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In the early 1930s, authors Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall co-wrote a trilogy of novels based on the facts surrounding the late 18th century mutiny on H.M.S. Bounty in the South Pacific. This film was adapted from the first two novels of the trilogy; the third book was entitled Pitcairn's Island. Although it is not implied in the film, the real Captain Bligh was later exonerated by the English authorities. According to a biography of Clark Gable, after purchasing the rights to the novels, director Frank Lloyd tried to sell the project to producer Irving Thalberg with the stipulation that he be allowed to direct and star in the film, and that the entire picture be shot on a Tahiti-bound replica of the Bounty. Thalberg agreed to let Lloyd direct, but rejected his other two demands.
Although copyright records list director Frank Lloyd as the producer of the film, most contemporary sources list Irving G. Thalberg as the sole producer. A biography of Thalberg notes the following about the writing of the screenplay: Carey Wilson and John Farrow were the first writers assigned to work on the screenplay. Thalberg was dissatisfied with the Wilson and Farrow screenplay and later assigned Talbot Jennings to the script. He then had Jennings collaborate with Robert Hopkins to come up with comedy bits to offset the film's seriousness. Still not satisfied with the script, Thalberg brought on writer Allen Rivkin, who came up with the running comedy bit of Herbert Mundin trying to dump a bucket of refuse into the wind. A November 1934 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Lew Lipton was given an unspecified writing assignment on the film. One week prior to the commencement of principal filming, a Hollywood Reporter news item noted that it was "probable" that Harold Rosson would be the first cameraman, but Rosson's participation in the final film has not been confirmed.
Contemporary sources indicate that M-G-M undertook extensive research efforts to insure the authenticity of every detail pertaining to the customs, wardrobe and maritime laws of the late 18th century, as well as the historical account of the mutiny itself. British genealogy charts were consulted for the purpose of contacting and interviewing living descendents of the original Bounty crew. Also consulted was a first edition print of a rare book published in 1790, entitled A Narrative of the Mutiny on His Majesty's ship "Bounty," authored by the captain of the ship, Captain William Bligh. British Admiralty records of the mutiny were also examined, as were construction specifications of the original ship. According to a New York Times article, Charles Laughton discovered that the Gieves Company, the very same London tailoring establishment that outfitted Captain Bligh a century and a half earlier, still possessed one of Bligh's original transaction records, which contained the price as well as the measurements and type of material of his uniforms. At Laughton's request, the tailor used the records to reproduce Bligh's uniforms for the picture. According to a Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item, Charles Laughton was so intrigued by Frank Lloyd's bushy eyebrows that he had the makeup department duplicate them for his Captain Bligh character.
According to a September 1934 Daily Variety news item, Myrna Loy was originally slated for the female lead. According to Hollywood Reporter pre-release news items, the film was also intended as a starring vehicle for Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery. Beery was replaced by Charles Laughton. The first Hollywood Reporter production chart for the film, which appeared in the April 8, 1935 issue, listed Robert Montgomery, William Stelling and Granville Bates in the cast, but they did not appear in the released film. Montgomery was replaced by Franchot Tone, but sources conflict as to whether he was taken off the picture due to an illness or whether a scheduling conflict with No More Ladies (see below) prevented him from taking the role. Although Hollywood Reporter pre-release news items and production charts list actors Beryl Mercer, Robert Corey, Harold Howard, Elsie Prescott, Byron Russell, Charles Trowbridge, Melville Cooper and Earle Hodgins in the cast, their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Also unconfirmed is the appearance of retired lieutenant commander of the British navy, Alfred Alexander, who, according to Hollywood Reporter, was engaged as a technical advisor and was set for a part in the film.
According to Clark Gable's biography, Gable was initially against taking a part in the picture and complained about having to shave off his "lucky mustache." He also complained that he would look ridiculous in knee pants and a sailor's pigtail, and that Laughton and Tone were given better parts than he. M-G-M producer Eddie Mannix persuaded Gable to take the part after assuring him that he would have the film's key romance with Movita. Another Gable biography claims that the actor accepted the role when M-G-M offered him a South American promotional tour at the end of production.
Principal filming on the picture was preceded by an expeditionary voyage to the South Seas, where background shots were filmed beginning in February 1935. According to a New York Times article, 50,000 feet of film and 30,000 feet of sound brought back from the expeditionary journey was unusable because the film was underexposed. A second trip was made to the South Seas to reshoot the backgrounds. The New York Times article also notes that two replicas of the original H.M.S. Bounty were constructed: the first, an exact and seaworthy copy of the British vessel, was sailed to Tahiti; and the second, a stationary set, was shipped on two barges to Santa Catalina Island, CA, where it was re-assembled in the town hall and used for interior shots. The town hall was used as a makeshift studio during production. Soon after returning from Tahiti, the replica of the Bounty was anchored in Point Rey, CA, where, according to a April 9, 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item, local citizens started a movement to acquire the ship as a historical monument. In October 1939, a Hollywood Reporter article noted that the Bounty and Pandora replicas were to be outfitted for use in the 1940 M-G-M film New Moon (see below). Additional filming took place on Pitcairn Island (the South Seas island populated by the descendants of Bounty mutineers), and on San Miguel Island near Santa Barbara, CA, where, according to a Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item, forty Santa Barbara State College athletes were used as extras. Twenty-five hundred South Sea natives were used to populate two wholly reconstructed 18th century island villages that were built by the studio in Papette, Tahiti. According to studio publicity material, more than 600 cast and crew members were housed for several months on Santa Catalina Island. Reproductions of six native villages were constructed in various coves on the island. England's Portsmouth Harbor was also reconstructed on the island at a reported cost of over $150,000. Oarsmen from UCLA and Compton Junior College were used as extras for the flogging scene.
According to Daily Variety, assistant cameraman Glenn Strong was killed and several technical workers were severely injured when a barge being used by the second unit capsized on July 25, 1935 in heavy seas off San Miguel Island. Camera equipment valued at $50,000 was also lost in the tragedy. According to Thalberg's biography, a second tragedy was narrowly averted when an eighteen-foot replica of the Bounty with two crewmen aboard was separated from its tow in heavy seas near Catalina and was lost for two days before being rescued by a search party. Thalberg reportedly refused to notify the Coast Guard of the missing boat because he feared that the "news would reach the public and destroy the illusion of the film." A November 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Robert Brooks, owner of San Miguel Island, sued M-G-M for $25,000, claiming that the production crew caused considerable damage to his sheep grazing land. According to a New York Times article, at a cost of between $1,800,000 and $2,000,000, Mutiny on the Bounty was the most expensive Hollywood production of 1935. A August 2, 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item claimed that the picture was the most expensive talking picture made to date by M-G-M. A contemporary study guide to the film notes that a total of 652,228 feet of film was shot for the picture, a figure far less than the grossly exaggerated 131,000,000 feet reported in Time magazine.
According to contemporary sources, Mutiny on the Bounty was banned in Japan on the grounds that it promoted revolt against law and order. Italian censors removed a number of references to the British and British nationalism, including the title "Portsmouth, England, 1787," a shot of the British flag, and the dialogue: "We're off for the Mediterranean lad....We'll sweep the seas for England."
A New York Times news item notes that as part of the film's exploitation, M-G-M released a short film entitled Pitcairn Island. The short May have been the same film as Pitcairn's Island Today, a one-reel film that was copyrighted by M-G-M in September 1935. In the 1935 Warner Bros. animated short film, Porky's Road Race, caricatures of Laughton and Gable in their Mutiny on the Bounty costumes are seen. Laughton's Captain Bligh was also parodied in the Walt Disney cartoon short Donald Duck Goes to Hollywood.
Mutiny on the Bounty received an Academy Award for Best Picture of 1935. It was also nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Actor (Clark Gable, Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton); Best Director; Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Score. Film Daily voted the picture one of the ten best films of the year. In addition, the Screen Actors Guild gave Charles Laughton an award for Best Performance of the Year, and Eddie Quillan received second honorable mention. The Writers Guild recognized Jennings, Furthman and Wilson for writing the best screenplay of the year.
Other films about the Bounty mutiny include a 1916 Australian film entitled Mutiny on the Bounty; a televised version entitled Bounty Court Martial, which aired on the CBS network in 1955; a 1962 M-G-M film entitled Mutiny on the Bounty, directed by Lewis Milestone and Carol Reed and starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films: 1961-70; F6.3360); and a 1984 film, entitled The Bounty, directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins and Lawrence Olivier. According to a 1940 New York Times news item, Frank Lloyd announced his intention to film a follow-up to Mutiny on the Bounty, called Captain Bligh, which he planned to produce on an independent basis at Universal following his work on The Howards of Virginia. Lloyd's sequel, which was never made, was to cover Bligh's career as governor of the Australian penal colony, with Laughton recreating his Captain Bligh role. According to 1945 and 1946 Hollywood Reporter news items, Charles Nordoff wrote a novel length sequel to the Fletcher Christian story, which was to be produced by Carey Wilson and have Clark Gable reprise his role as Christian. The sequel, which was never produced, was to take Christian back to England and to South America.