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The film opens with the following prologue: "This is the story of Charles Strickland, the painter, whose career has created so much discussion. It is not our purpose to defend him." Although the print viewed was in black and white, original release prints began in black and white, graduated to sepia, and then changed to Technicolor for the final scenes showing "Dr. Coutras" discovering "Strickland's" paintings. Opening credits included the following: "Technical Advice and Dances by Devi Dja and her Bali-Java Dancers," and "Adapted and Directed by Albert Lewin."
News items and information in the MPAA/PCA Files at the AMPAS Library reveal that after its publication in 1919, various production companies considered producing a film based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, which was loosely based on the life of nineteenth-century artist Paul Gauguin, who was renowned for his colorful paintings of Tahitian life.
Among those interested at various times in producing the story were Warner Bros., which purchased the rights to the novel in 1919 and anticipated casting Edward G. Robinson in the lead; director Harry Lachman, who planned to produce the film in France with Andre Daven as producer, Marcel Achard as writer and Jean Gabin in the lead role; Universal Pictures; David O. Selznick while he was at M-G-M; and RKO-Radio Pictures. The PCA continually rejected the novel as material for a screenplay because of the "manner in which the subject of adultery is justified and condoned" and because of the main character's illicit "attitude toward his marriage and the conventions of society." In 1941, David L. Loew and Albert Lewin purchased the screen rights to the novel from M-G-M and proposed a treatment of the story which "will be told by a narrator, who will be the voice for morality and will condemn the hero's various derelictions. Mr. Lewin also plans to indicate that the wife divorces Strickland and that he marries the native girl in Tahiti. The adulterous relationship with Mrs. Stroeve in the middle of the story will be treated with the proper compensating moral values, including Mrs. Stroeve's death by suicide, as punishment. In the end, the hero will die of leprosy, as in the book." By January 1942, the screenplay was approved by the PCA, although certain alterations were made.
In February 1942, author W. Somerset Maugham sent Albert Lewin a letter lauding his interpretation of the novel: "I consider it a brilliant piece of work. Your treatment seems to me not only ingenious but highly original, and if it results in a successful picture, I believe you achieve something very like a revolution in the picture industry for having produced a highly adult piece of work and adhered very honestly to the theme of the story. I cannot imagine that a novel could be adapted in a better way."
Despite the filmmakers' and PCA's attempts to make the story morally acceptable, the PCA received a letter from the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency which exclaimed that "this picture antecedent to revisions left the over-all impression of the justification of the immoral acts of the main character....Also in this film there is another matter of grave concern which veritably clamors for explanation. The picture contains shots of the paintings of nude and semi-nude figures." The PCA responded by noting that the print viewed by the Legion of Decency included two alterations that were apparently made after the film was approved by the PCA. These changes included a foreword in which "occurs the expression 'we do not condemn him'"; and the deletion of a monologue in which Herbert Marshall's character makes a moral condemnation of "Strickland." The PCA nonetheless defended the film to the Legion, stating that "the sins are definitely and affirmatively shown to be wrong," and that the paintings were not offensive because "they are crude drawings of primitive men and women, painted by an artist who was blind, or half blind, and whose mind, quite clearly, was impaired."
A Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that Loew and Lewin initially considered Paul Muni for the lead, and had plans for Talbot Jennings to write the adaptation, but Jennings' illness prevented this. According to an article in Life, Paul Gauguin's son Emile threatened to sue United Artists if any of his father's works were used in the film. United Artists therefore enlisted Dolya Goutman to create the paintings seen in the film. The picture marked Albert Lewin's directorial debut. Some modern critics have pointed to the role of Strickland as George Sanders' best performance. Dimitri Tiomkin was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) for the film. In 1951 and 1959, NBC-TV presented televised versions of The Moon and Sixpence, based on Maugham's novel. The 1959 production featured Laurence Olivier in his television debut heading an all-star cast.