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According to a January 1947 Los Angeles Examiner news item, Dore Schary, then head of RKO, bought the film rights to Budd Schulberg's novel prior to its publication. At that time, Schary hoped to cast Robert Mitchum and Joseph Cotten in the starring roles. By November 1948, Howard Hughes had acquired a controlling interest in RKO and was angling to trade the film rights to Schulberg's novel to Warner Bros. in exchange for the services of Errol Flynn, according to a November 1948 Los Angeles Times news item. At that time, Warners intended to cast Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson in the starring roles. RKO retained the rights to the novel when the deal fell through, and by August 1950, the Los Angeles Times reported that independent producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna were to produce the film for RKO. According to a March 1955 Los Angeles Examiner news item, Wald, who was now an executive producer at Columbia, bought the film rights from Hughes for production by Columbia. Although a Hollywood Reporter production chart places Fred Schweiller in the cast, his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Jersey Joe Wolcott, who played "George" in the picture, was the world heavyweight champion in 1951 and part of 1952. Reviewers commented on the similarity between "Toro" and former heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera. A May 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item notes the Italian-born Carnera filed a $1,500,000 lawsuit against Columbia for invasion of privacy. Carnera, who stood 6 feet 5 1/2 inches and had compiled an impressive array of knockout victories, which according to Hollywood Reporter, many observers believed were prearranged, charged that the character of "Toro" was based on him. On August 9 1956, a judge dismissed Carnera's suit on the grounds that a person who becomes a public figure waives his right to privacy. In a May 1991 interview in Daily Variety, Schulberg stated that the character of "Eddie Willis" was based on Harold Conrad, a journalist, press agent, screenwriter and boxing promoter. Philip Yordan, who produced the picture, stated that boxing arenas throughout the country refused him permission to film.
The Harder They Fall was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography. It also marked Bogart's last film. Bogart died of cancer on January 14, 1957. Many reviews compared The Harder They Fall to the 1954 film On the Waterfront (see below), another expos written by Schulberg.