When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
DeMille chills:

I have a single, personal mathematical equation that applies to the entire History of Film: 
Cecil B. DeMille = Butt-Aches.

Moribund and overblown movies such as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH set me fidgeting after the first quarter-hour.  A movie-loving friend summed up the director’s tastes by pointing out DeMille’s movies are basically a series of tableaux-vivants:  placing a group of actors in an overdone setting and letting the cameras roll.

To be fair, DeMille has given us some unintentional laughs.  As Gore Vidal pointed out, in DeMille’s THE CRUSADES Loretta Young turned to husband Richard the Lion-Hearted and implored:  “Richard, ya gotta save Christianity!  You just GOTTA!!”  And after the premiere of DeMille’s pairing of Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr as SAMSON AND DELILAH, Groucho Marx muttered, “That’s the first picture I ever saw where the man’s tits were bigger than the lady’s.”

But, risible aspects aside, his movies can be torture to sit though.

Yet I surprise myself by saying that DeMille’s 1944 World War II drama THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL works as a good movie, due (I believe) to the strait-jacket Cecil B. DeMille was confined to because of wartime austerity and rationing.

At a desperate moment, Gary Cooper has a folksy hombre-to-hombre chat with Buddha.

By 1943, the Japanese occupation of Asia cut off the supply of raw materials previously imported from countries such as Malaya and the Philippines.  Natural resources within the U.S. were earmarked for the war effort, with the scant surplus rationed for civilian use.  The entertainment industry deeply felt the effect of these measures.

Balsa wood, used in set construction, was unavailable from the Japanese-controlled Philippines.  Sugar was rationed so breakaway glass made from sugar-water was used sparingly (scenes of barroom brawls with bottles crashed over cowpokes’ heads and cattle rustlers pushed through glass windows became brief occurrences).  An old audio engineer I knew during my younger days in Hollywood said that when working on Bing Crosby recordings in the 1940s, phonograph records were made from a shellac extracted from the shells of certain beetles found on the Malay peninsula; after Malaya fell to the Japanese, the recording industry searched for a shellac replacement and found a strange petroleum byproduct — vinyl — to use.

Even the chemicals used to make movie film were restricted since they were necessary in manufacturing explosives.

However, the austerity measure from Washington that most impacted the motion picture industry during World War II was a budgetary limit of $5,000 in set construction costs per movie.

Much of THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL was filmed on a few hospital ward sets, with a camera that moved from bed to bed weaving the injured sailors' stories into an intimate drama.

With less filmstock to play with, Hollywood’s directors during WWII spent more time rehearsing their actors and cameramen before the crews would roll film.  Serious thought was put into compositions, devising well-timed shots that moved actors and camera in a tightly controlled manner so as to convey information with an economy of space and celluloid. 

Not even major players like DeMille were excused from these austerity measures, which in the case of THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL demanded that he chuck the ballyhoo out the window and develop a touching, human drama. 

DeMille’s movie Hollywood-ized a true story:  when the Japanese invaded Java, US Navy surgeon Wassell evacuated his hospital of wounded sailors to a waiting rescue ship.  But the Navy vessel captain issued an ugly decree:  only the ‘walking wounded’ would be allowed on board; stretcher cases were to be left on the docks to die or be taken prisoner.  Wassell chose to stay behind with the twelve incapacitated sailors as the US military abandoned Java and the Japanese war machine approached. 

A Dutch nurse (Signe Hasso) hears the gunfire that kills her lover in mid-sentence as he broadcasts military information.

Although THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL was a War Movie, the film had no battles.  The enemy was not even seen, except in one eerie sequence where they were vague, camouflaged shapes approaching from the jungle.  The issue at hand in this film wasn’t victory but survival.  A primary contributor to the script was Hitchcock screenwriter Charles Bennett (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE 39 STEPS, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH), whose talents were well-used for a tale where eluding and escaping the enemy drove much of the story, like the situations of a wrongly-accused Hitchcock hero, yet played on a grim and almost defeatist landscape.

Within this framework, the writers crafted human interest stories about the wounded.  With the hospital ward as a main stage over the film’s first hour, an A-Plot, B-Plot and C-Plot evolved among sailors and nurses:  not the usual boy-meets-girl tropes, but life-during-wartime affairs.  By current standards, THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL could be described as a schmaltzy 1940s Hollywood product, but the motif of love surrounded by death and uncertainties keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.

Their jeep wrecked behind enemy lines, a doomed couple (Carol Thurston and Dennis O'Keefe) await their fate as the enemy surrounds them.

But if anyone were to be praised for understated artistry it should be the art directors, Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson.  By recycling sets and finding some choice Mexican locations to substitute for the Dutch East Indies, they created a film that maintained a universe of visual strength and rich detail.

One of my film school teachers had worked in the DeMille Unit at Paramount in the 1950s.  He said DeMille was interested in historical facts and other bits of knowledge, and loved to test others’ grasp of history.  This movie (as all movies do) reflects the creator’s mindset.  Unlike a director like Douglas Sirk, DeMille doesn’t use his narrative nor his filmic universe as a place to inquire and explore ideas.  THE STORY OF DR. WASSELL is as tight, logical and self-contained as a high school history textbook, taking the chaos of war and explaining it in a comprehensible narrative.  This is a movie for passive consumption and not active engagement.  Yet sometimes that is the best way to approach a movie; it’s been a formula for success for over a century.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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