On 19 November 1933, during location filming in Mexico, Lee Tracy, originally cast as Johnny Sykes, got drunk and urinated from his hotel balcony onto a passing military parade. He was arrested, fired from the film and replaced by Stuart Erwin. Original director Howard Hawks was also fired for refusing to testify against Tracy, and replaced by Jack Conway. However, in his autobiography, Charles G. Clarke, the cinematographer on the picture, said that he was standing outside the hotel during the parade and the incident never happened. Tracy, he said, was standing on the balcony observing the parade when a Mexican in the street below made an obscene gesture at him. Tracy replied in kind, and the next day a local newspaper printed a story that said, in effect, Tracy had insulted Mexico, Mexicans in general and the Mexican flag in particular. The story caused an uproar in Mexico, and MGM decided to sacrifice Tracy in order to be allowed to continue filming there.
The "Running W" was a device used on horses at that time which made them fall before the camera at a specific point of an action scene, often killing or injuring the animal so badly that it had to be put down. It involved a harness on the horse secured to "piano" wire which was attached to a stationary object.As the horse reached the end of the length of wire,running full tilt, it would be "tripped". The practice was finally halted after complaints from the A.S.P.C.A. The "Running W" wires can be seen clearly attached to the horses which were "shot down" in the final battle scene of this film.
Pancho Villa's widow wrote a letter to David O. Selznick telling him that she liked Wallace Beery's interpretation of her husband.
Wallace Beery hated filming on Mexican locations and had a private plane on stand-by to whisk him off to El Paso or Mexico City anytime his schedule permitted.
Wallace Beery had previously played Pancho Villa as one of the villains in the 15-chapter silent serial Patria (1917), starring Irene Castle.
The film drew a lot of adverse publicity in France, since one of the military medals worn by the character of Gen. Pascal closely resembled the Legion of Honour, France's highest accolade. MGM had to apologize for bringing the medal into disrepute and David O. Selznick was forced to send a memo to the art and props departments of the studio telling them to design medals more along the lines of Czarist Russia.
Original director Howard Hawks quit the production because he felt it wasn't safe. Gun-toting revolutionaries prowled the set, safety standards were lax and a suicide took place in front of the director. Hawks lasted ten weeks and was only too happy to leave.
Much of the footage originally shot by Howard Hawks is said to have been lost in a plane crash. However, Hawks claimed that most of the location footage (except battle scenes) was his.
Filming began in 1931 in Mexico, but because of production delays, personnel changes and other problems, the film wasn't released until 1934.
Ben Hecht was paid $10,000 for his script with the promise of an additional $5000 if he finished it in 15 days.
Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable and Paul Muni were all initially mentioned for the lead role.
No Hispanic actors were cast in the film. Of the 16 main credited actors, only Leo Carillo could lay claim to any Spanish lineage--from the Conquistadores era. An Argentinian actress was originally the feminine lead, but was replaced by Fay Wray in a rewritten part.
Because of the difficulties of location shooting, multiple retakes and cast replacements, the budget started edging $1,000,000--a huge amount of money at the time.
San Marcos, one of the film's prime locations was virtually a ghost town with cast and crew having to stay in abandoned buildings and dilapidated railway carriages without any amenities.
Mexican government officials were not keen on the casting of Wallace Beery as the honored Pancho Villa, because he usually played villains or buffoons.
After Howard Hawks was replaced by Jack Conway and Stu Erwin was recast in the Lee Tracy part and all the second-unit scenes were lost in a plane crash, Mona Maris was replaced by Fay Wray with an almost completely rewritten part. A primary reason for the change was Wallace Beery's dissatisfaction with Maris.
Greek born brothers Pedro and George Regas ,who almost always played Mexicans or Indians in Hollywood films , appear on both sides of the revolution ,Pedro as Tomas ,Villa's right hand man, and George as Don Rodrigo , the aristocrat who kills Villa's father.
At one point, Villa says something "isn't worth a nickel." The nickel does not exist in Mexican currency, and it's extremely unlikely that an uneducated Mexican would use such an Americanism.
This film had its first television showing in Seattle Saturday 22 December 1956 on KING (Channel 5), followed by Los Angeles Friday 28 December 1956 on KTTV (Channel 11), and by New York City Saturday 12 January 1957 on WCBS (Channel 2) ; it first aired in Phoenix 26 January 1957 on KPHO (Channel 5), in both Omaha and Portland OR 9 February 1957 on WOW (Channel 6) and KGW (Channel 8), in Philadelphia 12 March 1957 on WFIL (Channel 6), in Chicago 20 April 1957 on WBBM (Channel 2), in Altoona PA 21 July 1957 on WFBG (Channel 10) and in Minneapolis 13 September 1957 on KMGM (Channel 9); in San Francisco it first aired 23 November 1958 on KGO (Channel 7).
"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a 60-minute radio adaptation of the movie on October 10, 1938, with Wallace Beery reprising his film role.
Howard Hawks, James Kevin McGuinness and Howard Emmett Rogers all did uncredited work on the screenplay.
Ben Hecht's original screenplay was so long that producer David O. Selznick considered making a two-part film about the life of Pancho Villa, with the first part depicting his rise and the second about his fall. This idea was shot down by Nicholas Schenck, the head of Loews, MGM's parent company, who didn't believe that audiences would be interested enough to watch two films on the same subject.
UK audiences complained about the title, misinterpreting it as being a foreign language film. An alternative title was suggested - "Robin Hood of the Rio Grande" - but David O. Selznick said no.
After Howard Hawks bowed out as director, William A. Wellman did some uncredited help before Jack Conway took over.
David O. Selznick wanted to film all the exterior scenes in Mexico. MGM was not keen on this idea, having racked up huge extra costs due to location filming on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). Selznick got his way, however, having secured the promise of assistance from Mexican president Abelardo L. Rodriguez, in terms of military equipment and personnel.
Although Lee Tracy was replaced by Stuart Erwin, the former is still visible in a couple of exterior long shots.
Sierra kills two people, and in both cases Villa gets the blame; moreover, Sierra escapes punishment. This would not have been permitted had the film not been released just before the enforcement of the Production Code.