The scene in which Susan's dress is ripped was inspired by something that happened to Cary Grant. He was at the Roxy Theater one night and his pants zipper was down when it caught on the back of a woman's dress. Grant impulsively followed her. When he told this story to Howard Hawks, Hawks loved it and put it into the film.
Katharine Hepburn had one very close call with the leopard. She was wearing a skirt that was lined with little metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. When Hepburn turned around abruptly, the leopard made a lunge for her back. Only the intervention of the trainer's whip saved Hepburn. The leopard was not allowed to roam around freely after that, and Hepburn was more careful around it from then on.
Katharine Hepburn had never done any comedy before and had to be trained in gags and timing by Howard Hawks and several veteran vaudevillians he employed solely to train Hepburn. Cary Grant came to the film with his sense of comic timing already impeccably in place.
David's response to Aunt Elizabeth asking him why he is wearing a woman's dressing gown ("Because I just went gay all of a sudden!") is considered by many film historians to be the first use of the word "gay" in its roughly modern sense (as opposed to its archaic meaning of "happy, carefree") in an American studio film. Among homosexuals, the word first came into its current use during the 1920s or possibly even earlier, though it was not widely known by heterosexuals as a slang term for homosexuals until the late 1960s. The line was not in the original shooting script for the film; it was an ad lib from Cary Grant himself. The censors were likely unfamiliar with the term and assumed it to mean "gaga" or "senile" in the context.
This movie fared so badly at the box office that Howard Hawks was fired from his next production at RKO and Katharine Hepburn bought out her contract to avoid being cast in the film Mother Carey's Chickens (1938). Coincidentally, Hepburn was labeled "box office poison" on the same day her contract was dissolved.
Katharine Hepburn was generally fearless around the young leopard 'Nissa (II)' who played "Baby" and even enjoyed petting it. Cary Grant was less fond of the big cat and a double was used in the scenes where his character and the leopard had to make contact.
Cary Grant was not fond of the leopard that was used in the film. Once, to torture him, Katharine Hepburn put a stuffed leopard through a vent in the top of his dressing room. "He was out of there like lightning," wrote Hepburn in her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life.
Before the movie was released Cary Grant had been worried that he might never become a major star after all, since he was already nearly 34 at the time of filming and younger actors like Errol Flynn and James Stewart were established stars.
This film employed a great deal of split screen and optical tricks, such as rear screen projection, so that having the big cat in close proximity to the actors (especially Cary Grant who was more worried about acting with the cat than Katharine Hepburn) could be kept to a minimum. (Hepburn is sometimes shown petting and handling Baby. The leopard's trainer praised Hepburn, stating that Kate was fearless and could become an animal trainer if she so desired.) Most of the split screens had a lot of movement in them, which meant the dividing line had to be moved around as well. Even the scenes of Susan dragging the mean Leopard on a leash are split screened. You can see that the rope does not line up. A puppet Leopard was also used in some shots. It's most clearly seen in the shot after Susan gets the Leopard dragged into the jail. The reaction shot immediately afterwards, shows David and Mrs. Random with "Baby" the Leopard on the table. The Leopard is a puppet.
Howard Hawks said that he failed at making a good comedy here because of the characters were too "madcap", with no straight men/women to ground it. This comment may have resulted from his disappointment at the film's commercial failure at the time of its release, although many now consider it Hawks' best film.
Katharine Hepburn was having a difficult time finding her comedic timing - Hawks said that she was "trying too hard to be funny" and kept laughing out loud. Luckily, Walter Catlett, who played Constable Slocum, was a veteran comic. Hawks wanted him to give Hepburn some tips, but he refused unless Hepburn asked him. So Hawks got Hepburn to ask Catlett for advice. Hepburn was so grateful that she asked Hawks to make Catlett's part larger so that he could be around if she needed more help.
It has been suggested that co-screenwriter Dudley Nichols based the madcap romance on Katharine Hepburn's affair with director John Ford at the time. However, other sources state that Hepburn and Ford were never romantically involved, explaining that although they had been on Ford's yacht together, his wife had been there with them.
The impressive optical effects are discussed in detail in Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story (1987). There is a very informative interview with Linwood G. Dunn who worked (uncredited) on the visual effects for this film. He explains the traveling split screens and points out some visual effects goofs that "got by". Included is surviving footage of the stand-ins for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn's in a camera test of the two driving with the leopard in the back.
After a bad start, Howard Hawks grew to respect Katharine Hepburn tremendously for her comic timing, ad-libbing skills and physical control. He would tell the press, "She has an amazing body - like a boxer. It's hard for her to make a wrong turn. She's always in perfect balance. She has that beautiful coordination that allows you to stop and make a turn and never fall off balance. This gives her an amazing sense of timing. I've never seen a girl that had that odd rhythm and control."
Katharine Hepburn loved to talk, which caused problems for Howard Hawks when he needed to shoot scenes. When she ignored the assistant director's repeated cries of "Quiet," Hawks just motioned the rest of the crew to stop what they were doing until she realized she was the only one talking. She asked, "What's the matter?" and Hawks said, "You're acting a good part of a parrot, and if you're going to keep on doing it, we'll just sit here and watch you." At that, she took Hawks aside and told him not to talk to her like that because she had a lot of friends working on the film. Hawks called to an electrician on a scaffold overhead and said, "If you had a choice of dropping a lamp on Miss Hepburn or me, who would you drop it on?" The man told Hawks to get out of the way, and Hepburn just said, "I guess I'm wrong" and never misbehaved again.
Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant frequently socialized off the set, double-dating with their respective steadies at the time, Howard Hughes and Phyllis Brooks. They loved working on the film so much that they frequently arrived early. Since Howard Hawks was usually late, they spent their time working out new bits of comic business.
The final shooting script of the film comes in at 202 pages, which would equal a running time of 3 hours 22 minutes. Whether this amount of footage accounted for the rough assembly cut of the film isn't known.
Throughout filming, RKO executives complained that the film was destined for commercial failure. They asked Howard Hawks to insert more romance and less slapstick and told him to take away Cary Grant's glasses, but he ignored them.
RKO was still committed to pay Katharine Hepburn for two more films at $75,000 apiece. To get rid of her they assigned her to make a B-movie, Mother Carey's Chickens (1938). Rather than make that film, Hepburn bought out her contract for $220,000.
The theatrical trailer is made up mostly of unused alternate takes of the scenes in the film. For instance, in the take used in the trailer, Cary Grant doesn't jerk downward when Katharine Hepburn rips his coat like he does in the take used in the movie.
Susan has a "wardrobe malfunction" at a fancy gathering, which strips her lower body down to the panties. Such a state of undress was rarely seen in films approved by the Hays Office Code. This was the Hollywood self-regulation board which decreed what could or could not be shown in all "mainstream" USA movies from the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s.
Howard Hawks had some difficulty getting Katharine Hepburn to stop overacting during the early stages of production. "The great trouble is people trying to be funny," Hawks observed. "If they don't try to be funny, then they are funny. I couldn't do any good with her, so I went over to an actor who was a comic for the Ziegfeld Follies and everything, Walter Catlett, and said, "Walter, have you been watching Miss Hepburn?" He said, 'Yeah.' "Do you know what she's doing?" 'Yeah.' And I said, "Will you tell her?" He said, 'No.' "Well," I said, "supposing she asks you to tell her?" 'Well then, I'l have to tell her.' So I went over to Kate, and I said, 'We're not getting along too well on this thing. I'm not getting through to you, but there's a man here who I think could. Do you want to talk to him?' She came back from talking with him and said, 'Howard, hire that guy and keep him around here for several weeks, because I need him.' And from that time on, she knew how to play comedy better, which is just to read lines." Hepburn also asked Hawks to give Catlett a role in the film so she could call on him for further help. Hawks cast him as the town constable.
Near the end of filming, Katharine Hepburn's name appeared in a trade ad placed by the Independent Theatre Owners Association at the top of a list of performers they considered "box-office poison." Also on the list were Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. The publicity about Hepburn's lack of popularity did little to help the film at the box office.
Despite strong previews and trade reviews, the film performed erratically. It did well in most West Coast and East Coast cities, faltered in the Midwest and, amazingly, flopped big time in New York City, where it was pulled from the Radio City Music Hall after just one week. Howard Hawks would later say the problem was that he had failed to put any normal characters into the film so there was nobody for the audience to identify with.
Howard Hawks helped Cary Grant with his part by telling him to recall images of one of his favourite comics, Harold Lloyd, and to contemplate a man imitating a whinnying horse when extreme nervousness was needed in a scene.
Premiere Magazine rated this movie one of "The 50 Greatest Comedies of All Time" in 2006. In the same year it also rated Cary Grant's performance of Dr. David Huxley number 68 on the list of "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time."
The main character "David Huxley" is presumably a fictitious member of a famous British family which produced many great biologists and social scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Aldous Huxley.
Despite Hepburn's knack for working with Nissa, the studio wasn't taking any chances. Some scenes involving the leopard, like the drive to Connecticut, were done as process shots, with Nissa matted into the shot after the actors had done their work. For the scene in which Hepburn drags Baby into the jail house, you can even see the break between the rope Hepburn is holding and the rope attached to the cat.
Concerned about Katharine Hepburn's bad press, RKO decided to shelve the project before spending any additional money on editing, scoring and advertising. Howard Hughes, who later bought RKO, purchased the film from RKO and had it booked in the Loew Circuit.
Cary Grant had a non-exclusive, four-picture deal with RKO for $50,000 per film, and his manager used his casting in the film to renegotiate his contract, earning him $75,000 plus the bonuses Katharine Hepburn was receiving. Grant was initially concerned about being able to play an intellectual character and took two weeks to accept the role, despite the new contract.
The film's original budget was $767,000, but Howard Hawks spent so much time indulging his penchant for improvisation that it finally came in at $1,073,000 and 40 days behind schedule. RKO management was so angry they pulled him off his next project, Gunga Din (1939). Ironically, his replacement on that film, George Stevens, was just as painstaking as Hawks. The only difference was that Stevens' film made money at the box office.
The script contains an expression that was very common in the USA up until about the 1950s that by today's standards is absolutely unbelievable and (thankfully) would never be used today. In the first scene, when Alice tells Cary Grant's character that "Mr. Peabody may possibly donate a million dollars to the museum", he responds "A million dollars? Say, that's pretty WHITE of Mr. Peabody, isn't it?"
Robert Montgomery and Leslie Howard were considered for the role of David Huxley. MGM refused to loan Montgomery to RKO, while Howard turned down the part in favour of the title role in Alexander Korda's production, Lawrence of Arabia.