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The Story of Dr. Wassell

The Story of Dr. Wassell(1944)


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The film's title card reads: "Gary Cooper in Cecil B. DeMille's The Story of Dr. Wassell." Opening credits also include the following acknowledgment: "Based upon the story by Commander Corydon M. Wassell, USN (MC), as related by him and fifteen of the wounded sailors involved...and also upon the story by James Hilton." In his autobiography, Cecil B. DeMille noted that he closed the film with a statement informing the audience that Benjamin Hopkins, on whom the character "Hoppy" was based, survived the war. This epilogue was not seen in the viewed print, however.
       According to DeMille's autobiography and other published contemporary accounts, Paramount was inspired to make this film after President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a April 28, 1942 radio broadcast, in which he detailed Wassell's heroic deed. A portion of Roosevelt's speech reads as follows: "[Wassell] was a missionary, well known for his good works in China....he entered the service of his country and was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. Dr. Wassell was assigned to duty in Java, caring for wounded officers and men of the cruisers Houston and Marblehead, which had been in heavy action in the Java Seas. When the Japanese advanced across the island, it was decided to evacuate as many as possible of the wounded to Australia. But about twelve of the men were so badly wounded that they could not be moved. Dr. Wassell remained with these men, knowing that he would be captured by the enemy. But he decided to make a desperate attempt to get the men out of Java....He first had to get the twelve men to the sea coast-fifty miles away....The men were suffering severely, but Dr. Wassell kept them alive by his skill, and inspired them by his own courage....On the seacoast, he embarked the men on a little Dutch ship. They were bombed and machine-gunned by waves of Japanese planes. A few days later Dr. Wassell and his little flock of wounded men reached Australia safely..." A New York Times article and DeMille's autobiography both noted that Paramount commissioned author James Hilton to write a book about Wassell, on which the film would later be based. The published book was also used as a treatment for the screenplay.
       Material in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals the following information about the production: In an unusual arrangement with Paramount, Cecil B. DeMille was not paid for his work as producer/director on this film. Although Dr. Corydon Wassell is not listed as a technical advisor onscreen, Paramount paid for him to live in Los Angeles between October 1942 and October 1943, and noted in a memo that the studio's "arrangement with the Navy and Dr. Wassell is that he will be available to us as long as we want to keep him in connection with the...production." According to Hollywood Reporter, Wassell was to appear in a mob scene in the picture. Albert Dekker was initially cast in the film, but withdrew because he felt the part was unsuitable for him. Various scenes were shot at the following locations: Metapa, Tapachula and other Mexican locations; Placerita Canyon and San Diego, CA; Pyote and Victoria, TX; and Florida. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, background shots were taken in Mexico City.
       Hollywood Reporter news items add the following about the production: The role of Wassell was initially offered to Joel McCrea. Lynne Overman was cast as "Commander Bill Goggins," but died before production began, and was replaced by Stanley Ridges. Actors Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Henry Wilcoxon and Bruce Lester were cast in the film at various points, but withdrew after being called into military service. Dennis O'Keefe replaced Preston and Ladd as "Hoppy," and Henry Wilcoxon was first cast as "Dr. Ralph Wayne." Others considered for the role of Hoppy were Richard Whorf, James Brown, Dana Andrews, Walter Reed, Barry Sullivan, Michael O'Shea and Alan Baxter. Veronica Lake, Elena Verdugo, Yvonne de Carlo and Simone Simon were tested for the role of "Tremartini," and Maureen O'Hara, Marjorie Reynolds, Ruth Hussey and Pamela Blake were considered for the role of "Madeline." Eighteen-year-old Melvin Francis, who was among the wounded men rescued by Wassell, appears as himself in the film. Cecil B. DeMille's son Richard was slated for a small part in the film; however, he was inducted into the Army and therefore does not appear in the film. Laraine Day and Signe Hasso were borrowed from M-G-M. A news item noted that DeMille was considering using a plot device featuring "gremlins." The War Production Board approved a $206,908 budget for sets for the film, well above the $5,000 limit previously established for all films made during wartime. Paramount built a replica of the Dutch ship Janssens based on blueprints and photographs of the original ship. Five percent of the film's gross earnings were donated to the Navy Relief Society as part of Paramount's agreement with the Navy. In addition, the proceeds of the premieres were donated to the Naval Aid Auxiliary. Gary Cooper and Carol Thurston reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on 23 October 1944.
       Although some critics hailed The Story of Dr. Wassell as a great film, others were critical of DeMille's presentation of Wassell's story. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review of the picture echoed the sentiments of many when he noted that the film was "a hopped-up melodrama about a young and romantically disposed doc who shepherds a group of wounded out of Java under the most fantastic circumstances imaginable. True, such a thing did happen. But not this way, we'll bet a hat!...The vastly aware of the realities, the mammoth ordeals of this war....So it is not in the least surprising that folks should start in resentful shock when DeMille (or anyone) shows them hoopla warfare in a Technicolor blaze." Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings and George Dutton were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects for their work on the film. The film was voted one of The Film Daily Ten Best Pictures of 1944.