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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New sculpture dedicated in MacArthur Park

BLOOMING, a new sculpture, was dedicated in MacArthur Park today (July 11).  It is a gift from Hanam, South Korea, one of Little Rock’s Sister Cities.

In 2017, Little Rock sculptor Michael Warrick traveled to Hanam and installed a sculpture in a park there in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Sister City relationship between the two cities.  This new sculpture, which represents a ginkgo tree, is a reciprocal gift.

At the dedication ceremony, in addition to remarks by Mayor Frank Scott Jr., and Hanam May Kim Sang Ho, comments were given by former Little Rock mayors Sharon Priest, Jim Dailey, and Mark Stodola.  In addition, Mrs. Sun Cha Lee, chair of ATA International spoke.  Mrs. Lee and her late husband, Eternal Grand Master H. U. Lee, first suggested to Sharon Priest the possibility of a Sister City relationship between Little Rock and Hanam.

70 Years of SOUTH PACIFIC

Original Broadway production marquee of the Majestic Theatre – photo from the Shubert Organization

Seventy years ago today, a fictional Little Rock heroine took the stage of a Broadway megahit when South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949. It settled in for a run of 1925 performances.

Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation.

This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.)

At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards (sometimes listed as eight because Book and Score were not broken separate from Best Musical that year—but some sources incorrectly separate them.) It was named Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan). This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit.

Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting. Martin would reunite with Hayward, Rodgers & Hammerstein ten years later for The Sound of Music. Pinza and Tabbert reunited in 1954 for Fanny which would be the final Broadway credit for each gentleman. McCormick stayed with the show the entire run, except for vacations.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacific and Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Remembering Daisy Bates

Today is the Daisy Bates Holiday in the State of Arkansas.  So it is an appropriate day to pay tribute to Mrs. Bates, who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates and her husband were important figures in the African American community in the capital city of Little Rock.  Realizing her intense involvement and dedication to education and school integration, Daisy was the chosen agent after nine black students were selected to attend and integrate a Little Rock High School.  Bates guided and advised the nine students, known as the Little Rock Nine, when they enrolled in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. President Clinton presented the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal and spoke at the 40th anniversary of the desegregation while he was in office.

When Mrs. Bates died, a memorial service was held at Robinson Center on April 27, 2000.  Among the speakers were President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, and Rev. Rufus K. Young, pastor of the Bethel AME Church.  Others in attendance included Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, Mayor Jim Dailey, Presidential diarist Janis Kearney, former senator and governor David Pryor, and five members of the Little Rock Nine:  Carlotta Walls Lanier, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, and Elizabeth Eckford.

It was during his remarks at the service that President Clinton announced he had asked that Bates’ south-central Little Rock home be designated as a national historic landmark.

Skip Day! Happy Birthday to Skip Rutherford!

Though a native of Batesville (and a proud booster to this day), James L. “Skip” Rutherford has lived in Little Rock for many years. While he was a student at the University of Arkansas, he probably never envisioned the impact he would have on the cultural scene of Little Rock.

After moving to Little Rock, Skip (and his wife Billie) became civic boosters which often involved attending or promoting cultural events.  However, by the mid-1990s, this moved into a whole new realm.

Skip was one of the visionaries behind the creation of a Central High Visitors Center.  His interest in this project combined his interests in public service, public policy, and public schools. This was an extension of his work as an aide to Senator David Pryor from 1979 to 1983 and a Little Rock School Board member from 1987 to 1991.  As the 40th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High approached, Skip worked with Mayor Jim Dailey and others to plan the 1997 commemoration activities as well as the 1998 recognition of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

A few weeks after the Central High 40th anniversary events in September 1997, President Clinton announced that Little Rock would be the site of his Presidential Library.  As President of the Clinton Foundation, he was involved in the planning for not only the construction of the building but also the grand opening festivities.  Through his efforts, the City’s major cultural institutions all had events in conjunction with the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center.

In 2006, he followed Sen. David Pryor in the role of Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service.  Among his accomplishments in this role has been the expansion of the Clinton School Speaker Series. This free series of lectures and public discussions has added immensely to Little Rock’s cultural life. Topics range from foreign relations to domestic policy, from social services to community philanthropy, The lecture series has also focused on productions at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, guest artists with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, books by historians, and many other cultural topics over the years.

That he would oversee the expansion of this lecture program should not be a surprise.  He is also the founder (in 1983) of the Political Animals Club. While the original, non-partisan group still meets regularly in Little Rock, several other affiliates have been created in other portions of the state. He has always been one for civil, civic dialogue.

In April and May 2018, Skip was one of the civic leaders who stepped up to promote efforts to save the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. He was also involved in the planning and promotion of the Elizabeth Eckford Bench which was installed near Little Rock Central High School in September 2018.  Later that month, he presided over an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Women’s Emergency Committee.

Earlier this month, the Clinton School partnered with UA Little Rock Downtown for the a Clinton School program which discussed the 1930s mural which has been restored and now hangs in the new UA Little Rock space.  2019 will offer more opportunities for his civic and cultural boosterism, as well.