Actor James Cagney was sailing his boat off of Catalina Island, California, and passed the area where the film's crew was shooting aboard the Bounty replica. Cagney called to director Frank Lloyd, an old friend, and said that he was on vacation and could use a couple of bucks, and asked if Lloyd had any work for him. Lloyd put him into a sailor's uniform, and Cagney spent the rest of the day as an extra playing a sailor aboard the Bounty. Cagney is clearly visible near the beginning of the movie.
Clark Gable was initially disappointed when Franchot Tone was cast as Byam. The two actors had been bitter rivals for the affections of Joan Crawford, and did not like each other at all. However, during filming Gable surprisingly became close friends with Tone when they discovered a mutual interest in alcohol and women, both of which were abundantly available in Avalon, the island of Catalina's famous pleasure town.
Charles Laughton, playing William Bligh, who performed one of the world's greatest feats of navigation after having been cast adrift at sea by the Bounty mutineers, was in reality terrified of the ocean and was violently seasick throughout most of the filming.
In order to break the ice before shooting, Clark Gable, apparently unaware of co-star Charles Laughton's homosexuality, took him to a brothel. Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester always said that Laughton was nevertheless "flattered" by this gesture.
An additional tragedy nearly occurred during filming when an 18-foot replica of the Bounty with two crewmen aboard separated from its tow and was adrift for two days before being found by a search party.
Years later, in a conversation with playwright George S. Kaufman, Charles Laughton remarked that he had given such a good performance in this film because he came from a long line of seafarers. Referring to Laughton's performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Kaufman dryly commented, "I assume, then, that you also came from a long line of hunchbacks?"
The film was based on a trilogy written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall: "Mutiny on the Bounty", "Men Against the Sea" and "Pitcairn's Island", although events in the last book weren't filmed. Director Frank Lloyd wanted to film a sequel called "Captain Bligh" with Charles Laughton about Bligh's career as governor of an Australian penal colony, but that film was never made.
The Bounty and Pandora were actual life-size ships that were built from two old wooden schooners. The builders added outer ribs and frames to the hulls to get the correct width and, after replanking them, added concrete inside as ballast. Then they were given three masts and rigged in authentic 18th-century style. A 27-foot-long model was burned at the end of the film. It was an exact replica of the life-size Bounty, but one-fifth of its actual size.
Irving Thalberg cast Clark Gable and Charles Laughton together in the hope that they would hate each other, making their on-screen sparring more lifelike. He knew that Gable, a notorious homophobe, would not care for Laughton's overt homosexuality and would feel inferior to the RADA-trained Shakespearean actor. Relations between the two stars broke down completely after Laughton brought his muscular boyfriend to the island as his personal masseur. They were an obviously devoted couple and would go everywhere together, while Gable would turn away in disgust. In addition, Laughton felt that he should have won the Best Actor Oscar for The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). In any event, he was not even nominated and the award went to Gable for It Happened One Night (1934).
The "Pacific Queen" shown in this film is actually a 19th-century ship, originally called the "Balclutha" (although later renamed the "Star of Alaska"). This ship, renamed to its original "Balclutha", can now be found at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
Louis B. Mayer reportedly disliked the script. "Where's the romance?" was his reported complaint. Clark Gable initially objected to playing Christian but was talked into it by executive E.J. Mannix who told him he'd be " . . . the only guy in the picture who gets anything to do with a dame."
The last coordinates listed by Bligh in his adrift log put his position as approximately 500 miles east of Salvador, Brazil, in the Atlantic Ocean. It's not clear if they are saying Bligh sailed all the way around the Cape of Good Hope and most of the way up the east coast of South America.
The sterns of the larger ships in the harbor at the beginning of the film are first-rate ships of the line that are similar to the HMS Victory. The producers tried to make these scenes as accurate as possible and it shows.
Two years after the mutiny, the frigate Pandora arrived in Tahiti and all 14 crew members on the island were rounded up. They were imprisoned on deck in a makeshift cell, derisively called "Pandora's Box".
When Frank 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.
Whenever Charles 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.
Some news sources erroneously reported that Charles Laughton and Clark Gable had been killed in the accident that killed crew member Glenn Strong. 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.
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 gruelling for being shot indoors, as Charles Laughton and his cast mates were drenched with water, rocked by cables and baked under the studio lights. After Frank 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.
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 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 that Charles 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.
Charles 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 Franchot Tone's wife 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.
Clark Gable's chief objection to working with Charles Laughton was the fact that his co-star rarely looked him in the eye during scenes. Simon Callow, who has written the definitive biography of Laughton ("Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor"), suggests that this was the way Laughton saw many of his characters, "each man a self-contained universe of pain." Many times Gable would storm off the set complaining that Laughton was trying to cut him out of the picture. However, the conflict only underlined the strained relationship between Capt. Bligh and Mr. Christian.
Rivaling the battles between Bligh and Christian were the fights on the set between Irving Thalberg and Frank Lloyd. Concerned that the director was making the ship the film's star and leaving the actors with little direction, both Charles Laughton and Clark Gable called Thalberg frequently to complain, leading to regular location visits during which the production executive upbraided Lloyd for upsetting the actors.
Charles 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).
Frank Lloyd purchased the rights to "Mutiny on the Bounty" himself for $12,500 and in turn resold them to MGM with the proviso that he direct. Fox, Lloyd's home studio, agreed to lend him out for the assignment.
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.