The Dr Kildare movies only came on my radar fairly recently, as I was more familiar with the Richard Chamberlain series than with the nine films that starred Lew Ayres as the titular Dr Kildare and Lionel Barrymore as his cynical, but secretly caring, mentor, Dr Gillespie.
Dr Kildare is a young doctor who wants to make a difference in the world, and he comes to realise that he can do that by training under one of the best diagnosticians in the country, Dr Gillespie. But Dr Kildare often gets himself into all manner of trouble and complicated situations due to his desire to help others and also ensure that he helps his loving mother and father. Dr Gillespie often becomes extremely exasperated by Dr Kildare’s methods and motivations, and tries to teach the young doctor what it means to be a diagnostician who separates work and life. He isn’t often very successful, but as the films progress, he comes to view Dr Kildare as his protege.
Dr Gillespie would go onto have his own series of films after the Dr Kildare series ended due to misgivings about Lew Ayres’ status as a conscientious objector during WWII. But the combination of Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore is a joy to behold as they play off of each other to wonderful effect. My favourite Dr Kildare movie is Calling Dr Kildare, in which, as usual, Dr Gillespie tries to teach Dr Kildare a lesson about humility and level headedness, which is doubly hilarious seeing as Dr Gillespie needs to remember these things himself, but conveniently overlooks them. This film especially shows Lionel Barrymore’s capacity for wonderful dry comic timing, and the final scenes of the film between he and a very young Lana Turner are an absolute treat.
What I find to be so impressive about Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Dr Gillespie is that he still manages to have such a compelling presence without leaving his wheelchair. Due to breaking his hip several times and suffering from what was likely osteoarthritis, Lionel Barrymore was confined to a wheelchair from the late 1930s onwards. He used this facet of his real life to define the Dr Gillespie character, and in my opinion, it adds something to the characterisation by showing both Barrymore’s determination to continue working in the industry, and Dr Gillespie’s dedication to his profession by being a diagnostician despite his own limited mobility.
I have yet to watch the Dr Gillespie films, but I know that they will be a wonderful treat because Barrymore, in my opinion, is as vital to the Dr Kildare movies as Lew Ayres. It makes me sad that they discontinued the series due to misunderstandings about Ayre’s beliefs, but I am mollified somewhat by the fact that Dr Gillespie got his own films and that Barrymore and Ayres were reunited on radio for The Story of Dr Kildare.
I highly recommend the Dr Kildare films because they are like chicken soup for the soul. They will put you in a good mood, something that I think is increasingly valuable during these extremely trying times. And the medical side of the films are actually very interesting, especially when Dr Kildare and Dr Gillespie work on a new treatment for pneumonia.
I would definitely watch the first film, Young Dr Kildare, in which Dr Kildare and Dr Gillespie are introduced to both the audience and each other. I promise that you will love these films right from start to finish! And despite Dr Gillespie’s crusty exterior, he may just become your favourite character.
This is my contribution to The Sixth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon being hosted by The Good Old Days of Hollywood. Please visit her blog to read everyone’s contributions to this wonderful trio of acting siblings.
4 thoughts on “A Grump With A Heart of Gold: Lionel Barrymore as Dr Gillespie”
I absolutely adore your look at grumpy old Leonard Gillespie. I was introduced to the series in my teen years. One summer, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) late-night movies featured the entire series, including the post-Kildare movies. I know you will enjoy them as Van Johnson and Keye Luke vie for a position with Dr. Gillespie and Red Skelton joins the gang at Blair General as an orderly.
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Thanks so much, Paddy! So glad you love his character, too! Oh that sounds wonderful 🙂
Thanks so much for this splendid and well-written entry! I completely agree about the soothing qualities of these films and Barrymore and Ayre’s chemistry is absolutely wonderful. Even the radio series is worthwhile because of this. I also haven’t seen the Gillespie solo films but I look forward to doing so; the Kildare series and The Falcon series always are time well spent and I was glad to stumble upon your excellent blog. My band’s series of mini-tours were cancelled in the Spring and I compensated by watching all the Kildare films and then tonight got thinking about ol’ Lionel. Thanks again for this.