Several years after the film was made, alcoholism had taken its toll on lead actor James Murray who was reduced to panhandling in the street. Ironically, one of the passers-by he solicited for money turned out to be King Vidor who offered him a part in the film's semi-sequel, Our Daily Bread (1934). Murray declined the offer, thinking it was only made out of pity. He died in 1936 at the age of 35 in a drowning incident. Vidor was sufficiently compelled to write his life story up as an unrealized screenplay which he called "The Actor".
Despite the widespread critical and mild box office success, MGM head Louis B. Mayer despised the picture partly because of the depressing theme but mainly because he thought it was obscene due to the bathroom scene that featured a toilet.
Having achieved great financial success with some of his earlier productions, King Vidor had the clout to get this experimental film made at MGM. He was able to convince Irving Thalberg that it was a risk worth taking (Thalberg believed that every now and then a studio should make a movie for prestige not profits). His boss MGM chief Louis B. Mayer however felt somewhat differently; he hated the film because of its bleak subject matter and downbeat ending. In fact, in the very first Academy Award submissions, Mayer spoke out vehemently against his film, urging his fellow board members not to vote for it. They didn't, giving the first (and only) Academy Award for Best Film - Unique and Artistic Production to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927).
One of 31 films that Joseph Farnham wrote the title cards for in the 1927-28 period. Farnham was awarded an Oscar for Best Title Writing in 1928, the only time in the Academy's history that this award was given out. (He died two years later, giving him the unique distinction of becoming the first Academy Award winner to die.)
King Vidor filmed many scenes in New York City streets using real crowds instead of extras, real buses and trains, and even real traffic cops. In one scene, a police officer is looking toward the camera, admonishing someone to "move along". In fact, he was actually addressing Vidor and his disguised film crew. Vidor cleverly incorporated it into the scene.
While MGM liked the script they thought there was very little chance it would turn a profit. Despite the risk, studio production head Irving Thalberg let King Vidor film this as a pet project because Vidor had made many successful pictures for the studio - and even more importantly had made the studio a lot of money. As it turned out, the film grossed more than twice what it cost to make.
Louis B. Mayer hated the film. He insisted that a new ending be shot, set in a mansion showing John and Mary by a glittering Christmas tree. John has become a success at writing ad slogans. Mary's new dialogue title was to read: "Honest, Johnny, way down deep in my heart, I never lost faith in you for a minute."
King Vidor deliberately chose not to cast any big name stars in his film, a tale of the Everyman. James Murray was a studio extra whom Vidor had bumped into on the studio lot, while Eleanor Boardman was a minor actress (and the director's second wife).