Someone thought Calling Dr. Kildare was a good idea. Sitting through the turgid eighty-six minute running time, that thought occasionally popped into my head. Someone thought this story was a good idea. Lew Ayres’s young Dr. Kildare (this one’s set three months, give or take, after the first entry) has a spat with Lionel Barrymore and ends up fired. Or he quit. It’s unclear, because the spat is so minor, it’s impossible to accept what follows as a logical progression of events. It’s not even melodrama; it lacks any events. Ayres ends up doctoring a fugitive while romancing his sister. But apparently MGM wanted to put contract actors like Emma Dunn and Samuel S. Hinds (as Ayres’s parents, who live far away–enough–from New York City, where the principal action is situated), because Ayres ends up hanging out with them for a few minutes of running time. There’s not enough going on in Calling Dr. Kildare to even make up an A plot, much less a full feature (and it’s got more than enough time).
Ayres is fine–if unimpressive–as Kildare. His best scenes are with Barrymore (it’d be impossible for someone not to have good scenes with Barrymore, but more on him in a bit), but there’s some decent stuff with him in the hospital with his fellow interns. Or at the local bar, hanging around Nat Pendleton’s well intentioned lug of an ambulance driver. The bar and the hospital are complicated, detail rich sets. The hospital’s got these huge rooms, tall ceilings–it’s a wonderful area for filmic action to play out. Instead, Calling Dr. Kildare takes place in basements and smaller sets. The script tries to fill it with enough material, enough locations for Ayres to visit, to be a full narrative. But it fails.
Calling Dr. Kildare is one of those excellent examples–it’s got a fine cast and a capable director (Bucquet has some exquisite shots here)–but the script is terrible. It’s predictable and listless. Nothing about the film’s intentions don’t seem requisite. While Ayres basically keeps his head above water, Barrymore is bounding off the surface. Every scene with him is spectacular. He’s got amazing scenes with Pendleton, Alma Kruger and Bobs Watson. As it plods and flounders along, Calling Dr. Kildare is still worth a look just to see what Barrymore’s going to do.
Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast doesn’t make out well. Lana Turner’s woman in distress is a tad unbelievable (though she and Barrymore do have a great scene together), but at least she’s a part of the narrative. Laraine Day’s role is an inflated minor part. She’s got almost nothing to do–it’s a shock to see her in the bar during one scene, just because the film keeps her immobile for most of the narrative.
Where Calling Dr. Kildare misses the mark worst is the opening. It’s a deceptive open in Ayres’s hometown, with his parents. It’s not a totally empty scene–they burn off a few minutes sending Hinds (also a doctor) out on a call. Well, later on when Ayres finally does visit home, the film follows the medical thread, not the other (homecoming) one at all. It makes the eventual return awkward and inorganic.
In order, I wanted Calling Dr. Kildare to be good, better, okay, then over. But Barrymore’s great anyway.
Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks and Lester White; edited by Robert Kern; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. James Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Lana Turner (Rosalie Lewett), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Lynne Carver (Alice Raymond), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. Walter Carew) and Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd).