LR Movies Monday: THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL and MACARTHUR

With the Arkansas Cinema Society’s FILMLAND 2019 later this month (August 21 to 25), Mondays in August will feature movies with Little Rock connections.  Today’s films are both about World War II military heroes and both had their world premieres in Little Rock.

One was released during World War II and starred Gary Cooper as Dr. Corydon Wassell. The other was released in the 1970s and starred Gregory Peck as General Douglas MacArthur.

Dr. WassellBorn in Little Rock on July 4, 1884, Corydon McAlmont Wassell (called “Cory”) was born to Albert and Leona Wassell. A grandson of Little Rock Mayor John Wassell, he graduated from what is now UAMS in 1909. In 1911, he married Mary Irene Yarnell, with whom he would have four children.  In 1914, the couple volunteered to be Episcopal missionaries in China.  He served there until 1927. Following Mary’s death and his remarriage, he and new wife Madeline Edith Day Wassell returned to Arkansas in 1927.

Dr. Wassell resumed his medical practice. Given his experience with malaria in China, he proved to be an asset fighting malaria among Civilian Conservation Corps members in Arkansas. He was subsequently called to active duty in the Navy in 1936 and stationed in Key West.

After the outbreak of World War II, he was stationed in Indonesia. In early 1942, he refused to abandon his patients after the Japanese started invading Indonesia. Instead, he was able to evacuate a dozen severely wounded men over 150 miles to get to a ship. It took ten days for the ship to get to Australia, during which time it was attacked numerous times.  His official Navy Cross citation notes that he disregarded personal safety while caring for others.

He became an instant international hero. During the early days of the war, his heroism was one of the few bright spots.  President Roosevelt praised him in a fireside chat. James Hilton wrote of Dr. Wassell in a book which was then adapted by Cecil B. DeMille into the 1944 movie starring Cooper.  Originally Arkansan Alan Ladd was wanted to play Cooper’s sidekick, but Ladd was pressed into military service and unavailable.

From April 24 to 26, 1944, Cecil B. DeMille was in Little Rock for the world premiere screening of The Story of Dr. Wassell. 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.

Sold-out screenings of the movie took place at the Capitol and Arkansas Theatres. 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.

Thirty-three years after The Story of Dr. Wassell was released, MacArthur was brought to the screen by Universal Pictures.  It was their attempt to capitalize on the success of the movie Patton, including sharing some of the same members of the production team.

macarthur-gregory-peck-1977-everettTold entirely in flashback, it stars Gregory Peck as the fabled World War II general who was born in Little Rock. It focuses primarily on events in 1942 during the war, his dismissal by Truman in 1952, and his famous address to West Point in 1962.

Peck initially did not care for the subject or the script, but eventually stated that he grew to admire the challenges MacArthur faced.  Peck later called it one of his favorites roles, if not one of his favorite movies.

Producer Frank McCarthy, who worked on both Patton and MacArthur once said of Patton and MacArthur: “Both were complex men but General MacArthur was complex on a much broader scale. Patton had no ambition except to be a soldier and to command a field army. He was strictly command.”

Most of the film was shot on the backlot at the movie studio, which impacted the quality of the film.  The production budget simply would not allow for overseas location filming.

The film was released in July 1977.  One of the premieres was held in Little Rock. Peck attended a reception in the Arsenal Building where MacArthur was born. Now the home to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, in 1977 the building still housed the Museum of Science and Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery).  Since MacArthur only spent a few hours in Little Rock as an adult, it is possible that Peck spent more time in the building than the General did.

The evening of August 5, 1977, started with an exclusive reception for 100 people with Gregory and Veronique Peck.  The movie itself was shown at the Cinema 150, where its general run would start on Saturday, August 6.  Following the film, a reception and silent auction brought people back to the museum.  Tickets ran $250 a person for all events, $100 a person for the film and post-show reception, and $25 for the movie.  It sold out.

Governor and Mrs. David Pryor escorted the Pecks into the theatre.  Former Governor (and World War II hero) Sid McMath introduced Mr. Peck to the crowd.  He extolled the virtues of Peck and MacArthur.  (It is interesting that he should admire MacArthur so much, since the General and President Truman had a well-publicized tiff, and McMath and Truman had enjoyed a warm relationship.)  Little Rock City Director Jim Dailey presented Peck with a Key to the City.

126 Years of MacArthur Park in Little Rock

On July 4, 1893, Arsenal Park opened in Little Rock.  This was the City’s first municipal public park.  Though it predated the establishment of a formal Parks and Recreation Department by several decades, it is the oldest part of that department.

The land now known as MacArthur Park had originally served as a horse racetrack in the early days of Little Rock.  By 1836, the federal government purchased the land for construction of a military arsenal.  The flagship building, the Arsenal Tower building, is the only remaining structure from that time period.

The land served as a military outpost until 1892.  On April 23, 1892, a land swap took place where in the City of Little Rock was given the property with the stipulation that it would be “forever exclusively devoted to the uses and purposes of a public park.” (Never mind that the federal government took part of the land back for the construction of the Wilbur Mills Freeway.)  Congressman William L. Terry was active in negotiating the land swap. (His son David would also serve in Congress.)

In return for giving the City this land, the federal government took possession of land on the north side of the Arkansas River (then part of Little Rock) – that 1,000 acres became Fort Logan H. Roots.

The park officially opened on July 4, 1893, with the name Arsenal Park. Since it was the City’s first and only park at the time, residents started referring to it as City Park. In time, the designation Arsenal Park fell from use.  In fact, it is referred to as City Park exclusively and officially in City documents throughout the first 42 years of the 20th Century.

On March 9, 1942, Little Rock’s first public park was renamed by the Little Rock City Council.  By a vote of fourteen ayes, zero nays and four absent, the alderman approved Ordinance 6,388 which renamed the park in honor of General Douglas MacArthur.

In 1952, General MacArthur (contemplating a run for the GOP nomination for President) visited Little Rock in March.  Later that year, the eventual GOP nominee (and 34th US President) General Dwight Eisenhower visited the park.

Today, MacArthur Park is the anchor of the burgeoning MacPark district as well as the MacArthur Park Historic Distric.

On Armed Forces Day, visit the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History

Today is Armed Forces Day.

The third Saturday of May is designated each year as a day to celebrate the men and women who serve in the various branches of the United States armed forces.

On Saturday, May 19, 2001 (which was Armed Services Day that year), the City of Little Rock opened the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History.  Tomorrow, the museum celebrates its 18th birthday.

Though the museum is only 18 years old, the building in which it is located, is 171 years old.  Last year, the building was closed for several months as it received a much needed refurbishment.

Today, the Museum’s exhibits include

  • Vietnam, America’s Conflict
  • Fiction and Fantasy
  • From Turbulence to Tranquility: The Little Rock Arsenal
  • Capital In Crisis: Little Rock and the Civil War
  • Alger Cadet Gun
  • Camden Expedition
  • David Owen Dodd Story
  • First Call: American Posters of World War I
  • The Sun Never Sets on the Mighty Jeep: The Jeep During World War II
  • Through the Camera’s Eye: The Allison Collection of World War II Photographs
  • Conflict and Crisis: The MacArthur-Truman Controversy
  • Duty, Honor and Country: General Douglas MacArthur
  • By the President in the Name of Congress: Arkansas’s Medal of Honor Recipients

Visitors to MacArthur Park today can also interact with the various outdoor memorials and monuments which pay tribute to various phases of Arkansas’ military history.

Start of Little Rock’s park system with land swap to create Arsenal Park

April 23, 1892, marked the beginning of the City of Little Rock’s public park sLR City Parkystem.  On that date, the City officially took possession of land which would become what is now known as MacArthur Park.

The park land had originally served as a horse racetrack in the early days of Little Rock.  By 1836, the federal government purchased the land for construction of a military arsenal.  The flagship building, the Arsenal Tower building, is the only remaining structure from that time period.

The land served as a military outpost until 1892.  On April 23, 1892, a land swap took place where in the City of Little Rock was given the property with the stipulation that it would be “forever exclusively devoted to the uses and purposes of a public park.” (Never mind that the federal government took part of the land back for the construction of the Wilbur Mills Freeway.)  In return for giving the City this land, the federal government took possession of land on the north side of the Arkansas River (then part of Little Rock) – that 1,000 acres became Fort Logan H. Roots.

After clearing most of the buildings from the land and preparing it for recreation, the park opened on July 4, 1893, with the name Arsenal Park. Since it was the City’s first and only park at the time, residents started referring to it as City Park. In time, the designation Arsenal Park fell from use.  In fact, it is referred to as City Park exclusively and officially in City documents throughout the first 42 years of the 20th Century.

The City Council’s action to name it MacArthur Park in March 1942, was accompanied by petitions encouraging the action which were submitted by the Arkansas Authors and Composers Society, the Arkansas Engineers Club and the Pulaski County Republican Central Committee.

City records do not indicate if anyone registered opposition to the name change. It would be another decade before General MacArthur would return to the site of his birth, a place he had not visited since his infancy.

Women Making History: Bernie Babcock

Julia Burnelle “Bernie” Smade Babcock was an author and museum founder.  When her husband died, leaving her with five children, she starting writing for money. She published several temperance novels and later wrote for the Arkansas Democrat.  She also published a magazine, wrote plays which were performed in New York, and authored a poetry anthology.

She later became recognized as an expert on Abraham Lincoln and wrote several books about him, as well as other historical figures.  For her writing skills, she became the first Arkansas woman to be included in Who’s Who in America.

In 1927, after professional curmudgeon H. L. Mencken wrote derisively of Arkansas, she decided to start a museum. The Museum of Natural History and Antiquities was first located in a Main Street storefront.  In 1929, she “gave the City of Little Rock a Christmas present” by giving the museum to the city.  It was relocated to the unfinished third floor of City Hall, with her as its employee. After being closed during part of the Great Depression, she relocated the museum to the Arsenal Building and reopened it as the Museum of Natural History.  She was involved in the efforts to rename City Park in honor of Douglas MacArthur (who had been born there) and welcomed him when he came to Little Rock in 1952.

Following her retirement in 1953, she moved to Petit Jean Mountain where she wrote and painted.

After more name changes and a relocation, her museum is now known as the Museum of Discovery and is an anchor in the River Market district.

Little Rock Look Back: MacArthur Returns

MacArthur and Mayor Remmel

General MacArthur and Mayor Remmel

On Sunday, March 23, 1952, General Douglas MacArthur made his only post-infancy visit to Little Rock. He had previously been scheduled to visit Mississippi, and Little Rock Mayor Pratt Remmel had persuaded him to add a visit to Little Rock to the agenda. The fact that Little Rock now had a Republican mayor had apparently piqued the General’s interest.

General MacArthur, accompanied by his wife and son as well as several journalists and members of his military retinue, arrived at Little Rock Airport at 10:40 am. He was met by a delegation of civic leaders including Mayor Remmel. Alderman James Griffey made welcoming remarks on behalf of the city. Then the General and Mayor boarded an open car and led a motorcade from the airport to downtown.

The motorcade’s destination was Christ Episcopal Church at Capitol and Scott streets. It was at this church that MacArthur had been baptized as an infant. The delegation was greeted by the Episcopal Bishop R. Bland Mitchell, Rector J. Hodge Alves, and Rector Emeritus W. P. Witsell. (While he had been Rector, Dr. Witsell had garnered national attention by issuing an Easter blessing to Gen. MacArthur as he had been evacuating the Philippines at the height of World War II.) In order to gain admittance to the church that morning, church members and guests had to have tickets.

Following the worship service, the General and his party went to three events in the park named in his honor. The first was a tour of the Museum of Natural History (now the Museum of Discovery and located in the River Market; the current tenant of the building is the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History), which was located in the building in which the General had been born. After the tour, he spoke at a dedication of a small rose garden adjacent to the museum. It was sponsored by the Little Rock City Beautiful Commission and the Garden Clubs of Greater Little Rock.

Though every stop of the General’s visit had featured crowds, the largest was at the third location in MacArthur Park. A crowd of several thousand greeted the General as he spoke from the Foster Bandshell in the park’s southwest corner. Chamber of Commerce president Richard C. Butler (brother-in-law of Mayor Remmel) was the master of ceremonies. Following an invocation by Methodist Bishop Paul Martin, the only other speaker was the General. In his remarks he spoke of his Southern heritage and of his appreciation for the support of the citizens of Little Rock over the years.

Several gifts were bestowed upon the MacArthurs at the ceremony. The City of Little Rock presented Mrs. MacArthur with an engraved silver serving tray.

Following the events in MacArthur Park, the family retired for a brief respite to the Hotel Marion. They then attended a luncheon buffet in their honor at the home of Howard and Elsie Stebbins on Edgehill Road. The General and Mrs. MacArthur circulated through the house greeting guests and then eschewed a special table in favor of balancing their plates on their laps and sitting in wingback chairs. Meanwhile Arthur MacArthur stayed upstairs and discussed stamp collecting and other hobbies with the Stebbins’ two teenage sons.

Following the luncheon, the MacArthur party went back to the airport and by 4:00pm, the plane was in the air.

Though this visit was coming at the end of a whirlwind of activities, by all accounts, the General and Mrs. MacArthur were very gracious and accommodating. The General was being mentioned as a potential GOP candidate for President, but purposefully steered clear of any political comments in his remarks. He and Mrs. MacArthur dutifully posed for photos not only for the media but also for amateur photographers. At lunch, the General even asked a Gazette photographer to take a photo of him with his Little Rock Police motorcycle escorts so that they could have a souvenir of the visit.