Behind The Camera on MUTINY ON THE COUNTY
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A year before principal photography started on Mutiny on the Bounty, director Frank Lloyd supervised the building of full-sized replicas of the Bounty and the ship that captured the mutineers, the Pandora. He then sailed them to Tahiti for location footage.
MGM hired 2,500 Tahitian natives to serve as extras. The canoes which the natives used to paddle out to greet the Bounty's crew were all shipped to Tahiti from Hollywood.
When Lloyd and his crew returned to Hollywood, they discovered that most of their location footage had been destroyed because of poor storage conditions. They had to sail back to Tahiti and re-shoot almost everything.
MGM was not about to send the principal cast and crew members so far away, but they were dispatched to Catalina Island for a lengthy location shooting. For a scene in which Mr. Christian spoke to some island women, technicians cut together Clark Gable on Catalina with extras in Tahiti.
The MGM art department built a Tahitian village on the shores of Catalina Island and planted specially imported coconut trees and tropical grass. They also drew on period art to create a detailed duplicate of England's Portsmouth, from which the Bounty set sail.
The studio found an actual 19th century sailing ship, the Balcutha, to serve as the Pacific Queen. The ship is now on display at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco.
For full-scale scenes of the Bounty at sea, MGM bought a refurbished two-mast schooner named Lily built in the late 19th century.
An 18-foot replica of the Bounty broke from its tow during shooting and was lost, along with the two men on board, for two days.
Rivaling the battles between Bligh and Christian were the fights on the set between Thalberg and director Frank Lloyd. Concerned that the director was making the ship the film's star and leaving the actors with little direction, both Laughton and Gable called Thalberg frequently to complain, leading to regular location visits during which the production executive upbraided Lloyd for upsetting the actors.
To save time during location shooting, lunch was delivered on a special launch sailed out to the ship, even though there was nowhere to sit on the ship.
Laughton often lightened the mood during location shooting. When rain kept the cast and crew waiting on Catalina, he did imitations of his co-stars and of Joan Crawford, who was also shooting on the island. On days when the food was not particularly good, he kept people laughing by making up outlandish names for the dishes.
Gable's chief objection to working with Laughton was the fact that his co-star rarely looked him in the eye during scenes. Actor Simon Callow, who has written the definitive biography of Laughton, suggests that this was the way Laughton saw many of his characters, "each man a self-contained universe of pain." (Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor). Many times, Gable would storm off the set complaining that Laughton was trying to cut him out of the picture. But the conflict only underlined the strained relationship between Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian.
In all, the cast and crew lived on Catalina Island for four months during location shooting on Mutiny on the Bounty.
The scenes of Bligh and his supporters surviving in the longboat after the mutiny were shot in the studio tank on the MGM lot. Only Bligh's denunciation of Christian as the boat is cast adrift was filmed on location. The studio shots were no less grueling for being shot indoors, as Laughton and his cast mates were drenched with water, rocked by cables and baked under the studio lights. After Lloyd had spent a week on the sequence, he realized that one of the characters on the longboat was not supposed to be there. He was supposed to have stayed with the mutineers. As a result, the entire sequence had to be shot again. When Laughton delivered Bligh's line, "We have conquered the sea!" the crew members were so moved they cheered, and Laughton broke down in tears.
Whenever Laughton wasn't happy with his work in a shot, he would do something to ruin the take, a habit that drove many of his directors mad. At the end of a lengthy shot of Bligh pacing the deck of the Bounty, filmed on the studio mock-up of the ship, Lloyd was about to yell "Cut! Print!" when Laughton stopped and said, "I wasn't in any of my marks!" In this case, the crew thought it was hilarious.
The final scenes shot were a storm at sea after the mutineers are apprehended and confined to the Pandora under Bligh's doleful eye. A duplicate ship was specially built at MGM so the scenes could be shot in the studio tank. The rocking was so rough Laughton had to be tied to the ship's wheel. When it came aground on a reef, the ship lurched so violently that some cast members actually suffered broken bones.
The barge shooting matching shots for the storm scene capsized, killing assistant cameraman Glenn Strong. Some news sources erroneously reported that Laughton and Gable had been killed in the accident, and reporters called Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, in London to ask her reaction to her husband's supposed death. A few hours later they called with the real story.
Laughton marked his last day of shooting not by delivering a speech in his own words, but by reciting the Gettysburg Address, re-creating one of the most touching moments from another of his hits, Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).
Between studio work and the two locations, the crew shot 652,228 feet of film. Only 12,000 ended up in the film.
Mutiny on the Bounty cost almost $2 million to make, the largest budget for any MGM film since Ben-Hur (1925).
by Frank Miller