Monday, January 7, 2013


Attention, ladies! If your boyfriend registers displeasure by bashing in a puppy's skull with a rock, do you:
A) Call a cop?
B) Run like hell in the opposite direction?
C) Stick by his side until he murders three people and tries for a fourth?

While Marcia looks forward to
marriage, Tod has his eyes on a
cocker spaniel.
If your answer is (C), then you're ready to check into Blair General Hospital, where the crustier-than-stale-farm bread Dr. Leonard Gillespie runs the show from his wheelchair with an iron fist and a hot temper. With the help of  Dr. John Hunter Gernide, the old bird decides that Roy Todwell, fiance of Marcia Bradburn, needs help. Or, as Gillespie sympathetically tells Todwell's parents,"I'm sorry to say, but your son is a mental case." 

Look at him -- I told you the maniac's doctor 
was a know-it-all.
Not to worry, though -- a psychological trigger, he assures them, can turn anyone into "a homicidal maniac." (My former boss would probably agree.) Roy's parents are in denial -- perhaps they have friends who smash puppy's skulls in on a regular basis -- as is their know-it-all family doctor. 

Even after Roy inexplicably smashes a storefront window, hops around like an epileptic Mexican jumping bean and swears to kill Gillespie, all that's prescribed is a good nap. Son of Sam wishes he had such understanding people around him. 

"Darling, where'd you learn to handle
 the scalpel so well?"

But thanks to the ol' palming-the-sleeping-tablet routine, Todwell makes his escape, first to Boston, then to Detroit, all the while dropping Gillespie the occasional threatening postcard. (Weather beautiful. Toured the Chevy factory. I'm going to slash your throat.) After knocking off a couple of car dealership employees -- and is that really a crime? -- Todwell returns to Blair General where he kills a visiting doctor and assumes his identity. 

This being called Calling Dr. Gillespie and not Calling Precinct 14, the cops guarding the hospital are of no use. It's Gernide who hatches a scheme to lure Todwell into being captured, and Gillespie's bodyguard who nails him on the head with a well-aimed monkey-wrench. Blair General can resume its usual routine of receptionists cracking wise, interns tripping over their shoelaces and nurses flirting with wealthy cardiac patients.

Calling Dr. Gillespie was to have been the ninth in MGM's enormously popular Dr. Kildare movie series, which began in 1938. These are the kind of movies where deafness is cured with a vitamin B shot and schizophrenia by putting the patient into insulin shock. In Calling Dr. Gillespie, Dr. Gernide figures out that the sound of train whistles set off Todwell's murderous rages. (Times were much simpler then.) And unlike many other movie series of the time, the Kildare films had continuing storylines so that audiences felt involved in the characters' lives. Think of them as a B-movie Berlin Alexanderplatz. Go ahead, I dare you.

Phillip Dorn:
"I'll make you forget your
draft-dodging Kildare!"

Barrymore demands that Ayres get out of
his camera range.
Lew Ayres, the title star, upset the Kildare cart by declaring himself a conscientious objector after our involvement in World War II. Even Ayres joining the Medical Corps and serving on the frontlines -- unarmed -- didn't sit well with the public. 

Having already filmed the movie as Born to be Bad, MGM reshot Ayres' scenes wth Dutch actor Phillip Dorn (who looks like a cross between Fred Allen and Frank Sinatra) as Dr. Gernide. This allowed Lionel Barrymore, as Kildare's mentor Gillespie, to chew the scenery even more than usual, enough to wear down his molars. 

This is not a slam against Barrymore -- I find him to be extremely entertaining, often more than his brother John. I mean, if I'm watching an actor, I want to see him act! And boy does he ever -- shouting, snarling, snorting, chuckling, squinting and whatever other gerund you can think of. 

(While we're on the subject, my daughter noticed the similarities between Barrymore's Gillespie and Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. Both are cranks; have problems getting around; play piano; are the Sherlock Holmes of the sawbones set; and have utterly ridiculous medical theories which inevitably prove correct.)

Calling Dr. Gillespie goes into territory previously unexplored in the Kildare series; e.g., homicidal mania. Harold S. Bucquet, the series' regular director, must have enjoyed the change of pace, as he shoots some scenes bordering on film noir. Running close to an hour and a half, Calling Dr. Gillespie is about 15 minutes longer than the previous Kildare movies as well, as if the studio decided to go the extra mile to make up for the loss of Lew Ayres. 

Irony alert: Dr. Gillespie on
a cigarette trading card.
Just in case any fans wondered if the series would continue without Kildare, an onscreen announcement following the closing credits assures them them the next chapter in the series would be Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant. It was pretty obvious by then that the real star of the series, the one that audiences were paying to see, was Lionel Barrymore. People loved the gruff-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside guy who put the "Unc" into avuncular. 

That wheelchair wasn't a prop, either, Barrymore having both arthritis and a fractured hip keeping him off his feet. At the time, it was a well-kept secret that his pain was alleviated by daily cocaine injections. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was thoughtful enough to supply the coke himself, although deducted the cost from Barrymore's weekly salary and, presumably, declared it a tax write-off. (By the way, Dr. Gregory House is a Vicodin addict.)

Don't be fooled by
that boyish smile.
But there's one actor -- the only one I've seen in any of the Kildare/Gillespie movies -- that really interested me other than Barrymore. And in Calling Dr. Gillespie it's Phil Brown. In his first moments as Roy Todwell, Brown appears to be your typical B-movie leading man: young, charming, bland. But the moment he kills the puppy, Brown becomes the creepiest guy in town, even when putting on the nice-guy act. With eyes half-shut and a smile that says Oh boy, I can't wait to kill again, Brown takes charge of all his scenes, elevating the movie from its B-movie settings. To me, his performance is the blueprint for all the movie stalkers that were to come in later years. I kept asking myself, Who is this actor and why haven't I seen him anywhere else?

It's a long way from Blair General
Hospital to Tatooine.
Well, it didn't help that Phil Brown was one of the many victims of the HUAC investigations of the '50s. (Destroying as many non-Communists as not, HUAC was Congress' very own assault rifle.) Brown continued his career in the UK. Further research showed  that I had indeed seen him at least one other time. Thirty-five years after Calling Dr. Gillespie, he had the small but pivotal role as Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen in the original Star Wars. From then until his death in 2006, Brown was a welcome presence at sci-fi conventions and autograph shows everywhere.

Calling Dr. Gillespie is my favorite kind of old movie, one that delivers far more than expected. Had I seen Calling Dr. Gillespie in my younger years, I'd have gotten my hands on a poster featuring Phil Brown's creepy image and attended one of his conventions. As I slipped it in front of him, I'd sigh, "You were one of my favorite mental cases ever!" I'd like to think he'd have appreciated it.




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