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The film opens with the following written prologue: "Perhaps the best way to begin this story is to tell you how it came to us. One day last August into the Paramount Studios in Hollywood walked a man...." The working titles of this film were Ensenada, The Golden Door and Memo to a Movie Producer. According to information in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library, Paramount purchased a story by Ketti Frings titled "Memo to a Movie Producer" for $5,000. Her novel, Hold Back the Dawn, based on this story, was published before this film was released.
When this production was first announced in the trade papers, Harry J. Anslinger, the United States Commissioner of Narcotics in the Treasury Department took an interest in the matter. Letters in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveal that Anslinger advised the MPPA that Ketti Frings's husband, Kurt Frings, on whose experiences her novel was based, was a "notorious international character" whose residency in the United States was then under consideration by the Congress. Anslinger stated that "in all probability, Kurt Frings related a story in which imagination played a greater part than fact..." and suggested that a film based on the novel would cause friction between the United States and Mexico. PCA Director Joseph I. Breen consulted with Paramount and noted in his response letter that "the studio...is rather startled by the quite patent inference set forth" in Anslinger's letter and would contact him for further discussion. The final outcome of this exchange was not included in any documentation in these files. However, modern sources report that Kurt Frings, a German championship boxer whom Ketti Frings met in Mexico while he was emigrating to the United States, threatened a lawsuit against Paramount after reading the screenplay based on his wife's story because the character of "Iscovescu" had become disreputable, and he feared that this might reflect on him and his wife. Producer Arthur Hornblow, however, accused Frings with theft of the script and threatened to have him deported and the lawsuit was not pursued.
Paramount proceeded to consult with the MPPA on the script for Hold Back the Dawn. The MPPA's overall estimation by January 1941 was that "the present version contains certain elements which seem to be unacceptable by reason of sex suggestiveness.... [I]t will not be acceptable to characterize your sympathetic lead as an immoral man, or to definitely indicate a sex affair between him and Tamara [the character who became "Anita" in the film]." In another letter, Breen told Paramount that "there must, of course, be no suggestion of a connecting door between their [Anita and George's] hotel rooms, as this would inevitably give the unacceptable flavor." Paramount got around this by carefully playing the scenes in the hotel room in a manner that Breen found acceptable.
According to contemporary and modern sources, the Mexican government was dissatisfied with the representation of their country and people in the screenplay and, through the State Department, requested various improvements. For example, as a result of their suggestions, Paramount recast the part of "Lupita," a comedy role, which was originally to be played by Jill Dennett, with Eva Puig, the widow of a former Mexican Secretary of State, so that an American was not parodying a Mexican.
Modern sources indicate that further trouble occurred when actor Charles Boyer refused to perform a scene in which his character, dejected by being trapped in Mexico with no prospects of immigration, holds a one-way conversation with a cockroach in his hotel room. The scene was thrown out and because of further troubles with the screenplay, Brackett and Wilder diminished Boyer's role and strengthened de Havilland's, and chose to alter their screen credits from "Screenplay by" to "Written by" because they felt the screenplay was incomplete. Modern sources state that because of this incident, Wilder resolved to direct the films he wrote.
A news item and Paramount publicity information reveals that director Mitchell Leisen joined the Screen Actors Guild so that he could play the part of the director of I Wanted Wings in the sequence which was reshot specifically for inclusion in the Paramount lot sequence of Hold Back the Dawn. Leisen, who did direct I Wanted Wings (see below), donated his bit player wages to charity. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Leisen had initially intended to reshoot a scene with William Holden and Veronica Lake, both stars of I Wanted Wings; however, the scene was instead filmed with Lake, Brian Donlevy and Richard Webb.
Information in the Paramount Collection indicates that the Latin American release of the film included credits on the screen for assistant director Francisco Alonso and technical advisors Ernesto Romero (a former Mexican diplomatic attach) and Padre Canseco. Olivia de Havilland was loaned by Warner Bros. for this film. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item and information in the Paramount Collection, French actress Germaine Aussey tested for the role that Paulette Goddard ultimately played. This film marks the American film debuts of French actors Victor Francen, Micheline Cheirel and Madeleine LeBeau.
The following information is from Paramount Production Information at the AMPAS Library: The beach scene was filmed on location at Hueneme Beach in Oxnard, and the chase scene was filmed on a highway outside of San Clemente, CA. The band playing "La Marseillaise" was comprised of Hollywood American Legion musicians.
This picture was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Picture; Actress (Olivia de Havilland); Best Writing (Screenplay), Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; Cinematography (Black and White), Leo Tover; Music (Scoring of a Dramatic Picture), Victor Young; and Art Direction/Interior Decoration (Black and White), Hans Dreier and Robert Usher; Sam Comer. De Havilland's sister, actress Joan Fontaine, won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Suspicion (see below). Charles Boyer and Paulette Goddard reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on November 10, 1941.