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Richard Wright's novel was produced as a play by Orson Welles and John Houseman. The play, which was directed by Welles, written by Wright and Paul Green, starred Canada Lee, opened on Broadway on March 24, 1941. According to a Los Angeles Daily News article about the film, when producer James Prades, a Uruguayan, and French director Pierre Chenal, who had left Paris for South America during the Nazi occupation, initially spoke to Wright about making the film, he worried about the changes that would come in transferring it to the screen. Prades and Chenal assured him they wanted to remain faithful to the novel and suggested he write the screenplay. Later, they also asked him to play the lead role in the film. Wright, in a New York Times article, stated that he believed a Hollywood company would water down the story and that a company from a country that relies on American aid would not risk offending the U.S. Argentina, however, seemed not to care about that consideration. Although the New York Times article reported that Wright received no compensation for the rights, a Hollywood Reporter news item stated that he was to get $6,000 and one-sixth of the film's profits.
The film was originally to be made in English, Spanish and French-language versions, according to a January 1951 Ebony article. It is not known if the French and Spanish versions were ever produced. News items stated that the film was aimed at the U.S. market and was the first English-language film made in an Argentinean studio and the first made in Argentina with a U.S. setting. Argentina Sono Film, the producer, hoped the film would focus attention on Argentinean productions. Background shooting began in Chicago. Wright noted on his return to the city that conditions seemed to be worse for South Side blacks than when he published the novel in 1940. In Chicago, the filmmakers found Gloria Madison, a graduate student in archaeology, through a theatrical agency, and offered her the part of "Bessie Mears." Willa Pearl Curtiss, who played "Hannah Thomas," came from Hollywood, as did Jean Wallace. Other roles were filled by English-speaking people living in Argentina. Gene Michael, on a visit from California, did a screen test for the role of a policeman and so impressed the filmmakers that they offered him the role of "Jan Erlone."
The film was rejected at first by the New York State censors and was approved only after extensive editing took place. According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, scenes deleted or changed by the censors include Mary caressing Bigger's hair as he puts her to bed, and Bigger bending over her; lines that identify January as a labor leader; indications that Bigger was accused of raping Mary; and the words "white" and "nigger" in a number of instances. In addition, the censors noted that the following scenes, to which they had objected in the script, did not appear in the print submitted: the killing of the rat at the beginning; lines from Mary and Jan's initial conversation with Bigger expressing their understanding and solidarity with the plight of blacks; and lines about lynching in the South. In Ohio, the film was rejected as harmful because it "contributes to racial misunderstanding, presenting situations undesirable to the mutual interests of both races. [It is] against public interest in undermining confidence that justice can be carried out. [It] presents racial frictions at a time when all groups should be united against everything that is subversive." In Pennsylvania, the film was passed with some deletions and with the warning that "if this film causes real distress at any place or for any people in the state, we reserve the privilege to revoke the license."
Reviews for the film were mixed, with several reviewers comparing the film unfavorably with the novel. New York Times commented, "The script is so clumsily constructed and it is so amateurishly played by Mr. Wright and a cast of virtual unknowns...that it loses all of the strange terror and authenticity of the original." Los Angeles Daily News, in calling the film a "great disappointment," related a theme of the book that they felt was missing from the film: "[the novel] eloquently indicted society as the neglectful criminal-not Bigger Thomas....Society has set up the rules and the conditions and thus had made the murder the logical end to a sequence of events. The movie almost entirely disregards this thought-provoking premise and instead sinks to the level of a low-grade, uninteresting chase." Other reviewers, however, praised the film for the way it gave audiences the opportunity to judge the situations portrayed. Saturday Review (of Literature) lauded the film's "unwillingness to compromise with standard entertainment patterns" and stated that Wright "leaves it to the audience to search out the social implications of Bigger's tragedy." Los Angeles Examiner noted, "the sociological message, which is more a plea for better understanding between Negroes and whites than it is an indictment against any racial group, gets over with subtle implication rather than attempting to pound a message home."