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The working titles of this film were Pacific Mission; Rickenbacker, the Story of an American; Rickenbacker; Hat in the Ring and First, Last and Always. The film is based on the life of Edward Rickenbacker (1890-1973), a pioneer in both the automobile and aviation industries. As depicted in the film, Rickenbacker was born to Swiss immigrants in Columbus, OH, and became a noted race car driver after working with automobile manufacturer Ike Howard. During World War I, Rickenbacker shot down a record number of enemy aircraft and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, Rickenbacker married Adelaide Durant, and the couple had two sons. In the 1930s, he joined Eastern Airlines, of which he became president, and his 1941 crash, which left him in a coma for several days, is briefly touched on in the picture.
In 1942, Rickenbacker undertook a mission touring American airfields, at the behest of General "Hap" Arnold and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Rickenbacker toured various military air bases in Europe, then, accompanied by Col. Hans C. Anderson, set out for the South Pacific. On an Army transport plane manned by Capt. William T. Cherry, Lt. James C. Whittaker, Lt. John J. DeAngelis, Pvt. John F. Bartek, Sgt. James W. Reynolds and Staff Sgt. Alexander Kaczmarczyk, Rickenbacker took off on October 21, 1942. After losing their bearings and running out of gas, the plane's occupants were forced to crash land in the Pacific Ocean. During their twenty-one day ordeal aboard three rubber rafts, Kaczmarczyk died from salt-water poisoning and the seven remaining survivors subsisted on four oranges, fish, rainwater and a seagull. After letting the rafts drift apart, they were rescued on November 12, 1942, and within a few weeks, Rickenbacker continued his mission, which included touring Guadalcanal and other bases in the South Pacific. In 1943, Rickenbacker published a book about the experience, as did Whittaker.
Interest in Rickenbacker's story by film studios was immediate, according to contemporary sources. A February 7, 1943 New York Times item noted that independent producer David O. Selznick was one of those interested in filming Rickenbacker's tale. An unidentified, October 27, 1943 newspaper article, contained in the film's file at the AMPAS Library, asserted that "at least two major producers bid as high as $500,000" but were rejected by Rickenbacker, who "felt he must remain in a position to 'approve cast, director, players and script, as well as the final picture.'" The article speculated that fellow aviator Charles A. Lindbergh was one of producer Winfield Sheehan's financial backers in the project. Christy Walsh, who represented Rickenbacker during his negotiations with producers and was credited onscreen as associate producer, was a long-time friend of the aviator, according to contemporary sources.
A May 1943 New York Times article reported that Sheehan and Walsh employed writers Edwin Burke and Paul Green to work on the screenplay "based on the material gathered by six previously engaged biographers-Alva Johnston, John Larkin, Isabel Leighton, Bill Henry, Lee Loeb and John Kobler." The latter six writers "interviewed hundreds of persons in various parts of the country who had first-hand knowledge" of Rickenbacker's career, according to New York Times. The extent of the contributions of Burke, Green and the six previously engaged writers to the completed screenplay has not been determined, however. The Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, lists Howard Emmett Rogers as another writer, but his contribution to the finished film has also not been determined.
The studio records contain notes from a November 14, 1944 conference with Rickenbacker, Sheehan, Adamson and contributing writer Jerome Cady, which indicate that Rickenbacker and Adamson were closely involved in the preparation of the film's screenplay, and that Rickenbacker's wife and mother were also consulted. In addition to technical clarifications of the Pacific ordeal, Rickenbacker noted that his preference for the title was Journey On instead of Hat in the Ring or First, Last and Always; that the song "Moonlight and Roses," which was one of his and Adelaide's favorites, should be used; and that his "overall interest in the picture" was the "warm and wholesome portrayal of the life of one American."
According to an February 8, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, Twentieth Century-Fox wanted Rickenbacker's surviving comrades to appear in the picture, with the hope that some of them would portray themselves. The news item stated that Whittaker, who had been in California to lecture defense plant workers, was specifically asked to appear in the film, and that the Army Ferry Command, the military branch to which the men belonged, would have to grant permission. According to Hollywood Reporter news items and studio publicity, all the survivors were interviewed by the studio, even though none of them appeared in the completed picture. A March 29, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Whittaker had been given a leave of absence by the War Department in order to act as a technical advisor on the picture. A August 16, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Sheehan was going to keep the ending of the film "open" for the time being, in case the War Department would approve a representation of Rickenbacker's meetings with Joseph Stalin and tours of the Russian front, in connection with his continued missions for Secretary Stimson.
Rickenbacker's outspoken and frequently unpopular views on organized labor presented some worries to the producers, and the May 1943 New York Times article commented that Sheehan and Walsh decided to proceed with the project "despite all the agitation against making the biography, even from some labor groups within the studios and from exhibitors." The October 1943 unidentified article, mentioned above, noted that several Twentieth Century-Fox executives received a "storm of protest" over the studio's decision to produce the picture. According to a July 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item, Gary Cooper was under consideration for the leading role, and on October 11, 1943, Hollywood Reporter announced that negotiations between Cooper and Sheehan were still under way, and that Cooper's representative had informed the producer "that the actor, contrary to reports, had not received a single request from labor groups not to play the role." Later in Oct, however, Hollywood Reporter noted that at least six Hollywood labor organizations petitioned Cooper not to appear in the film.
In January 1944, Sheehan reaffirmed his decision to produce the film, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, and negated "contradicting rumors that [the film] was due for the shelf after an expenditure of close to a quarter of a million due to the heavy attacks from organized labor groups and the reported inability to get a star name to play the role." Fred MacMurray was signed to play Rickenbacker in March 1944. Although Hollywood Reporter production charts include Donald Meek in the cast, he does not appear in the completed picture. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, some sequences were shot on location at Santa Rosa, CA.
Producer Sheehan died before the release of the film. The picture received generally favorable reviews and an Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects. In a January 1946 article on biographical films, New York Times reported that Captain Eddie has "provoked some loud alarm" upon its release due to its "hero-worship" portrayal of Rickenbacker.