None of the filming actually took place at sea. A four-fifths sized replica of the fishing schooner was built in the "tank". The actors merely walked on to it every day while filming. Distance and tracking shots of the schooner were a real ship that was filmed at sea and spliced into the movie where necessary.
This was one of the final films Lionel Barrymore made before his degenerative arthritis crippled him. The following year, he was hobbling around on crutches in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It with You (1938); after that, he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Spencer Tracy was impressed early on by Freddie Bartholomew's dedication to the role, jumping over the side of the boat in order to get what he considered sufficiently wet after having been shot with a hose and doused with a bucket of water. "The kid can take it," Tracy said. "I hand it to him."
When production finally wrapped in late February 1937, Spencer Tracy was relieved. "Well, I got away with it," he said later. "Want to know why? Because of Freddie, because of that kid's performance, because he sold it 98 per cent. The kid had to believe in Manuel, or Manuel wasn't worth a quarter. The way he would look at me, believe every word I said, made me believe in it myself. I've never said this before, and I'll never say it again. Freddie Bartholomew's acting is so fine and so simple and so true that it's way over people's heads. It'll only be by thinking back two or three years from now that they'll realize how great it was."
Spencer Tracy found the main challenge in playing Manuel was to put him across as a genuinely happy man, without making him seem like an idiot. MGM general manager Edward Mannix warned Tracy not to attempt an accent, because he would sound ridiculous.
Spencer Tracy initially turned down the role of Manuel because he thought it was too secondary to the boy. He did not attempt a Portuguese accent but instead based his accent for the film on a Yiddish voice he had used during an early theater performance. He initially hated his performance in the movie until it won him good reviews and an Oscar nomination.
A fishing schooner was bought by MGM in Gloucester, Massachusetts and sailed to Newfoundland for background shots. Then it went through the Panama Canal to California where Long Beach Harbor stood in for Gloucester.
According to a news item in Motion Picture Daily on November 18, 1938, Federal Judge Harry Hollzer awarded a $30,000 judgement against MGM to Mrs. Helen Gonmesen, the widow of Kristen Gonmesen, a seaman who was swept overboard in the Pacific Ocean during shooting. The suit was based on the contention that the ship used was unsafe and unseaworthy.
Spencer Tracy was initially reluctant to take on the part of Manuel, mainly because he had to sing in several scenes and get his hair curled. His new curly locks provided a lot of amusement to his friends and fellow actors. Joan Crawford, for instance, referred to him as "Harpo" (after Harpo Marx, the curly-haired Marx Brother).
For a difficult shot in which Freddie Bartholomew was to fall out of one of the dories racing back to the We're Here, Victor Fleming spent an hour rehearsing so that Bartholomew would hopefully not have to do more than a single take in the icy waters. One of the real-life seamen helping the crew, Captain J.M. Hersey, said at the time, "[Crew member and Olympic swimmer] Stubby Kruger, out of camera range, was all ready to dive in if Tracy had difficulty hauling Freddie back into the dory, but Freddie was sure everything was going to be all right. The kid has nerve, all right. A second dory was ready to race over if there was any hitch, and Mr. Fleming himself had a leg over the rail and wouldn't have hesitated to drop in. Tracy's dory came up alongside. As he reached for the forward dory hook, Freddie put one foot on the gunwale, started to pass up the trawl tub, and took a backward header. Tracy, quick as a flash, reached over, grabbed him by the collar as he came up, got a grip with his other hand on the lad's trousers, and pulled him in as if he was landing a codfish. It was all over in a few seconds. We hauled up the dory, rushed Freddie below, stripped him, dried him, rubbed him down, and put him between blankets in a bunk where Mr. Barrymore, Charley Grapewin, Tracy and others came down and kidded him about his Olympic high-dive."
In the novel (which first appeared as a serialization in "McClure's" magazine beginning November 1896) Harvey Cheyne is 15 and his father and mother travel by train from San Diego when they are notified Harvey has arrived in Gloucester. In the film his father says (at around 05 mins) "I wish his mother had lived to see him now, ten years old and yet he's one of the editors of his school paper."
Months before principal photography began, Victor Fleming sent a second unit MGM crew to Massachusetts to shoot footage in and around the quaint fishing town of Gloucester. While there, MGM purchased an authentic schooner called the Oretha F. Spinney and promptly transformed it into the We're Here of the film's story.
The We're Here sailed around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in order to pick up authentic shots at sea. According to Victor Fleming, they set out to capture "shots of the fishing fleet in every conceivable sort of rough winter weather." The crew then brought the boat towards northern California, collecting atmospheric footage of fog along the way, according to author James Curtis. Another schooner was soon purchased that was transformed into the We're Here's rival boat, the Jennie Cushman, which was ultimately docked alongside the We're Here in Catalina Island's Avalon Harbor.
Spencer Tracy regularly grumbled over the two hour process of having his hair curled every day and admittedly faked his way through a "Portuguese" accent, making most of it up as he went along. Fortunately, the screenwriters had tried to tailor Manuel's dialogue to Tracy as much as possible while still remaining true to the original spirit of Kipling's story.
For Victor Fleming, the biggest challenge with the shoot was having to deal with the frequent frustrations of uncooperative weather. "We had purposely set out in October in order to take advantage of the fog," said Fleming. "But for days after we began to work, either the sun would break through or the wind would cause a break in the mist." On one occasion Fleming became so fed up with the ever-changing weather while trying to get a shot in the water that he finally threw up his arms in defeat. "Fleming said, 'Goddamnit, we're going home!'," recalled Spencer Tracy. "And then we went back to Catalina to get the stuff we had left in the hotel, and Fleming was in such a hurry to get away that he was using a speedboat [while] the rest of us were going to use a big tug. He walked out on the pier to jump into his speedboat, and the speedboat took off and he went into the water--with his white [pants], all dressed up."
Towards the end of shooting, Victor Fleming had to enter the hospital for a minor surgery, something that was originally only supposed to take a few days. However, his recovery was unexpectedly slow and ended up causing a few weeks delay in the film's production. MGM appointed another director, Jack Conway, to temporarily take over the film until Fleming could return to work on February 1.
The exterior of the building used for the Cheyne mansion at the beginning of the film is located on Washington, Blvd. in Culver City. The structure, which initially housed the offices of the Thomas H. Ince Corp., became the headquarters of Selznick-International, and also served as its corporate logo.
A Hollywood Reporter news item on the Los Angeles premiere noted that, for the first time in Hollywood history, pickets dressed in evening clothes manned a picket line. Although not specifically stated in that news item, the protest was linked to strikes within the industry that began in early May. According to various front page news items in Hollywood Reporter from 1 May to 14 May, a general, industry-wide strike was averted on 12 or 13 May, but some studios had not yet signed pertinent agreements. M-G-M apparently was one studio that had not yet signed.
John Lee Mahin did not accept his Oscar nomination certificate until 1939 because, at the time of his nomination, he had been on the board of the Writer's Guild and there was a dispute between the Guild and the Academy about possible discrimination in the writer's branch award committee.
Mentioned in J.D. Salinger's novel "The Catcher in the Rye" though not by name. It is said that Holden Caulfield (the main protagonist) looks are based off of Freddie Bartholomew, but without the curly hair. Holden has a buzz cut.
The Canadian Fishing and racing schooner Bluenose was used for full view shots of the ship during the filming process. The Bluenose was a Canadian national icon, hailing from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. She symbolized the pride of the Canadian fishing fleet, and was the winner of the International Fisherman's Trophy for 17 years.
The Fishermen's Memorial at the end of the film is a replica of the one in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The actual memorial can be seen at the beginning of The Perfect Storm (2000), another movie about Gloucester fishermen.
Manuel's death scene was the most challenging scene to film in the entire production. In order to tightly control all of the elements, filming took place in a studio tank with medical personnel standing close by in case anything went wrong. When the time came for the storm to begin, Hollywood special effects wizards performed their magic. "Huge paddles churn up a frothy sea," reported columnist Robbin Coons at the time, "clouds of spray fly with a roar from a towering wooden reservoir, and a huge funnel batters Tracy's head with wind. The waves rise higher, higher, engulfing him, knocking him about as he yells his dialogue. Rescuers are John Carradine--just up from the flu--Dave Thursby, and Jack Sterling, all of whom get nearly as drenched as Tracy. And they do the scene three times. Before the last take Tracy, submerged in his art if ever an actor was, catches me leering on the sidelines and jeers, 'You like to try it? If you've got to laugh, you might stay out of my line of vision!' But another wave breaks over him before I can explain it wasn't laughter but an expression I always wear when wondering whether Metro is trying to drown Tracy."