Watching The Secret of Dr. Kildare is about two things–seeing Lionel Barrymore’s fantastic performance (even as he’s spouting expositional dialogue, it’s riveting) and finding out the deep dark secret of patient Helen Gilbert. It’s the third film in the series and the staples are already in place–Lew Ayres, under some false pretense, stops working for Barrymore. Ayres’s parents, Samuel S. Hinds and Emma Dunn, show up for some contrived reason. Laraine Day is heartbroken Ayres doesn’t know she loves him. Nat Pendleton flirts with Marie Blake before having one fantastic scene involving a fist fight. The script’s just loose melodramatic threads to get these set pieces into place, held together by the cast’s likability, Barrymore’s talent and the mystery to be solved.
What’s most distressing about the film is its length. It only runs eighty-four minutes but halfway through, it’s already at a near standstill. It’s excruciating at times because the titular Secret is one the audience knows and the film’s present action is a couple weeks. There’s no tension to it–it’s just a matter of how everything will be fixed by the end, not if. The script doesn’t take any chances, it’s all paint by numbers. The mediocrity makes every decent moment in the film seem fantastic, whether it’s Ayres picking up Day for a date or Barrymore fishing with assistant George Reed. The occasionally inventive developments–like Grant Mitchell’s crack “doctor” and Sara Haden’s wacko–get Secret‘s heart rate up, waking the viewer.
While the script gives Barrymore a complex, textured character, Ayres’s Dr. Kildare–especially considering the film’s title bares his name–gets a lukewarm treatment. Ayres gives a fine performance–though Bucquet and editor Frank E. Hull hold reaction shots too long–but there’s no enthusasim… not just from Ayres, but from the film itself. He’s the least interesting character in the film, when he’s not around Barrymore, Dunn or Pendleton, it’s hard to believe Ayres could stay awake to deliver his lines. The scene with his fellow interns offers three other characters who give the impression of being far more interesting. Ayres’s romance with Day is boring–she’s far more lively in her scenes with Barrymore. When it’s just Ayres and Gilbert, only the change in setting, from the hospital to a skyscraper observatory for instance, keep the film moving. If it weren’t for Haden’s loon, the second half (when Barrymore and Ayres are bickering) would be static.
Bucquet, besides that annoying editing laziness I mentioned before, does a decent job. He keeps the scenes with Barrymore, those long expository scenes, interesting. But he doesn’t do anything to overcome the script’s shortcomings.
Besides Barrymore, there’s some fine acting from Pendleton (who has almost nothing to do, but approaches it with relish) and Lionel Atwill. Atwill’s a fine character actor, it’s a shame he’s mostly known for his work in horror films. Gilbert’s okay… as the film progresses, she gets more histrionic. Day has nothing to do.
It’s hard to get involved with the film or invested in it, because there’s little sign the filmmakers had any interest either.
Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Harry Ruskin, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Lionel Atwill (Paul Messenger), Helen Gilbert (Nancy Messenger), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Sara Haden (Nora), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. S.J. Carew), Grant Mitchell (John Xerxes Archley), Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd), Robert Kent (Charles Herron), Marie Blake (Sally), Martha O’Driscoll (Mrs. Roberts) and Nell Craig (Nurse Parker).