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The working title of the film was Northwest Passage, and most reviews and modern sources refer to the film under that title. Part of Kenneth Roberts' novel was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, under the title Rogers' Rangers (26 December 1936-6 February 1937). The following information has been obtained from news items, production charts and the film's pressbook, unless otherwise noted: Northwest Passage was first considered for purchase in November 1936, when William Fadiman, M-G-M's New York story editor, read galley pages of its Saturday Evening Post serialization. M-G-M purchased the rights in September 1937 and planned the film as its first three-strip Technicolor feature. In March 1938, W. S. Van Dyke, who initially was to direct the picture, had a two-week hiatus from his work on Marie Antoinette (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2750), and went to British Columbia to scout locations. In late March 1938, a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that John Arnold, head of the M-G-M camera department, had assigned cameraman Leonard Smith to take a month's training at the Technicolor plant to prepare for filming. That same week, color tests were made of Spencer Tracy, who was, according to the pressbook, the studio's "immediate choice for Major Robert Rogers." In April 1938, Wallace Beery was announced for the role of "Sergeant McNatt" (portrayed by Donald McBride in the film), and later Robert Taylor was announced for the role of "Langdon Towne" (portrayed by Robert Young). At that time, a news item in Hollywood Reporter announced that the production was budgeted at $1,500,000. M-G-M attempted to borrow RKO star Anne Shirley for the film in late June 1938, probably for the role of "Elizabeth Browne" (portrayed by Ruth Hussey), but possibly for the role of "Ann" (portrayed by Laraine Day, but cut from the completed film).
In June 1938, delays in preparations led to the decision of M-G-M executives to postpone principal photography on Northwest Passage. At that time, the first few days of black-and-white footage shot on the musical Sweethearts (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2190) was scrapped, and that film became the first M-G-M Technicolor production. In Aug, Robert Z. Leonard was assigned to finish direction of the final number of Sweethearts so that Van Dyke, who had been directing the musical, could devote more time to preparations for Northwest Passage. Additional background locations were scouted by Van Dyke and others during 1938 throughout the Western United States. During July and Aug, M-G-M unit manager Frank Messenger headed a crew of sixty-eight persons who shot 60,000 feet of backgrounds for the picture in the vicinity of McCall, Idaho. In Aug, Van Dyke was supposed to go to Idaho himself, but the trip was canceled after the decision was made to postpone the project until Spring 1939. Inclement weather, which M-G-M felt could cause an increase of $500,000 to the budget of the picture was cited as the reason for the delay. Beery and Taylor were cast in the Western Stand Up and Fight in the interim (see below).
In late February 1939, Van Dyke was taken off the picture because of a scheduling conflict with It's a Wonderful World (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2190) were considered as replacements. Vidor was the final choice, although Conway directed some additional scenes for the picture in November 1939. In March 1939, exteriors were shot at Payette Lake, Idaho and, while additional pre-production location work was done at McCall and Payette throughout Apr, May and June 1939, principal photography did not commence until 6 Jul. At that time, a cast and crew of approximately two thousand people were based in McCall, which had its own telecommunications system and diesel power plant, and catering was provided by Brittingham's of Hollywood. Smaller groups would travel from McCall to Payette Lake, and Glacier National Park for various sequences. By the time principal photography began, McBride had replaced Beery, and Young had replaced Taylor. Modern sources indicate that by the time filming began, M-G-M had decided not to make the picture an "all-star" production to keep escalating costs down.
In addition to credited scenarists Laurence Stallings and Talbot Jennings, the following writers worked on the project at various stages: Conrad Richter, Robert E. Sherwood, Frances Marion, Jules Furthman, Noel Langley, Bruno Frank, Jack Singer, Sidney Howard, Richard Schayer, Jane Murfin, Elizabeth Hill and director King Vidor. According to modern sources, Conrad Richter was the first writer assigned to the project, followed by M-G-M contract writers Marion, Furthman, Langley, Frank and Singer. Sherwood was brought onto the production in February 1938, and Howard was asked to work on revisions of Sherwood's work in April 1938. Schayer was assigned additional revisions in November 1939. Stallings came onto the project in March 1939, and Jennings in Jun. According to modern sources, Vidor and his then wife Elizabeth Hill also contributed significantly to the final screenplay.
At the start of principal photography, cameramen Sidney Wagner and William V. Skall replaced Leonard Smith and Technicolor photographer Ray Rennahan. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Norman Foster was brought in to act as "associate director," a position which the item states was not an assistantship or unit director position, but which other sources call the second unit director. Over three hundred Indians from the Nez Perce reservation and, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, "the entire Blackfoot tribe" participated in filming at Glacier National Park. The McCall company started to disband in early Aug, and by 16 August most of the principals had returned to Southern California. Filming at the M-G-M studio began a few days later, although a second unit remained in McCall and an additional location trip to Glacier National Park was considered for Sep. According to modern sources, the "human chain" sequence of the film was started at Payette Lake, but had to be completed at the M-G-M backlot exterior "tank" due to the treacherous conditions at the Lake. The studio tank was made to match closely the appearance of Payette Lake so that shots of the real location could be edited into the studio footage. Water in the tank was artificially churned by huge motors to create a "current." The last production chart for the film appears on September 9, 1939, but news items in mid-November 1939 indicate that retakes, including a new ending for the story, were shot at that time by director Jack Conway. According to the pressbook, filming was completed on 29 December after seventy days of shooting. Modern sources have noted that between late September and early November 1939, producer Hunt Stromberg and M-G-M executives pondered the question of whether to film the entire Roberts novel as one book or to divide it into two parts, as originally planned. It was eventually decided to complete the film in late December and in late January 1940, M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer announced that the film would be released as a single film, with the possibility of a sequel later. No sequel was filmed, and the released picture ends at approximately the mid-point of Roberts' novel.
According to information in the Howard Strickling Collection at the AMPAS Library, the final cost of the picture was $2,677,672. Modern sources have speculated that several hundred thousand dollars of the final cost was the result of the ultimately useless location trips in 1938, various delays and large fees for the book and screenplay. Sidney Wagner and William V. Skall were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color), but lost to Georges Perinal for The Thief of Bagdad. The picture was one of the top twenty films at the box office in 1940, but, according to modern sources, lost money because of the high cost of production. M-G-M made a short film about the making of Northwest Passage, entitled Northward, Ho!. A television series, inspired by the Roberts novel, was broadcast on the NBC television network from September 1958 to July 1959. The series starred Keith Larsen as "Rogers," Buddy Ebsen as "'Hunk' Mariner" and Don Burnett as "Langdon Towne." Modern sources add the following additional credits: Tech consultant George Greene; 2nd unit photog Jack Smith; Addl photog Charles Boyle; Cam op and asst Fred Mayer, William T. Cline, A. J. "Duke" Callahan, Roger Mace, Kyme Meade, Paul Uhl, Joe Noecker, Nady McIntyre, Richard Mueller and James Stone.