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In an onscreen foreword, the producers describe this film as "fiction woven out of truth." According to biographical sources, sixteen-year-old Doroteo Arango killed a man for molesting his younger sister and took refuge in the mountains, eventually changing his name to Francisco "Pancho" Villa. In 1910, while he was working as a bandit and part-time laborer, Villa was persuaded to participate in the Madero revolution against President Porfirio Diaz. After Madero became president, Villa, still a member of the irregular army, was condemned to death for insubordination by General Victoriano Huerta. Although the execution was stayed by Madero, Villa remained in prison until escaping to the United States in November 1912. After Madero was assassinated, Villa returned to Mexico and joined forces with Venustiano Carranza to defeat Huerta. Mutual distrust divided Villa and Carranza, who took over as president in 1914, and the civil war continued until late 1915. In early 1916, as a show of power, Villa executed sixteen U.S. citizens in Santa Isabel in northern Mexico and attacked Columbus, NM. Woodrow Wilson then ordered General John J. Pershing to lead an expedition into Mexico to capture Villa, but Pershing's efforts were unsuccessful. By 1920, after years of continued armed insurgency, Villa agreed to "retire" from politics and was given a ranch in Durango. Villa was assassinated on July 20, 1923 in Parral, Chihuahua. The Hollywood Reporter review notes that the character of General Pascal was "more than a little suggestive" of Huerta.
Contemporary news items and studio memoranda, some of them unidentified, note the following information about the production: A May 1933 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Wallace Smith was returning from Mexico after receiving approval from the government there to proceed with a script for Viva Villa written by Oliver H. P. Garrett. It is not known if any portion of Garrett's script was used in the final film. Jack Conway was announced as director at that time, and John W. Considine, Jr. as supervisor. Considine's participation in the production is doubtful. According to a September 6, 1933 memorandum from producer David Selznick to studio head Louis B. Mayer, Selznick paid writer Ben Hecht $10,000 to write a final script of Viva Villa. Selznick offered Hecht an additional $5,000 if he finished the script to the producer's satisfaction in two weeks. It has not been determined if Hecht met Selznick's deadline, but by the middle of September 1933, director Howard Hawks, a frequent collaborator with Hecht who is credited in modern sources as a contributor to the script, was already in Mexico City shooting preliminary scenes. Hawks and his crew were soon joined by Wallace Beery and other members of the cast. A October 27, 1933 Daily Variety news item announced that scenes were to be shot in "many towns in Mexico." After first rejecting the part, Lee Tracy agreed to play the role of Johnny Sykes in early November 1933 and went to Mexico for filming. According to Variety, the role was based on John W. Roberts, a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers, who followed Villa around Mexico and reported on his exploits. By the end of the month, Tracy was fired from the production because of an alleged insult he made to a cadet in the Mexican Cadet Corps while standing on a hotel balcony during a Revolution Day parade. Contemporary sources do not specify the exact nature of the insult, and modern sources give conflicting reports of the incident. In addition to his firing, Tracy had his five-year contract at M-G-M terminated. M-G-M then replaced Hawks with Jack Conway, who supposedly had been the studio's first choice as director. Studio press releases assert that the replacement was made at Hawks's own request. (Modern sources note that, according to M-G-M contract writer John Mahin, Hawks was fired because of Mayer's dissatisfaction with Hawks's shooting pace. Modern sources claim that Hawks and Mayer fought physically over the matter.)
Because of tensions between M-G-M and the Mexican government over the Tracy incident, the production left Mexico in late November 1933 and, except for second unit shooting, completed filming around Hollywood and at the studio. Some of Hawks's footage was destroyed when an airplane carrying the negatives from Mexico to El Paso, TX, crashed and caught fire. It is not known how much of Hawks's footage actually ended up in the finished film. Although Tracy claimed that reports of his behavior were greatly exaggerated, Mayer issued a formal apology to Mexican president Abelardo Rodrguez. The incident supposedly provoked attacks against American films in the Mexican press, which demanded that the second-unit company also be expelled from the country, and that all M-G-M films be banned from exhibition in Mexico. A November 20, 1933 Daily Variety news item reported that two Mexican newspapers were campaigning for the confiscation of all footage shot in that country and for the cancellation of the studio's permit to shoot there because they believed that M-G-M was guilty of bribery, "malnutrition of extras and degradation of Mexican characters." The Mexican press also complained about the casting of Beery, a comedian, in the title role and condemned the way in which Mexican history was being presented by American filmmakers. According to a February 22, 1934 Daily Variety news item, M-G-M executive Joseph M. Schenck went to Mexico City on a "secret" trip to confer with President Rodrguez about the revised script. When Schenck screened the film for Mexican government officials in late February 1934, only two scenes were found objectionable. The officials complained that the scene in which Villa makes his first entrance into Mexico City needed more soldiers and arranged for the sequence to be re-shot with the entire Mexican army. They also disapproved of a scene in which Beery drinks after a victory. According to the officials, Villa neither drank nor smoked. This scene was not eliminated from the final film, however. (According to a 1951 Time article, the then Mexican government censor objected to the scenes in which Villa disobeys General Pascal and raids Santa Rosalia to please the American reporter and banned the film's revival in Mexico.)
Second unit location shooting was completed in Mexico City and Juarez in mid-December 1933, and approximately seventy-two reels of battle footage were shipped to M-G-M at that time. William Wellman took over directing for one week after Conway came down with the flu in late December 1933. Hecht was called in to write new sequences in mid-February 1934. In late Feb, before re-shooting began, Selznick also assigned Howard Emmett Rogers and James K. McGuinness to do additional script work. The exact nature of their contribution is not known. Retakes were shot in either late February or March 1934. A March 9, 1934 Daily Variety news item announced that M-G-M was sending cinematographer Clyde De Vinna to Mexico to shoot added background shots. According to advertisements for the film, Carlos Navarro, who is credited in the film as technical advisor, was "Mexico's Official Censor for pictures regarding Mexican themes" and acted as a liaison between the studio and the Mexican government. In that advertisement, Herbert Stothart thanks George Schneider for his help on the production. The exact nature of his contribution is not known. The same advertisement credits Slavko Vorkapich with the montage of "Villa's call to arms" sequence. A December 1933 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the editor was to handle the "direction of transitional effects." In addition to Tracy, who was replaced by Stuart Erwin, all the principal actors in Hawks's cast except Joseph Schildkraut and Beery were replaced, including Mona Maris, Donald Reed and Irving Pichel. After Maris' departure, several actresses, including Myrna Loy, Carmel Myers, Lila Lee and Dorothy Burgess, were tested for the role of Teresa. Before signing Erwin, M-G-M considered Roscoe Karns as a replacement for Tracy. Donald Cook replaced Donald Reed in the role of Don Felipe, and Leo Carrillo replaced Irving Pichel in part of Sierra. In early December 1933, Richard Bennett was tested for the role of Madero but lost the part to Henry B. Walthall. Prior to production, M-G-M negotiated with Gregory Ratoff for a part in the film, but the actor was not hired. Pancho Augustin Villa, Jr., the son of Pancho Villa, was announced in late September 1933 to play his father as a youth in the film. That part was played by Phillip Cooper, however. Early Hollywood Reporter production charts include Pancho Lucas, Noah Beery, Jr. (Wallace Beery's nephew) and Raymond Borzage in the cast. It is not known if they were replaced, or if they appear in the final film. Later Hollywood Reporter production charts include Leo White in the cast, but his participation in the final film has not been determined. A September 1933 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Selznick was bringing actor Joseph Schildkraut back to the screen after a two-year absence.
Top tickets for the New York showing cost $2.20. Assistant director John Waters won an Academy Award for his work on the production. The film was nominated as Best Picture but lost to Columbia's It Happened One Night. Ben Hecht was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation, but lost to Robert Riskin, who adapted It Happened One Night. Douglas Shearer was nominated for Best Sound Recording, but lost to Paul Neal and One Night of Love. Viva Villa was selected as one of the ten best pictures of 1934 by the Film Daily Poll of Critics. On March 8, 1934, a scene from the film script was performed on the NBC radio network. Al Jolson portrayed Johnny Sykes in the radio broadcast, which was repeated on 5 April 1934.
Other films dealing with the life of Pancho Villa include a 1914 Mutual documentary, The Life of General Villa, directed by Christy Cabanne, and the 1916 Tropical Film documentary, Following the Flag in Mexico (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.1405 and F1.2468); two 1954 Mexican-made features, El secreto de Pancho Villa and La tesoro de Pancho Villa, both directed by Rafael Baledn; and Villa, a 1958 Fox production, directed by James B. Clark and starring Brian Keith and Cesar Romero.