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On May 26, 1942, Cecil B. DeMille tuned into President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "fireside chat" radio program. FDR's subject that night was a man named Corydon Wassell, an Arkansas doctor and Naval officer who had recently performed a heroic wartime act on the Pacific island of Java.
Wassell worked as a medical missionary in China for about twelve years starting in 1913. Back in the States, he resumed a medical practice in Arkansas while also becoming a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserve. When WWII broke out, the Navy sent him to Java to treat wounded sailors. The Japanese invaded the island on Feb. 28, 1942, and Wassell was ordered to evacuate himself and all walking wounded; the twelve immobile men under Wassell's care were to be left behind to be captured by the Japanese. Wassell wouldn't leave them so he defied orders and tried to put them on a ship with the rest of the men, but they were denied boarding. Still determined to save them, Wassell stayed behind to lead them across the island to another port and another ship; all the while, the Japanese were steadily advancing. Eventually he got everyone aboard a ship to Australia - and in the end, Wassell was awarded the Navy Cross for his deed.
Captivated by Wassell's feat, DeMille immediately composed a telegram to Roosevelt's secretary, asking permission to adapt the story into "a magnificent inspirational motion picture." Not only was the answer "yes," but the Navy approved the transfer of Wassell from Australia to Hollywood to help out on the production. Wassell would spend a year in Hollywood, getting paid by Paramount all the while for his services. (Apparently, Wassell had no idea why he was being sent stateside until he met DeMille.)
Paramount hired Lost Horizon novelist James Hilton to turn the Wassell story into a novel which could be used as source material, thereby freeing the studio of worry over any lawsuits or challenges. Operating on a $2.7 million budget and a 95-day shooting schedule (with much location work done in Mexico), DeMille turned out a typically flamboyant and melodramatic tale. Describing his story, the director gushed, "It's a Goodbye, Mr. Chips  for the Navy. The reason the story is great and different [is that] while it is war, it isn't a question of killing; it's a story of life saving rather than life taking."
It was also still a Hollywood movie designed to sell tickets, with 42-year-old Gary Cooper portraying the 57-year-old Wassell, a fictitious romantic subplot injected into the story, and even a release date timed for propaganda value. The Story of Dr. Wassell happened to open in New York on D-Day, June 6, 1944 (it also opened early in L.A. and Little Rock), but by design it opened nationwide on Independence Day, July 4, 1944. A nice touch was that July 4 was even Wassell's own birthday.
The Paramount publicity department tried to stir up the box office in the same entertaining ways as with any other picture. One publicist, for instance, made up the following statement and had it attributed to co-star Laraine Day talking about kissing Gary Cooper: "It was like holding a hand grenade and not being able to get rid of it. I was left breathless. Gary kisses the way Charles Boyer looks like he kisses."
Laraine Day was appearing on loan from MGM. She found this especially satisfying because DeMille had once insulted her abilities. According to author Robert Birchard, Day recalled that her agent had tried to get her a tiny role in DeMille's The Buccaneer (1938) back when her career was just beginning. DeMille told Day's agent "that he wouldn't consider it, that I had no talent and shouldn't even be on the lot. Now it's 1942 and I'm under contract to MGM and DeMille can't find anybody in all of Hollywood to play a nurse. I'd been playing nothing but nurses in Dr. Kildare pictures, and so I got the part. Of course, he didn't remember the earlier incident."
Of her time on the set of Dr. Wassell, the actress said "DeMille was pleasant to work with because we never really worked with him. An assistant did all the rehearsing, then he'd come in, run through it once and shoot it. The only time he really directed was during the crowd scenes. Then he was in complete control - of course he had a number of assistants working with him."
The critics were mixed on The Story of Dr. Wassell. Bosley Crowther complained in The New York Times that the movie's comedic and romantic interludes "messed up a simple human story." Furthermore, he wrote, "DeMille has worked in enough pyrotechnics to leave the audience suffering from shell shock." As it turned out, those pyrotechnics helped earn the film an Oscar® nomination for Best Special Effects.
All the proceeds that Wassell received from the film were donated to a hospital for the deaf and blind in Arkansas. Melvin Francis, one of the survivors of the actual incident on Java, appears as himself.
Producer: Sidney Biddell, Cecil B. DeMille, Buddy G. DeSylva
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, James Hilton, Alan Le May, Commander Corydon M. Wassell
Cinematography: Victor Milner, William E. Snyder
Film Editing: Anne Bauchens
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Gary Cooper (Dr. Corydon Wassell), Laraine Day (Madeleine), Signe Hasso (Bettina), Dennis O'Keefe (Benjamin Hopkins), Carol Thurston (Tremartini), Carl Esmond (Lt. Dirk Van Daal).
by Jeremy Arnold
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Robert Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood