Young Dr. Kildare (Harold S. Bucquet, 1938) was not a film I ever planned on recommending in a million years. In fact, it was on a whim that I watched the damn thing: seeing that TCM was airing a mini-marathon of films starring Lew Ayres, a relatively obscure actor nowadays whom I loved as Katharine Hepburn's alcoholic brother in another 1938 film, Holiday, I decided to record a couple offerings. Young Dr. Kildare was one of these films (the other was Johnny Belinda, an Oscar-winning vehicle for Jane Wyman in 1948 that I wanted to re-screen) and, color me surprised, it is one of the most adult, non-clichéd doctor dramas of the 1930's. Coming from MGM, the Dream Factory of make believe and sickly sweet fantasy during this era, I expected a dopey comedy in the vein of the Andy Hardy films about a naive young doctor who makes a mess of his first job only to pull through in the end and save the day. Young Dr. Kildare does follow this plot somewhat, although it has a fondness for playing with the expected trajectory while ignoring the conventions of this type of film in this time period.
The film begins with the young Dr. Kildare (Ayres) returning to his hometown after graduating medical school. His father, also Dr. Kildare, mother and sweetheart are all waiting for him, ready to give him a surprise: they have turned their living room into another examination room so he can build his own practice along side his father's. He is thankful, but it's clear that this pre-ordained position, along with the societal mores and "comforts" that come along with it (marriage, house, children) is not what he wants, at least not at this point in his life. Quite a statement from the most conservative studio in 1930's Hollywood! Kildare admits that he's been offered an intern position at a prestigious New York hospital and he has already accepted in the hopes that the job will give him the guidance to decide what he's meant to do in the medical field. The reason this opening works so well is because of Bucquet's low-key direction. Moments that could have been played for cheap melodrama or cringe-inducing cliché--such as the father's disappointment when his son admits he doesn't want to work with him--are instead sobering moments of quiet drama; instead of experienced thespians slumming it as a middle class family, they come across as the genuine artifact.
Once at the hospital, Kildare is immediately immersed in the politics of the profession. One minute he's being touted as a hero for saving the suicidal daughter of a tycoon after she had been given up for dead and the next he's taking the blame for a paramedic's mistake that accidentally kills a high-ranking politician. His biggest challenge, however, is Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore), a sarcastic veteran who belittles and fights anyone who challenges his authority and whose eccentricities are tolerated by administration because of his genius. Sound familiar? Yes, Young Dr. Kildare is perhaps the closest 1930's Hollywood every got to House. Instead of hermaphrodite models and exploding testicles, however, we get Gillespie continually testing Kildare's talent by crushing any naivety he may have and fucking with his mind (although not nearly in as dark of ways as Dr. House normally employs). What's remarkable about the character, and Barrymore's performance, is the fact that Gillespie is a hard-ass right up until the final moments. Sure, he eventually admits that he was hard on him to develop his abilities, but he sputters out what could have been a sappy moment in such a way that it feels like Gillespie can hardly be bothered to explain and that Kildare should have figured it out ages ago.
In the main crux of the film, Kildare learns, in confidence, the reason why the aforementioned suicidal girl tried to end her life. After the in-house psychologist diagnoses her with schizophrenia, Kildare announces that he disagrees but refuses to admit what was told in confidence. Gillespie, in no uncertain terms, tells Kildare that he's an idiot, but he still doesn't compromise his principles. After an (admittedly insane and tidy) investigation of his own reveals the secret to curing the girl, Gillespie, however reluctant, manipulates his hospital connections to allow Kildare to see the girl. He cures her, obviously, but the fascinating thing about his solving the puzzle is the aftermath. Without revealing too much, Kildare is not allowed to reveal to anyone that he actually cured the girl. Just when you'd expect everyone to stop short of throwing Kildare a parade for his cure, there is, in fact, no gloating, no rubbing it in his superior's faces that he was correct and they were wrong and no hearty congratulations from said superiors. It's a curious, surprising ending to a crowd-pleaser from 1938. Then again, nearly everything about Young Dr. Kildare is a surprising treat. B+