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.

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Remembering Joe T. Robinson

Eighty-two years ago today, on July 14, 1937, U.S. Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson died in his apartment in Washington D.C.

The Senator’s wife, Ewilda, was in Little Rock making preparations for a trip the couple was to take. (She was informed of her husband’s death when her sister-in-law called to express condolences. No one had yet notified her in Little Rock.) Following his demise, Mrs. Robinson went to Washington to accompany her husband’s body back to Arkansas.

As the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robinson was usually President Franklin Roosevelt’s point person to shepherd legislation on Capitol Hill.  The Democrat’s 1928 Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Robinson was particularly close to FDR. He had successfully steered numerous pieces of New Deal legislation through Congress.  However, at the time of his death, the Senator was facing an uphill climb trying to build consensus on the President’s unpopular Court Packing scheme.

The Senator was honored with a memorial service in the Senate chambers on Friday, July 17.  President Roosevelt and the cabinet joined members of the senate on the floor in what was described as a state funeral without pomp.  Mrs. Robinson sat with her brothers and two nephews as well as Bernard Baruch and Arkansas Power & Light’s Harvey Couch, who were Senator Robinson’s closest friends.  Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the many crowded in the senate galleries observing the service.  Following the service his body remained in the chambers until it was transferred to a train to make the journey to Little Rock.

The funeral train bore his body, his family, 50 senators and over twenty congressmen. It reached Little Rock around 8am on Sunday the 19th.  From there, Senator Robinson’s body was taken to his house on Broadway Street until noon.  It subsequently lay in state at the Arkansas State Capitol until being escorted by military to First Methodist Church.

1,500 people packed the church a half hour before the service began. The sun shone through the windows onto the flag-draped coffin as Rev. H. Bascom Watts led the service. Among the pallbearers was former Vice President Charles G. Dawes. Governor Carl Bailey of Arkansas was joined by Governors Richard Leche of Louisiana and E.W. Marland of Oklahoma.

As the funeral procession reached Roselawn Cemetery, thunder echoed. The skies which had alternated between sun and rain that day, returned to rain. A deluge greeted the end of the service and sent visitors hurrying for shelter at the end.

Five months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson participated in the groundbreaking of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  The ceremony was the first time it was announced that building would be named in his memory.   On a plaque inside that building today, a quote from President Roosevelt stands as a further testament of the importance of Senator Robinson to the US.  Taken from President Roosevelt’s remarks upon learning of the Senator’s death, the plaque reads, in part, “A pillar of strength is gone.”

Seventy-eight and a half years later, the church was the site of the funeral of longtime US Senator Dale Bumpers in January 2016.

FDR in ARK for State Centennial

On June 10, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Little Rock as part of a day-long series of appearances in conjunction with the Arkansas Centennial celebration.  (The actual statehood dates is June 15.)

His day started in Memphis before he journeyed by train to Hot Springs. After events there that morning and lunch at Couchwood (his longtime friend Harvey Couch was chairman of the Centennial celebration).  He then traveled to Rockport and Malvern for appearances before arriving in Little Rock.  He made his remarks at the State Fairgrounds in a temporary structure called “Centennial Stadium.”

The street he traveled to get to the fairgrounds had been renamed Roosevelt Road in February 1935 in anticipation that he would visit Little Rock in 1936 as part of the state centennial and would likely use that route.  The street was officially named Franklin D. Roosevelt Road.  But given the unwieldy street signs that would be required to bear that name, the ordinance was amended to note that the signs would bear the name “Roosevelt Road.”

Following his remarks, which officially kicked off the six month Arkansas Centennial celebration, he retired to Senator Joseph T. Robinson’s house on South Broadway.  He dined with the Robinsons in the house before departing with the Senator at 8:45 that evening.  The Presidential entourage then journeyed to Texas for the next day.

World Premiere of THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL movie in Little Rock

All right Mr. DeMille, Little Rock was ready for its close up.

From April 24 to 26, 1944, 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.

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.

Women Making History – Hattie Caraway

CARAWAY, Hattie WyattHattie Wyatt Caraway served for 14 years in the U.S. Senate. She was the first woman to be elected to a seat in the United States Senate.

Born in Tennessee in 1878, she entered Dickson Normal College at age 14. For several years, she and her fiancé Thaddeus Caraway taught school.  The couple married in 1902.

A fiery orator, Thaddeus, became politically active in Arkansas. He served as a prosecuting attorney before serving four terms in Congress. In 1920, he ran for, and was elected to the US Senate. In 1931, Thaddeus Caraway died. Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell appointed Hattie Caraway to fill out the remainder of her husband’s term.

She had been a trusted adviser to her husband and worked hart behind the scenes in his campaigns. While she later downplayed her political involvement (apparently to appear as a “poor, little widow”), she had been active in her campaigns and during his service in Washington.

After the appointment, Governor Parnell also endorsed her for the special election to fill out the remainder of the term (which expired in fourteen months).  By winning that over two independent candidates, Hattie Caraway made history as the first woman to be elected to the U S Senate.

Few, if any, in the Democratic establishment expected Hattie to run in the 1932 election for a full Senate term. Most of the state’s political heavyhitters had an eye on the seat.  To their surprise, on the last day to file for the Democratic primary, she threw her hat in the ring against six men.  Without the backing of the Arkansas Democratic political structure, she called upon her friend from neighboring Louisiana, Senator Huey P. Long.  Not only was he glad to help an ally, his chief rival in the Senate was Arkansas’ other senator, Joe T. Robinson.  Long positioned her as a champion for the downtrodden. This seemed to work, she received 44.7percent of the vote and carried 61 of 75 counties.

Caraway set a number of firsts for women in the Senate. In 1933, she was named chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee; the first woman ever to chair a Senate committee, she remained there until she left Congress in 1945. Caraway became the first woman to preside over the Senate, the first senior woman Senator (when Joe Robinson died in 1937), and the first woman to run a Senate hearing.

Most observers, including some of her supporters, believed Caraway would retire in 1939. But she upset expectations again by declaring her candidacy for the 1938 election. In the Democratic primary, Caraway faced two–term Representative John L. McClellan, a 42–year–old lawyer who declared, “Arkansas Needs Another Man in the Senate.” Senator Caraway ran on her record of supporting New Deal legislation to alleviate the economic hardships for the state’s largely agrarian economy.  She eked out a victory of 8,000 votes out of the 260,000 cast.

In her quest for a third term, Caraway finished fourth of the four candidates.  J. William Fulbright won the seat.  President Roosevelt and President Truman appointed her to positions in their governments. She continued her public service in those capacities until her death in 1950.

Rock the Oscars 2019: THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL

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.

Rock the Oscars 2019: Marjorie Lawrence

Opera star Marjorie Lawrence, CBE, was born in Australia, but spent the last two decades of her life in Arkansas.   Her triumph over polio to return to the opera stage was the subject of the Oscar winning film Interrupted Melody.

First singing in her native country, she rose to star in the opera halls of Europe before conquering the Metropolitan Opera.  Lawrence had contracted polio as an adult while on a trip to Mexico.  She eventually returned to the stage, usually singing while seated or reclining.  She also had an extensive recital career.  She performed at the White House at the invitation of Franklin Roosevelt and later Lyndon Johnson. During World War II, she performed at Buckingham Palace.  When Queen Elizabeth II made her a Commander of the British Empire in 1977, the Queen fondly remembered that wartime concert.

Eleanor Parker as Lawrence in INTERRUPTED MELODY

In 1949, she wrote her autobiography Interrupted Melody. The next year, Hollywood was interested in making it into a film.  Lawrence only wanted to agree to that if she herself did the singing.  In 1955, MGM released the film starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence and Glenn Ford as her husband. Lawrence did not provide the singing voice; Eileen Farrell did.  Lawrence was openly critical of the film, though some suspected it was because she did not get to sing for it.  By the time of the filming, her vocal range was not what it had been, which is apparently what led MGM to make the decision not to use her.

Despite Lawrence’s disdain for the film, the film was financially successful.  It was nominated for three Oscars: Original Screenplay (though it was actually based on a book), Eleanor Parker as Best Actress, and Costume Design for Color motion pictures.  Sonya Levien and William Ludwig won the statuette for their screenplay.

Lawrence and her husband bought a ranch near Hot Springs in 1952.  She spent most of her life there afterward though she was a vocal coach at Southern Illinois University and Tulane. She also welcomed international students to her home for coaching.  In 1975, she started working with students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  She was also an early member of the Arkansas Arts Council.

Lawrence died in January 1979 and is buried in Hot Springs.