William Wyler originally wanted to film on location on the streets of New York, but producer Samuel Goldwyn insisted that it be made in the studio. Art director Richard Day was assigned to design the sets, and made one of the most convincing and elaborate sets in film history.
In order to get past the censors, all references to Francey's "profession" were veiled (although it was mentioned in the original play on which the film was based), even the fact that she was suffering from the late stages of syphilis, which was never mentioned by name.
William Wyler gave Claire Trevor an old purse and broken high heel shoes. He had her minimize her make-up and ordered her not to comb her hair when she got up in the morning. He wanted her to look like the downtrodden character she was playing.
An early gangster role for Humphrey Bogart that built on the success of his performance in The Petrified Forest (1936) the year before, Bogart's name appeared below that of Sylvia Sidney's in the opening credits. This was reversed for any subsequent re-releases.
This was the first appearance of the Dead End Kids who later evolved into the East Side Kids and later the Bowery Boys. Producer Samuel Goldwyn brought the boys - who had appeared in the original Broadway production of the play - to Hollywood to appear in the movie. He later regretted the decision, as the boys ran wild through the studio, destroying property and crashing a truck through the wall of a sound stage. Afterwards, Goldwyn decided not to use the boys again and sold their contract to Warner Brothers.
Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to Sidney Kingsley's play for $165,000 - an exorbitant amount of money at the time. The play had been a huge success on Broadway (which is why it commanded such a big fee) and Goldwyn purchased it with the intention of filming it largely uncut, knowing that he would have many run-ins with the Hays Office over the content.
Item 13 is incorrect. The tenements where the UN was built ended at 47th Street and First Avenue. The 53rd Street tenements still exist on First Avenue. The location on 53rd Street across from the River House was a coal/lumber yard and was replaced by 60 Sutton Place South in the mid to late 1950's.
When producer Samuel Goldwyn visited the huge set constructed for the film (a very detailed depiction of a New York City slum) he shouted, "Why do directors always want these slums to be so dirty? Clean it up!" He was eventually persuaded by director William Wyler that very few people lived in clean slums and that it would hurt the picture's credibility if a slum were depicted as a nice place to live.
Director William Wyler was dissatisfied with the look Wendy Barrie gave of disgust in a scene where she was supposed to react to trash cans in dirty alley. After several unsatisfactory retakes, Wyler ordered the property man to obtain real cockroaches, which elicited the appropriate response from the actress.
William Wyler directed the property man to litter the set with real garbage to create the appropriate slum atmosphere. This disturbed the fastidious Samuel Goldwyn, who would pick the garbage up after shooting would stop for the day.
The film contains a scene with a young uncredited Sidney Kibrick, who is best remembered for his portrayal of the "Woim", the sidekick of the neighborhood bully "Butch", played by Tommy Bond in the Little Rascal series of shorts.
Robert Osborne, film historian, stated that Joel McCrea had a tough time working with Humphrey Bogart, especially during the scene "...on the rooftop, guns ready, and standing very close to each other. During the filming of that scene, McCrea kept flinching and the director William Wyler had to keep doing more takes. Finally, Wyler pulled McCrea aside, and he asked him what was wrong. McCrea, embarrassed to tell him, explained that Bogart kept spitting in his face when he was speaking. Not exactly what Wyler was expecting to hear or to be the problem. Happens with actors more than you can imagine."
Samuel Goldwyn paid $165,000 for the rights to Sidney Kingsley's play, which ran eighty-five weeks on Broadway. The review of the play in Hollywood Reporter noted that the play had the potential to make a great film.
Joseph I. Breen, director of studio relations, raised some objections to elements of the first script submitted to the office. Breen requested that the line "All cats look alike in the dark" be deleted, as well as two sentences that were to trail off, "son of a-" and "go to-." Additional suggestions offered to Samuel Goldwyn included: the word "bum" should not be used in British prints for the film as that word was British slang for the posterior; no "bronx cheer" should be used; the character "Spit" should not be shown actually expectorating; there should be no scenes of characters stepping on cockroaches; and, "old cans and spilled garbage" might cause offense. Some aspects of the original play were altered before the screenplay was submitted to the Hays Office. In the play, for example, the character Francey has syphillis, however, in the film she says that she is "sick" but her hacking cough indicates tuberculosis. Dave Connell was a crippled artist named Gimpty in the play.