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This was the first film produced by Bing Crosby Productions, Inc., an independent film production company owned by the noted performer. According to a May 1944 Hollywood Citizen-News news item, producer Frank R. Mastroly was once a New York City sportswriter who had written numerous columns about boxing champion John L. Sullivan. After purchasing the film rights to the boxer's life story, Mastroly convinced producer-writer James Edward Grant, a one-time Chicago sportswriter, to write the screenplay. Grant, in turn, showed the script to Crosby, his neighbor, who liked it so much that he formed his own company to produce it. According to Hollywood Reporter, Phoenix financier Del Webb, a close friend of Crosby, was also involved in backing this production. A May 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that actor William Bendix was being considered for a role in the film. According to the Variety review, Greg McClure was an unknown stage actor who was also working as a longshoreman and a day laborer when he was cast by Crosby in the lead, and that he was drafted into the U.S. Army upon the completion of The Great John L. According to Hollywood Citizen-News, actor-singer Lee Sullivan, a distant cousin of John L. Sullivan, who made his screen debut in this film, was cast after Crosby was told of his singing talent by fellow crooner Paul Whiteman.
Hollywood Reporter news items include Alec Harford (Bartender), Leslie Denison (King Edward VII), Ben Carter, Marek Windheim Dick Curtis, Odette Myrtil, Eugene Borden, Brian O'Hara, Dewey Robinson, Edwin Maxwell, Wyndham Standing, Barry Norton, Frank Patrick Henry, Kenneth Gibson, William Nind, Leslie Sketchley, Jack Beery, Stuart Hall, Adrienne D'Ambricourt, Sherry Hall, Chester Conklin, Eddie Kain, Ray Cooper and Guy Bellis in the cast, but their appearances in the released film have not been confirmed. Fourteen "former ring stars"-Ace Hudkins, Frank Moran, Freddie Steel, Bob Perry, Charlie Sullivan, Frankie Dolan, Phil Bloom, Larry Williams, Jack Perry, Bing Conley, John Condi, Bert Keyes, Sammy Shack and "Gentleman" George Delmont-also were cast, according to Hollywood Reporter. Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items also include Ed Gargan in the cast, but his participation in the released film is doubtful. According to a July 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, Art Foster was cast as English heavyweight champion Charlie Mitchell, but his scenes were cut from the released film. As depicted in the film, John L. Sullivan defeated Paddy Ryan in 1882 to win the undisputed bareknuckle championship of the world. Sullivan is credited by many sports historians for greatly improving boxing by touring the United States, fighting all challengers in regulated matches fought with gloves under the Queensberry rules. In 1892, Sullivan fought James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett for the world's heavyweight championship and lost in the 21st round by knockout. Though defeated, Sullivan retired having never lost a bareknuckled fight. Actor Ward Bond portrayed Sullivan in the 1942 Warner Bros. film Gentleman Jim (see entry above).