Three Men in White (1944) Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Van Johnson, Marilyn Maxwell, Keye Luke, Ava Gardner, Alma Kruger, "Rags" Ragland, Nell Craig. Directed by Willis Goldbeck. Screenplay by Martin Berkeley, Harry Ruskin. Based on characters created by Max Brand. Producer: Carey Wilson. Run time 85 min. USA. Drama
Medical dramas are a staple of network television. It may come as no surprise that they were also a staple of movie series as well. One of the longest running was the Dr. Kildare series. Based on a series of short stories and serialized novels written by Frederick Schiller Faust under the name Max Brand, there were sixteen films made featuring his characters, Dr. Kildare and Dr. Gillespie.
Even though the series is most closely associated with MGM, the first film based on a Brand story, Internes Can’t Make Money (1937), was made at Paramount. But the film did not prove to be a financial success at the box-office and the studio planned no more films. Enter MGM, which bet on the popularity of the character in print and made a deal with Faust to develop stories for a film series.
In their first film, MGM introduced Lew Ayers as Dr. Kildare and Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie. These two actors would play these roles throughout the Dr. Kildare series and Barrymore would continue as Dr. Gillespie in that series. The original series ended with Lew Ayers being placed in an internment camp as a conscientious objector to World War II. This caused the last film in that series, Dr. Kildare’s Victory (1942), to receive a lot of bad press and cancellations. When Ayers requested a change in status to non-combatant, the boycott against Ayers lessened, but MGM would move on with the Kildare series without him.
|Lew Ayres was young Dr. Kildare playing opposite Lionel Barrymore's Dr. Gillespie in a series of films.|
My introduction to the series came through TCM’s screening of the MGM series and the first one I saw was Three Men in White (1944), one of the films featuring Dr. Gillespie and the fourth in that series. While Dr. Gillespie was first introduced in Brand’s Young Dr. Kildare, the Gillespie series were not based on Brand's stories.
The production of the film was not without incident. A flu epidemic shut down it down as Van Johnson, Lionel Barrymore and producer Carey Wilson were all laid up by the disease. Production began on November 20, 1943 and finished on January 6, 1944. The final film was first shown to troops overseas before it was released in the U.S. on May 26, 1944.
Three Men in White sort of picks up where the previous films, Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant (1942) and Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943), have left the storyline. Criminal Case seems more action-packed than the other films, with its prison break and shootout, but we have most of the same characters in the same relationships at the start of Three Men in White. Gone is Dr. Dennis Lindsay (Richard Quine), the third assistant temporarily selected in New Assistant.
Having been overworked, Dr. Gillespie had been ordered by the authorities at Blair General Hospital, where he lives and works, to hire an assistant. Unable to make up his mind, he settled on three men, the above mentioned Dr. Lindsay, Dr. Randall “Red” Adams (Van Johnson) and Dr. Lee Wong How (Keye Luke). In Criminal Case, Red has already met and is romantically interested in Ruth Edly (Marilyn Maxwell), though it seems that events are conspiring to keep them apart.
Three Men in White opens with Dr. Gillespie, being wheeled into his office by Conover (George H. Reed), his sometimes helper, after his office adversary, Nurse Byrd (Alma Kruger), has been through his mail. Prominently on top of the stack is an invitation for Dr. Gillespie and his assistant to attend a medical forum.
|Conover (George H. Reed) wheels Dr. Gillespie into his office.|
But Gillespie already knows that Byrd has been in his office and he surprises her when she thinks she’s avoided him. They compare notes about their stooges, whose are better, etc. After he’s chased her away, he goes into his office. Thinking he knows what is in the envelope, a wedding invitation, he rips it up and throws it into the trash.
The inherent issue on Gillespie’s to-do-list is and has been choosing between the two interns vying to be his assistant. To try and rectify that situation, Gillespie speaks with his protégés Randall “Red” Adams and Lee Wong How. Both men are eager to impress the doctor and each takes turns bragging about his latest diagnosis. Determined to make a final decision, Gillespie tells them that he will assign each a special case and the one that makes the correct diagnosis and cure will then win the coveted assignment as his assistant.
|Dr. Gillespie gives his two assistants, Randall "Red" Adams (Van Johnson) and Lee|
Wong How (Keye Luke), a challenge to see who wins the coveted assignment as his assistant.
Once he discovers the envelope was an invite, he naturally blames his nurse, Parker (Nell Craig), and decides to take Red. Meanwhile, Dr. How draws the assignment of a young girl, Mary Jones (Patricia Barker), who goes into convulsions when she eats candy.
When they get to the conference, they find that they have the wrong date. On the way back to the parking lot, they notice a young woman, Jean Brown (Ava Gardner), staggering out to her car, seemingly drunk. Before the parking lot assistant (George Chandler) can stop her, she gets into her car and runs into a parked one. The beat cop (James Burke) comes over to question her. Red comes to her aid because she has a license plate from his home state and county on her car. While they’re talking to the cop, she faints. Red tells the cop that he’ll take her to the hospital and give her the alcohol test there. Even though the cop thinks there’s hanky-panky afoot, he lets Gillespie convince him to let Red take her away.
|Dr. Gillespie talks with Red before he drives Jean Brown to the Hospital.|
On the way to the hospital, Jean won’t tell who she is, even going so far as throwing her purse out the window. She does admit to Red that she only pretended to faint to get out of the ticket. But before too long, she actually does pass out in the car.
The next morning, the beat cop shows up to check up on Jean and on Red’s honesty. Red shows the cop the test which shows no alcohol was found in her blood. Even though Red runs interference for her with the policeman, she still refuses to say who she is and, against his concerns, checks herself out of the hospital. When Red updates Gillespie about her, he makes Jean his case.
|Ava Gardner as Jean Brown in Three Men in White.|
Gillespie gives him the purse the woman threw out of the car and the driver’s license leads Red to her. Jean lives with her father (Addison Richards) and invalid mother (Barbara Brown). He finds out that that the mom suffers from debilitating and incurable spinal arthritis. It is simply too painful for her to walk.
Jean tells Red that the night before, she had gone out to get away from having to care for her mother. At a party, she had taken someone else’s prescription, which made her act drunk. After Jean admits that she and her fiancé had broken up because of her mother’s condition, Red promises to do something to help her.
But back at the hospital, Gillespie tells Red that the mother’s arthritis is indeed incurable, but Red insists on trying to find a way to make Jean’s mother mobile.
Meanwhile, Lee has been treating Mary by putting her on a sugar-free, vitamin enriched diet and confidentially proclaims that he’ll soon have her cured. Which is a good thing, since Gillespie’s self-imposed deadline is the next day.
That evening, Red agrees to drop by Ruth Edley’s apartment. She has been trying everything she can to be alone with Red, but he’s afraid that if she kisses him, he’ll want to marry her and want to settle down. This night, Red enlists How to help him keep things in check. How agrees to call him after he’s been there seven minutes, which Red thinks is just enough time to break it off with Ruth.
|Ruth Edly (Marilyn Maxwell) lets Red know that she's interested.|
But things never go as planned. Ruth is too alluring for Red to resist and when How never calls, Red is about to succumb to her wiles. That is until ambulance driver Hobart Genet (Rags Ragland) shows up and, with police support, takes Red back to the hospital.
Dr. How is waiting in the ambulance and is surprised that Red is not happy with his plan to rescue him. But Lee has bigger plans, as well. He takes Red to watch a boy play in the street, hopping down the street with one leg on the sidewalk and the other in the street. Red is not sure what Lee is showing him, until Lee explains to him his theory that Mrs. Brown’s arthritis might have caused one of her legs to become shorter than the other, causing her pain.
Back at the hospital, Lee prepares to administer insulin to Mary if his experiment doesn’t work. He has her eat several small pieces of candy and waits for her to react. When nothing adverse happens, Lee waits until the next morning to inform Gillespie that she had been suffering from a mineral deficiency that caused her to crave sugar and have convulsions. Gillespie doesn’t let Lee’s success go to his head, informing the intern that he had aided him in much the same way Lee had Red.
When Gillespie goes to see Red’s update on his case, there is only a note, announcing that he has decided to not only withdraw from the competition but to return to Missouri. Gillespie, along with Conover, goes in search of Red.
He is at the Brown’s apartment, where he convinces Mrs. Brown to try on a pair of specially made shoes, one which has a higher heel than the other. With her orthopedic shoes on, Mrs. Brown can walk without assistance for the first time in many years. Even though everyone is thrilled by him, Red insists he has to leave.
But outside the building, Gillespie confronts him. After Conover, from the fire escape, had spied Mrs. Brown walking, he wants to offer him the job as his assistant. Red turns him down, saying Lee is a more qualified physician.
Back at the hospital, Lee learns that Gillespie has arranged for something Lee wants more than being his assistant, a commission in the Chinese Army. (China was at the time a wartime ally of the U.S.) However, Lee will be assigned to Gillespie for the near future and vows to help bring Red back.
On his way to the train station, Red has arranged for Ruth to meet him in the lobby of a hotel one last time. Incidentally, this is the same hotel where Red and Gillespie had missed attending that conference earlier. Ruth tries, but can’t convince Red to stay. But before he can get to his car, Hobart, the ambulance driver, sent by Lee, shows up and knocks Red out in the parking lot. Red is headed back to the hospital.
Made on a budget of $450,000, Three Men in White made $868,000 at the box-office. Far from stellar, even in its day, it was still good enough to keep the franchise going for at least two more films.
That pretty much describes the film as well. While not great by any stretch, Three Men in White is still very entertaining to watch. There is a lot of talent on the screen, though not always fully utilized.
Lionel Barrymore is probably best known as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the perennial Christmas classic. The eldest son of the Barrymore family, which included siblings Ethel and John, Lionel had been in movies since the early silent films working with D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Studios, starting in 1911. He would act in about 60 films for Griffith, including The New York Hat (1912). He would also write and direct, including Life’s Whirlpool (1917) for Metro Pictures, starring sister Ethel.
|Lionel Barrymore as Dr. Gillespie.|
After 1926, Barrymore worked exclusively for MGM, starring in films opposite the likes of John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, Sr., Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, his brother John and sister Ethel. He would also still direct, including The Rogue Song (1930), Laurel & Hardy's first color film, in which they were also not the stars.
Barrymore played many of his later roles in a wheelchair. Suffering from arthritis, which caused him to limp, he would also break his hip twice, once when a drawing table fell on it in 1936 and a year later when he tripped over cables while filming Saratoga (1937). In great pain, there are stories of Barrymore being addicted to heroin and to cocaine. There are even reports that Louis B. Mayer bought the star $400 of cocaine every day for the pain and to allow him to sleep. Nevertheless, the hip fracture never healed quite right and Barrymore was unable to walk. The last film he can be seen walking and standing in, without help, is Captains Courageous (1937). That did not keep him from acting and he would appear in such films as A Guy Named Joe (1943), It’s A Wonderful Life, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Key Largo (1948). His last films would be Lone Star (1952) and Main Street to Broadway (1953); in the latter he played himself. He would die in 1954.
His role as Dr. Gillespie is what holds this film, and no doubt the others in the series, together. Even confined to a wheelchair, Barrymore has more screen presence than his capable co-stars Van Johnson and Keye Luke.
Van Johnson’s big break came in 1943 with the film A Guy Named Joe, in which he starred opposite Spencer Tracy and Lionel Barrymore. He had been in movies since 1940, having already appeared in two of the Dr. Gillespie films, Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (1942) and Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943), along with Keye Luke, before Three Men In White. He would also appear in one more in the series, with Keye Between Two Women (1945).
Johnson is a fine actor, but I find his fear of kissing a woman a little hard to swallow even for the times. Of course, that’s not his fault, that’s the way the part was written and he plays it mostly for laughs.
Keye Luke is probably best remembered for his seven appearances as Charlie Chan’s #1 Son, Lee Chan, in the series starring Warner Oland as the famous Chinese detective. He would also play Lee Chan in one of the Mr. Moto films, opposite Peter Lorre, Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938). Interestingly enough, he would also play Dr. Lee Wong How, his role in the Gillespie series in two unrelated films: Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble (1944) and Dark Delusion (1947). He would also appear as Kato in two Green Hornet serials The Green Hornet (1940) and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1941). He would return to #1 Son in two of Roland Winters' turns as Chan, The Feathered Serpent (1948) and Sky Dragon (1949). By then, he was older than the actor playing the father.
Luke’s Dr. Lee Wong How comes across as also having a robust ego. He knows he’s smart and he likes to show it off. He has a lot of energy, but he is a little off-putting at the same time, but I think that’s more the character than the actor.
A still relatively unknown Ava Gardner also makes an appearance. She had been in the movies since 1941 and had even appeared in the earlier Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942) in an uncredited role. Her role as Jean Brown was only her second feature which she received credit, the other being Ghosts on the Loose (1943).
She is strikingly beautiful, though her acting would improve over her career as would her star status. Three Men in White and her role as Jean Brown is not the sort of high-profile film she would be known for throughout her career. She would first draw attention for her role in The Killers (1946) and would eventually be nominated for Best Actress for her role in Mogambo (1953), the remake of Red Dust (1932).
|In publicity photo Lionel Barrymore poses with Marilyn Maxwell and Ava Gardner.|
Marilyn Maxwell played Red’s love interest, Ruth Edly, a role she had played in the previous film in the series, Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943). She is cute, but it doesn’t appear she was able to put together much of a career. Most of her movie roles were either in films you’ve probably never heard of or were roles that were not credited. She doesn’t necessarily shine in this film, but really no one does except for Barrymore.
The closest modern equivalent to the Dr. Gillespie character and the way Barrymore plays him would be House as played on TV by Hugh Laurie. Both men are handicapped, House with his gamy leg and cane and Gillespie wheel-chair bound; both men have a certain disdain for their fellow employees and display very healthy egos, thinking they are the best doctors around; this sentiment is often reinforced by their colleagues and subordinates. And both have trouble making up their minds on who their assistant will be. House spent whole seasons trying to make that decision, Gillespie takes a few movies.
And it is Barrymore’s performance that is the real reason to watch this film. A great actor makes the most of the material and Barrymore shines as the arrogant and irascible Dr. Gillespie. He is the only reason to make an appointment to see this film.
This film is available in the Dr. Gillespie Movie Collection from Warner Archive.