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According to information contained in a 1940 program for this film, "over two-thirds of The Fight for Life was shot silent, in the Chicago Maternity Center, in a large maternity hospital, and in the tenement homes of expectant mothers, most of whom were relief clients." The program also notes that the dialogue sequences were shot in Hollywood, and that the "soliloquies" were inserted into the final cut of the film after the musical score had been completed. While an August 1940 New York Times article noted that the film was budgeted at $250,000, a Hollywood Reporter news item states that the film was made for $150,000. According to a NYH-T article, Warner Bros. originally offered author Paul de Kruif $50,000 for the rights to the best-selling book on which this film is based. De Kruif, however, rejected the Warner Bros. bid and instead offered it free to the U.S. Goverment with the stipulation that expert documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz supervise it. The article also claims that had a private studio produced the film, it would not have been passed by the Hays Office.
The Hays Office, according to correspondence contained in the file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, was approached by Columbia in May 1940 with a request to certify the film, but it refused to do so because it was a government film and, consequently, was exempt from the agency's review process. According to a June 1940 article in the Los Angeles paper, The News, the film was to be the last government sponsored film because it was announced that the program that funded such films would be dissolved. Modern sources indicate that the film was commissioned by the United States Department of Health, and that it was withdrawn from circulation in 1944 due to the government's refusal to continue funding documentary films. An edited version of the film was released in 1947 in 16mm gauge. A biography of Lorentz notes that author John Steinbeck assisted in preparatory research for the film, along with Elizabeth Meyer, who lived at the Chicago Maternity Center for some time in order to learn more about the inner workings of the institution. Lorentz's biography also relates the following information: Photographer Floyd Crosby was assisted by William Clothier, and actress Dorothy Adams played the mother who hemmorhages after childbirth. Some of the music was performed by Joe Sullivan and his band, which was comprised of Edmond Hall, Danny Polo, Andy Anderson, Benny Morton and Billy Taylor.
The first showing of the film took place on December 31, 1939 at the White House, where it was shown to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who reportedly said of the film "I think it will do a lot of good." Although the exact national release date for the film has not been found, modern sources indicate that on May 22, 1940 the U.S. Government announced that it had contracted Columbia to distribute the picture. Fight for Life was nominated for an Academy Award in the Music (Original Score) category.