From April 24 to 26, 1944, future Oscar winner Cecil B. DeMille was in Little Rock for the world premiere screening of The Story of Dr. Wassell. This 1944 Paramount Pictures Technicolor release told the story of wartime hero Dr. Corydon Wassell. It would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Special Effects.
Why was Little Rock chosen? It was the hometown of Dr. Wassell. His paternal grandfather, John Wassell, was Little Rock’s 27th mayor. His first cousin, Sam Wassell, was serving on the City Council at the time of the film’s release and would become Little Rock’s 51st mayor.
Based on a book by James Hilton, it was inspired by the heroic efforts of Dr. Wassell, a naval officer, as he led the evacuation of several sailors (and treated their wounds) in Java in February 1942. President Roosevelt highlighted Dr. Wassell in his May 26, 1942, fireside chat.
Little Rock rolled out the red carpet (literally and figuratively) for DeMille and a contingency from Hollywood. Dr. and Mrs. Wassell also returned to Little Rock for the festivities. Unfortunately, Gary Cooper (who played Wassell in the film) was unable to attend due to illness. His costar, Laraine Day, was making another film and could not attend either. Those in attendance with DeMille (and Mrs. DeMille) included actresses Signe Hasso and Carol Thurston, and actor Melvin Francis. The latter played himself; he had actually been one of the sailors saved by Dr. Wassell.
On April 24, 1944, DeMille and Dr. Wassell appeared on a radio program broadcast live from the music hall of Robinson Auditorium. The next day, the troupe toured Camp Robinson and spoke to the soldiers there. Later that day, Miss Hasso and Miss Thurston sold war bonds at Pfeiffers and M.M. Cohn’s.
April 26, 1944, was a full day for the DeMilles, the Wassells, and the others. It started with a luncheon at the Hotel Marion, hosted by the Lions Club and Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. Governor Homer Adkins presented DeMille with an Arkansas Traveler certificate. DeMille, in return, presented Governor Adkins with a copy of the script.
When it was Dr. Wassell’s time to speak, he praised Little Rock’s efforts on the home front. He also asked for a standing tribute to longtime Little Rock school superintendent R.C. Hall, who had died the day before. Dr. Wassell had taught with Mr. Hall decades earlier.
Following the lunch, there was a parade on Main Street. It started at 10th and Main and proceeded to Markham before ending at the War Memorial Building (now the Old State House Museum). Newspaper accounts said that it was four miles long and featured many military units and marching bands.
Dinner that evening was at the Lafayette Hotel before screenings of the movie at the Capitol and Arkansas Theatres. Both screenings were sold out. On April 27, 1944, a regular run of the movie started at the Capitol Theatre. It would be released nationally on July 4, 1944, which also happened to be Dr. Wassell’s birthday.