Though he's certain an HMO would find a way to screw up the series, Judge Bill Gibron actually enjoyed this medico melodrama featuring the popular Depression-era doctor.
Is there a serialized doctor in the house?
While doing research for a pneumonia cure, Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore, You Can't Take It With You) and his able-bodied assistant, Dr. James "Jimmy" Kildare (Lew Ayers, Johnny Belinda) are consulted by one of the seven richest men in America, Paul Messenger (Lionel Atwill, To Be or Not to Be). Seems his daughter is suffering from severe headaches, massive mood swings, and an uncontrollable anxiety. At first, the medicos aren't moved. High society girls whose haughty hijinx land them in the gossip column are no concern for a respectable hospital or its staff. Still, when Dr. Kildaire learns that Gillespie needs rest or he runs the risk of dying, he decides to ditch the pneumonia research and answer Mr. Messenger's plea. It turns out Nancy (Helen Gilbert) is on the edge of emotional collapse. Hoping to get to the bottom of what bothers Nancy, Kildare makes an appointment to visit the girl's childhood home. There he meets an angry confidant who, with the help of a quack natural healer, has convinced the girl she has a brain tumor. Kildare must act quickly, since Nancy is so nervous she's now developed a case of hysterical blindness.
Forged at a time when doctors where underpaid saints in surgical garb, gregarious and altruistic in their desire to play God and cure patients, The Secret of Dr. Kildare is actually a decent little Hippocratic hoot. Really nothing more than a standard science soap opera spiced up with lots of whip-smart dialogue and acting bravado, the second in a long line of the young M.D.'s serialized adventures has an intriguing premise made even more compelling by the work of Lew Ayres and the great Lionel Barrymore. In their roles as Kildare and Gillespie, respectively, these actors deliver knockout performances, enlivening what could have been a static procedural melodrama into something with wit, style, and drive. Barrymore is easily the better of the two, having the more complex and compelling role. As the old mentor dying of cancer and confined to a wheelchair (Barrymore himself was horribly hobbled by arthritis at this time), this heroic ham must command respect and still remain vulnerable. It's a tricky balancing act, since Gillespie is mandated by the material to be all knowing, all understanding, and all insightful. He's more omnipotent that the Big Man himself. Yet the obvious discomfort the actor felt, combined with the little moments in his performance that shoot off sparks (those precious five-minute naps, his sudden shouting of orders to his unseen nurse), make this potentially problematic character a real joy to behold.
Ayers, on the other hand, is a little less effective, in truth because Kildare is painted as naïve and inexperienced. His doctoring derives from empathy more than experience. As a result, the actor can look pretty small compared to the cast around him. Indeed, some of the best bits here are given to ancillary characters, nurses and staff who wise off and quip like comedians on leave from their vaudeville routines. Gillespie has an RN nemesis who is constantly bickering at him to take a break. Their banter is priceless and usually good for a giggle. Equally amusing are the moments between the receptionist and the ambulance driver. Playing off a possible romantic connection between the two, they engage in a kind of seductive one-upsmanship that always guarantees the grins. As stated before, the story is fairly interesting, especially for the late '30s. It trades in quack science and financial windfalls, using a psychosomatic illness as a defense of real medicine's ability to cure. The socialite suffering from her grief-based illness is not drawn in easy to define strokes. Instead, she is complicated and confused and, as played by Helen Gilbert, she is atypical of the era's earnest and effervescent eye candy.
Though it fails to really get tough on issues of ethics and available care (seems everyone in 1939 New York could come in and consult with Gillespie, as long as they had an appointment) The Secret of Dr. Kildaire is an excellent throwback to a cinematic time when A-films needed B-pictures to flesh out a marquee. Unlike the meaning given to the phrase today, B-pictures were lower-budget studio offerings made to support a main feature. They were often adequate, but on occasion, rose to the occasion to match the marketed movie in effectiveness. The Dr. Kildare series was one such success, running for years and resulting in 15 films and a well-remembered 1960s TV series (starring Richard Chamberlain as the idealistic young doctor). Even when Ayres was semi-blacklisted from Hollywood due to his World War II stance as a conscientious objector, these popular pictures lived on, with Gillespie taking over as lead. In truth, both characters were indispensable to the series success. The aging mentor was only as good as his advice, and it required Kildare to put it into action.
The Roan Group (now part of Troma) likes to fancy itself a savior of Tinseltown's lost heritage. Frankly, many of the movies they resurrect from the dead deserved to die in the first place. As for the transfer here, The Secret of Dr. Kildare looks acceptable, though it was clearly made 67 years ago. The 1.33:1 full-frame print has a nice monochrome mellowness, meaning that the black and white is not as sharp as it could be. There is obvious dirt and dust, and scratches occasionally mar the image. Still, there is a nice level of detail in the picture, resulting in a good technical presentation. The sound is equally first-rate. The Dolby Digital Mono is clean and crisp with only the sappy sentimental music suffering in the single speaker translation. As for extras, Roan offers an interesting intro by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick, a couple of scenes from other Roan releases (specifically, The Vagabond Lover and That Uncertain Feeling) and a nine minute overview of the entire Kildare series from author Frank Thompson. In an interview conducted by Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, Thompson discusses Barrymore and Ayers, and why the so-called B-movies were so important. Then there is that odd featurette on child star Bobby…Winckler. That's right, it's here again as well. Winckler's son Bill offers his hearsay stories about the life of a young child star in Hollywood. It's interesting, but has nothing to do with the movie at hand.
While it can't compare to the high-tech treatment our modern medical dramas offer, The Secret of Dr. Kildare is still worth a look. It might convince you that doctors are holier than thou healers, but you'll be entertained and engaged along the way.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• Introduction by New York Post Critic Lou Lumenick
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