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According to Fox publicity material, this picture was based on the press coverage about John Barrymore's fights with his wife, Dolores Costello, his infamous drinking bouts, and his appearance in the play My Dear Children which, based on reviews, was saved by his outrageous onstage ad-libbing. According to notes contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, Lou Breslow and Owen Francis prepared the rough outline for this film in February 1940. The story files also indicate that the character played by Willie Fung was originally set for Otto Harno. A memo written by screenplay writer Milton Sperling, dated April 22, 1940, criticizes the original screenplay, which was written by Hilary Lynn. In the memo, Sperling complains that Lynn's characters are too exaggerated, and expresses his desire to rewrite the script. On March 5, 1940, producer Darryl F. Zanuck suggested the character of "Boris Mefoosky," and thought that Gregory Ratoff should play the part. Zanuck originally named the character "Len."
Studio publicity records note that Barrymore did not memorize any of his lines for the film, but instead read them from a blackboard. George French is listed as his blackboard toter. Because Barrymore never missed a cue or muffled a speech, the use of blackboards was credited with bringing the picture five days under schedule and saving the studio an estimated $25,000. The acrobats who appeared in the picture belonged to the Pina Troupe, the Four Olympic Aces and the Three Velardes. According to the publicity material, at the time of production, John Barrymore was $62,000 in debt and said that he made this picture for his creditors, and that he wanted to make his next one for himself. The publicity records also note that actress Mary Beth Hughes was required to wear so much makeup and change it so many times, that she contracted makeup poisoning; that the film was originally intended as a quieter Adolph Menjou vehicle, but the script was revamped for Barrymore, and Menjou was paid to leave the film; and that twenty-seven paintings were produced by artist Leo Quijano for the sole purpose of being destroyed during the filming of two scenes-one in which Barrymore attacks a painting with a palette knife, and another in which his wife "Sylvia" breaks one over his head.