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The working title of this film was Lady Hamilton, which was also the title of the British release. Many reviews referred to the film as That Hamilton Woman!, and, according to a November 13, 1940 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was at one time going to be released under the title The Enchantress. The real Emma Hamilton (born Amy Lyon, c. 1765) fell into bankruptcy after the death of Horatio, Lord Nelson, and in 1813 was arrested for debt. The next year she fled to Calais, where she died in 1815. In her youth, she was a favorite model of English portrait painter George Romney, who painted her in a number of historical guises. Hollywood Reporter production charts include C. Aubrey Smith and George Renavent in the cast, but they were not in the final film.
According to information contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Hays Office was concerned that the film's script was too tolerant of the main characters' adultery. In a October 30, 1940 letter to producer-director Alexander Korda, Joseph I. Breen proposed that the screenwriters "punch up" a speech in which Nelson's father urges him to end the affair, adding that the film would benefit from "this very positive condemnation and prediction of disaster, which will follow as a result of their sin." Breen even provided some sample dialogue, in which Reverend Nelson invoked the laws of God and predicted that the lovers would end up in the gutter. The exchange between Nelson and his father, as depicted in the released film, is relatively mild. However, modern biographies of Korda report that the scene was rewritten to satisfy the Hays Office and ended with Nelson admitting that the affair was wrong, but protesting that he was simply too weak to leave Emma. According to these biographies, Korda was unhappy with this compromise, and had the scene cut out of the film after its release.
That Hamilton Woman had its premiere at the Four Star Theatre in Los Angeles on March 19, 1941. The event was a benefit performance for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. The film's New York opening, as part of Radio City Music Hall's Easter stage spectacles, set an eight-year attendance record when more than 11,000 people came to the first two performances, according to press releases contained in the United Artists production file at the AMPAS Library. The film won an Academy Award for Best Sound Recording, and was nominated for Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Special Effects. In addition, King George VI rewarded Alexander Korda's efforts with a knighthood, the first time this honor was bestowed on a film producer.
Although the film greatly impressed the British monarchy, it created controversy in the United States, where strong isolationist sentiments were widely held. Many reviews commented on the film's attempt to draw parallels between the Napoleonic Wars and the current situation in Europe, citing an impassioned speech in which Nelson warns that Napoleon is bent on world conquest and proclaims: "You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them." This speech brought Korda under suspicion by a Senate sub-committee investigating the film industry for allegedly producing pro-war propaganda. In November 1941, Korda received a subpoena to appear before the committee on 12 Dec, but the 7 December attack on Pearl Harbor rendered the investigation moot. According to modern sources, the film was expressly intended as pro-British propaganda, with the love story between Nelson and Emma serving as camouflage for the political agenda. Modern biographies assert that Korda left England for the United States at the request of Winston Churchill, with a twofold mission: to make films that would arouse pro-British sentiments, and to use his New York offices as a cover for British intelligence operations. Korda later told his nephew and biographer, Michael Korda, "Only four people knew what I was doing-Brendan Bracken, Max Beaverbrook, Churchill and myself."
Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier were married shortly before production on the film began. That Hamilton Woman was their third and final film together. An earlier film inspied by the love affair between Nelson and Emma Hamilton was the 1929 First National picture The Divine Lady, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Corrine Griffith and Victor Varconi (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30).