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Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's novel was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post (28 December 1935-1 February 1936). A December 5, 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that producer Samuel Goldwyn purchased the film rights to their novel for $60,000, and various news items in the spring of 1936 noted that he originally intended to produce the film in Technicolor, but was prevented from doing so because of the cost involved. The film's pressbook stated that Goldwyn had hoped to shoot the entire picture on location in the South Seas, but the expense and difficulty of transporting the equipment, combined with the possible adverse weather conditions, necessitated that the picture be shot in Hollywood. A great deal of background footage was shot in the village of Pago Pago, on the Tutuila Island in American Samoa, however, where the camera crew received the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. A November 22, 1937 Life article reported that the location crew shot "140,000 feet of scenic shots in Samoa, enough to make 14 movies." Among those who went to the South Seas for location scouting in the winter of 1936 and filming during the following spring were: director John Ford, associate director Stuart Heisler, unit location manager Percy Ikerd, art director Richard Day, photographers Archie Stout and Paul Eagler and an eighteen-member technical crew. Although a November 1, 1936 New York Times news item stated that Gregg Toland would be leaving in a week to film exteriors in Samoa, his participation in the completed film has not been confirmed.
Among the actresses listed by contemporary sources as being considered for the role of "Marama" were Merle Oberon and Movita Castenada, the latter of whom appeared in the picture as "Arai." According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Goldwyn first signed Margo for the part of Marama, then borrowed Dorothy Lamour from Paramount after Margo asked to be relieved of the role. "Moon of Manakoora" became Lamour's signature song, and the role of Marama helped establish her career identification with a sarong, which was begun with the 1936 film Jungle Princess. A Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Charita Alden was being tested for an uspecified role, and a Hollywood Reporter production chart includes Barbara O'Neil in the cast, but their participation in the completed film has not been confirmed. Basil Rathbone was originally considered for the part of "Eugene DeLaage," which, according to a September 25, 1938 New York Times article, he turned down. Photographer Bert Glennon and actor C. Aubrey Smith were borrowed from Selznick International for this production.
A November 19, 1936 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Goldwyn would star Mala as "Terangi" if Errol Flynn were unavailable for the part, while a November 21, 1936 Film Daily news item stated that Goldwyn contract players John Payne and Frank Shields were being tested for the role. In early February 1937, Goldwyn announced that Joel McCrea would be playing "Terangi," although by late Mar, he was removed from the cast and placed into another Goldwyn film, Dead End. After much publicity announcing that he was looking for and casting an "unknown" as "Terangi," Goldwyn finally revealed that he had placed Jon Hall in the role. Although Goldwyn's publicity, contemporary news items and reviews variously asserted that Hall was an "unknown," a "newcomer," or that he had "never appeared in a picture" before, Hall had made numerous films in the mid-1930s under the names Charles Locher and Lloyd Crane. Contemporary and modern sources variously state that Hall was the cousin, second cousin or nephew of author James Norman Hall, and that he was a next-door neighbor of Ford, all of which contributed to his being cast as "Terangi." Hall, who was born in Fresno, CA, was reared in Tahiti, although some sources incorrectly state that he was born in Tahiti as well.
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, William Wyler directed tests of the actors while Ford was finishing direction on Wee Willie Winkie at Fox, and location shooting was also done on Santa Catalina Island, CA. A March 24, 1937 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Goldwyn was going to produce a 1,000 foot short about the filming of The Hurricane in Samoa. The news item stated: "The short titled 'Samoa for the Samoans' will be released to theatres in advance of the feature's distribution and will show the manner in which a picture company works on location." No other information about the short has been found. Although Frank Loesser and Alfred Newman's song is entitled "Moon of Manakoora," contemporary sources refer to the island on which the film's action takes place as "Manukura."
The widely praised hurricane sequence was created by special effects expert James Basevi and his assistant, Robert Layton. Basevi and Layton, who had been with M-G-M for fourteen years, left the studio in September 1936 after creating the earthquake special effects for San Francisco (see below). According to Life, Goldwyn gave Basevi a budget of $400,000 to achieve his effects, and "of this amount, $150,000 was spent to build a native village, fronted by a lagoon 200 yards long. The other $250,000 was spent in destroying it." A pressbook for the film notes that the native village set occupied two-and-a-half acres of the United Artists studio backlot. With the aid of numerous twelve-cylinder Liberty motor wind machines, large wave machines, firehoses and an elaborate system of pipes, chutes and holding tanks, thousands of gallons of water were sent crashing down onto the sets to create the winds of the hurricane and the subsequent tidal waves. Contemporary sources note that doubles were not used for the actors during the storm sequences, and as an article in New York Times related: "Dorothy Lamour and Mary Astor were really lashed to that tree and buffeted about like chips." According to another New York Times article, the rigors of shooting resulted in Hall losing thirty pounds by the time the picture was completed. In her autobiography, Astor describes the shooting: "Huge propellers kept us fighting for every step, with sand and water whipping our faces, sometimes leaving little pinpricks of blood on our cheeks from the stinging sand."
According to a remark by Goldwyn printed in a New York Times article, the film cost $2,000,00 to produce. The article relates that Goldwyn spent another $35,000 on the picture's premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. The film was named one of ten best pictures of 1938 by the Film Daily annual critics poll, and a modern source notes that it was "one of United Artists' most successful releases in years." Thomas Mitchell was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Alfred Newman was nominated for Best Score. The Hurricane won an Academy Award for Best Sound Recording. Information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals that the picture was the object of much criticism by the French government. French officials in Washington, D.C. demanded cuts of the scenes in which prisoners were flogged and tortured by French guards. The eliminations were made, but the film still encountered difficulty in Paris, where censors refused to pass a dubbed version. According to a letter from Harold L. Smith, who apparently was a PCA foreign staff member, "there was a unanimous decision of the censors not to pass the film for two reasons: first, the original version was considered anti-French in accord with reports received from the French Embassy in Washington and second, the local office of United Artists presented to the censors a revised version of the film whereas the regulations require that the original version be presented." Correspondence in the file indicates that the French representative of United Artists was fearful that the original verison would not pass and so instead submitted a revised version. The correspondence does not specifically state which version was exhibited in Paris, but apparently the censors did agree to review both the original and dubbed versions.
According to modern sources, Goldwyn originally wanted Howard Hawks to direct the picture, for which Ben Hecht was hired to do an uncredited rewrite just before going into production. A 1974 New York Times news item noted that Paul Stader was Hall's stuntman for a jump off a cliff. The picture was remade in 1979 as Hurricane, which was produced by Dino De Laurentiis, directed by January Troell and starred Jason Robards, Mia Farrow and Dayton Ka'ne. According to a 1978 New York Times article, De Laurentiis "reportedly paid $500,000 for the rights to the original film." The remake, which was filmed on location in Bora Bora, cost eleven times more to produce than the original. The Variety review of the later film incorrectly states that Glen Robinson created the hurricane special effects for the 1937 picture.