The Doctor Gillespie Series

Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942) – 7/10

In 1942 Lew Ayres, who had starred in the Dr. Kildare film series ten times, was drafted but he declared that he was a conscientious objector and the negative fall out from that ended the series. Sort of. In the Kildare series he had been mentored by the crotchety old but wise Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) in nine of those films. So MGM did the natural thing and immediately began the Dr. Gillespie series starring Lionel Barrymore that ran for six films - this being the first. I am not sure if this first one will be an indication of the series but it is quite decent and not at all what I expected. Sure Gillespie is as folksy as a barrel of apple cider when he is not biting off someone's head and he is surrounded by a group of lovable character actors that I hope continue, but the film isn't really about medicine at all but about murder. The crazy kind.

A very young and sweet Donna Reed is engaged to a young man who has issues. Like when she tells him no, he picks up a rock and kills his dog. That would put off a few of us, but Donna just says that he has a bad temper. And a few marbles loose. Gillespie is called in to analyze him secretly with another doctor played by Philip Dorn and then tells his parents that "he is mental". This is not appreciated by the young man and he swears to kill Gillespie. A cat and mouse game in the hospital late at night is fairly tense.

The actor Phil Brown who plays the psychopath is really creepy and good. Looking at his filmography I see he was acting until 1999 but I can't recall him in anything. There is one great scene when he goes into a dance hall where you pay the girls to dance or sit and talk - keep your hands above the table - that felt like it deserved to be in a Betty Davis film. And should you ever watch this, see if you can pick out Ava Gardner in her 10 seconds - I did and she looked swanky.

Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant (1942) – 6/10

This second film in the series is more what I had been expecting from the MGM Good Feeling studio. MGM was a big believer in producing films that were filled with ethics and happy endings. Louis Mayer liked those kinds of films that a family could come to and not want to kill each other afterwards - thus the Hardy family films and many more. In the first film I had been surprised that it centered on a psycho killer who liked cheap dance halls and floozies - but this one is pretty darn wholesome.

Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) is overworked and his staff worries about him. So they force him to find an intern to help out. There are three that pass his questions and he puts them to work to decide on which one. One of them is Van Johnson right at the beginning of his career. He was to be in the next three Gillespie entries before he left to become a romantic star for MGM pairing up with Esther Williams, Lana Turner, Judy Garland and others. The second intern candidate is Number One Son Keye Luke who I guess finally graduated after helping pop solve all those mysteries. Keye Luke appears in the rest of the series - an Asian playing a doctor in those days was rather unusual. And speaking of how the world has changed all the interns of about 30 were men. The third intern is Richard Quine who you may not know as an actor but he went on to direct some good films - Bell Book and Candle, The Solid Gold Cadillac, The World of Suzie Wong.

The main story revolves around a woman who seems to have lost her memory right after being married. Again some themes emerge that were taboo then but perfectly acceptable today. The woman is played by Susan Peters and it always bums me out to see her looking so cute - only a few years after this she was in a hunting accident and a bullet in her spine paralyzed her. She died at 31.

Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943) – 6/10

This is the third film in the Dr. Gillespie series that went from 1942 to 1947 for a total of 6 films. I thought this one was pretty good with a bunch of mini-plots crisscrossing the film. Now when I say good that has to be understood within the period and type of film it is. From today's perspective it is quite hokey, old fashioned and with a happy ending that would make a grown man blush. But this was MGM. They were strong believers in family films and happy endings. The audience knew they would get that in a Gillespie film. But taking that all into account this was amusing and sentimental with a group of excellent actors. And had a shootout of all things.

Most of the same group are back in this one - Lionel Barrymore as the crotchety but brilliantly folksy Gillespie and his two interns, Van Johnson before he hit the big time and Keye Luke who is everyone's favorite Chinese actor from those days. And these films thankfully completely avoid the all too common stereotypes of Asians at the time as he is portrayed as a hard working patriotic intern learning the ropes. Also Nat Pendleton is back as Joe the none too bright comic relief and Head Nurse Byrd (Alma Kruger). Donna Reed reprises her role from the first film which you no doubt recollect like it was yesterday! In that film she had a psycho boyfriend and he is back as well. In other stories an amputee back from Pearl Harbor has to get the resolve to want to live, Van Johnson keeps trying to date the stunning Marilyn Maxwell with no success and Margaret O'Brien nearly dies from an infection. This was a year before she became America's Sweetie in Meet Me in St. Louis. Maxwell was reputed to have been Bob Hope's mistress and Rock Hudson's beard. I need to find her in a few other films.

3 Men in White (1944) – 6/10

The fourth film in the Dr. Gillespie doesn't have all that much drama but it has enough sex appeal to fill up an emergency room. The main plot line centers around Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) having to finally decide which of his two intern candidates (Van Johnson and Keye Luke) will be his assistant. Each gets assigned a difficult case and whoever does the best job will get the position; the other will have only shame and a life of failure waiting for him. O.k., not really.

Neither of these cases were all that exciting - a little girl who reacts badly to sugar and a mother with a bad case of arthritis. It is the side stories that will interest audiences more today. First continuing on from the previous film - Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case - Marilyn Maxwell is now trying to bed Van Johnson and being met with resistance like the Maginot Line. Once it is crossed it is all over and he does his best not to cross it. Clearly he needs help because Maxwell is like a fire hydrant turned on to full on a hot summer day. As if this isn't enough for the male libido, out of a nightclub walks a young woman in a sleek silver lame dress seemingly a little drunk and when she comes up close and smiles you are face to face with one of the screen's greatest faces cleft chin and all, Ava Gardner looking like a million bucks at a Fireman's Ball.

MGM who had contracts with both these actresses was slowly introducing them to the public to see how they were accepted. That was their way - uncredited parts, small parts and then decided if they had star potential or not. Maxwell whose real first name was Marvel never quite made the jump to stardom though she became known as the other Marilyn. For Ava this was her first credited film though she was already known for having been married and divorced from Mickey Rooney. He cheated on her. He cheated on Ava Gardner. There is a lesson there somewhere. When MGM first took her on she had a southern trash accent (born in North Carolina tobacco country) so bad no one could understand her but they washed that out and gave her class and sex appeal and she shows that in this film.

Between Two Women (1945) – 7/10

The fifth in the Dr. Gillespie series.

Drama comes once again to Blair Medical Hospital where all of our favorite characters are once again present. One change though is that during the series run Van Johnson who began as an intern in the second film (Dr. Gillespie's Assistant) had become a star in films such as A Guy Named Joe, Two Girls and a Sailor and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. So he gets top billing in this one with Barrymore thrown into the second tier of credits. Better I guess then Keye Luke who gets his time reduced dramatically in this one. The film does center around Johnson both professionally and romantically. Even for this fifth film it still seems to be getting A treatment with a good cast and a solid script. Its running time of 83 minutes is also a good indicator that it hadn't fallen into B film Hell. And it is very enjoyable for this sort of gentle melodrama with happy endings always on the horizon.

As is the usual it has a few threads running through it - a nightclub singer (Gloria Haven who was in a bunch of MGM musicals) can't eat food and is starving to death (yikes - Karen Carpenter) and Johnson has to figure out why. One of the regular characters - Sally the telephone operator - comes down with a serious illness and Johnson again has to come to the rescue. She is always a funny tart tongued presence in the films and was played by Marie Blake who was the older sister of Jeanette MacDonald, the huge musical star. Not to be mean, but Jeanette got all the looks. And talking of looks, the lovely Marilyn Maxwell is back trying to seduce Johnson - even buying $100,000 in War Bonds for a kiss - that's ok she has looks and $3 million in the piggy bank - and he still won't allow himself to be seduced! I would do it for a lot less.

That was in fact a way in which the government sold War Bonds - by having beautiful women available to be kissed if you bought some - and a number of famous actresses did this. Marlene Dietrich is said to have sold the most. Hedy Lamarr was up there too as was Shirley Temple and others. There is one more Dr. Gillespie film after this one but neither Van Johnson nor Marilyn Maxwell return it in. Perhaps he finally gave in and they are off having lots of children. Also in the cast is a young Keenan Wynn, Leon Ames and a bevy of beauties who sadly never went on to much of a career.

Dark Delusion (1947) – 6/10

This is the sixth and final film in the Dr. Gillespie series that ran from 1942 to 1947. Both Van Johnson and the lovely Marilyn Maxwell didn't return for this last installment but still on hand are Lionel Barrymore, Keye Luke, Marie Blake as Sally who nearly died in the previous film, Alma Kruger as the head nurse and Nell Craig as Gillespie's put upon receptionist/nurse. But much of the action takes place away from the hospital as the film introduces a new young handsome doctor (James Craig).

Barrymore's character Dr. Gillespie has been in a wheelchair since the first film and that is primarily because Barrymore had a lot of pain in his legs from both arthritis and breaking his hip two times. The last film in which he was able to walk unassisted was in 1937. By 1947 he was cutting way back on his film roles basically doing one a year until 1953. So though he headlines the film he isn't in it all that much - but the very last scene of the film has him rising from the wheelchair.

Craig as Dr. Coalt is a hard headed self-righteous young doctor who has a bedside manner like Attila the Hun. Gillespie loans him out to a friend who has a private practice who has to go out of town. Most of the film thus takes place out of the hospital as Coalt has two main cases - an apparent mentally ill patient (Lucille Bremer) that her father thinks should be put into a sanitarium and a couple who have adopted a baby and need a clean bill of health. The wife is played by Jayne Meadows. My guess is that MGM was thinking of spinning off the series into another one with Craig but that never happened. Like all these Gillespie films everything ends up just peachy keen with Coalt acquiring a new perspective. It is actually one of the better films in the series but we miss the interplay between the staff which is what made these films so comfortable. Keye Luke has a few good bits which always makes me happy. Too bad they didn't spin off a series with him.