:
    • Gillespie's "stooges" and Molly Byrd's "stooges" competing against each other for insider info.
    • "PARKER!!!"
    • In Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case, Van Johnson's Dr. Adams (one of two substitutes for Kildare) keeps trying to arrange a date with Ruth, a fantastically gorgeous hospital volunteer, only for Joe Wayman the ambulance driver to keep interrupting his dates with urgent messages from Gillespie.
  • Sequel: Although the casts were pretty stable throughout the series, with the notable exception of Kildare being replaced by new assistant doctors, the films were self-contained and largely avoided continuing storylines. The exception is Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case, which picks up the story of Roy Todwell, the psychopathic killer from Calling Dr. Gillespie. In this one Gillespie is trying to get Todwell released from the prison he's currently in, and admitted to an insane asylum where he can be treated. The role of Roy Todwell was recast, but Donna Reed returned as his old girlfriend.
  • Something Else Also Rises: In what seems like it had to be an intentional shot, there is a cut to a sprinkler squirting water right after Dr. Coalt kisses Cynthia in Dark Delusion.
  • Suicide by Cop: How Roy Todwell ends his escape from prison in Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case.
  • Title Drop: In Young Dr. Kildare, this is how the condescending Dr. Gillespie insists upon addressing his new resident.
  • Token Minority:
    • An odd scene in Dr. Kildare Goes Home in which Kildare, informed that Gillespie is out observing a case, tracks down Gillespie in the home of a black family, where Gillespie is observing a black doctor perform an operation in the family dining room. When it's over, Gillespie compliments his colleague on his skill, and then Gillespie and Kildare leave. It's a completely random scene that has no relevance to the plot of the movie.
    • Chinese-American Keye Luke (Number One Son in the Charlie Chan series) plays one of Gillespie's assistants in the post-Ayres films. It's an interesting bit of casting, and probably an aversion to this trope, as the ethnicity of Dr. Lee Wong How plays no part in the story.
  • TV Telephone Etiquette: In Dr. Kildare's Crisis, a patient, at Dr. Gillespie's urging, calls up his girlfriend and asks her to marry him. After she says yes, the patient hangs up the phone immediately without saying goodbye.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: In Dr. Kildare's Strange Case Kildare cites his meager intern's salary as the reason why he's not pursuing a relationship with Mary. In Between Two Women Dr. Adams cites this as a reason why he can't commit to Ruth—he makes $20 a week while she is worth three million dollars—but it's just an excuse, because his real reason is No Guy Wants to Be Chased.
  • Wedding Episode: Subverted in ''Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day'. Despite the title, Nurse Mary Lamont is killed when she's hit by a car the night before their wedding.
  • While You Were in Diapers: When Kildare questions Nurse Molly about Gillespie in The Secret of Dr. Kildare, she parries with "When you were running around in diapers, I was watching over him."
  • You Look Familiar: In Calling Dr. Gillespie, a young Ava Gardner has a bit part as a student at a ladies' finishing school. In Three Men in White she is Jean Brown, a patient of Dr. Ames.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: In Young Dr. Kildare, Kildare diagnoses Gillespie with melanoma and says he doesn't have much more than a year to live. Gillespie then decides to train Kildare as his successor. Finally averted in Dr. Kildare's Victory, Dr. Gillespie is somehow cured after a visit to a cancer clinic, no doubt because the writers wanted to keep the character around.