The Dark Side of the Genius lends insight into Hitchcock during the early days of production of Lifeboat. David O. Selznick had worked out a two-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox for Hitchcock to direct Lifeboat and The Keys of the Kingdom. The second film was never made, as Hitchcock delayed starting the productions in a hope to receive more money. In the wake of the political fallout of Lifeboat, it’s unlikely that Fox would have wanted to shell out extra money for such an initially poorly received film.
While Fox pushed screenwriters to script Lifeboat, Hitchcock sought after novelists. Before Steinbeck, Hitchcock tried to convince Ernest Hemingway to take the project. Hemingway declined. Lifeboat is known as a picture Hitchcock saw as one of his cinematic challenges, putting him under the constraints of a single set and compositions of mainly close-up and medium shots. However, it seems as if he was also enamored with the idea of working with the additional constraint of creative input from an artist as well-respected and a name as well known as his.
With two deaths in Hitchcock’s family around the time of the production of Lifeboat, the theme of sudden loss and tragedy seems like a likely inspiration for the film to focus on the aftermath of a steady ship being thrown into turmoil. The impact of the deaths in Hitchcock’s own new concern towards mortality can be seen in the rapid weight loss regiment he undertook before Lifeboat’s production. The aftermath of this can be seen in the Reduco newspaper add in which he appears in the before and after picture, slimming down one-hundred pounds.
The book features an anecdote about lead Tallulah Bankhead’s exhibitionist behavior on the set of Lifeboat. As magazines sought to do features on the film, reporters and the studio higher-ups were not nearly as pleased as the male crew members about Bankhead’s behavior, with one reporter commenting about the rumors of indecent behavior in Hollywood being true. This taken in the context of the era of the PCA shows the careful attention the public paid to not only film content but their production environment and stars’ off-screen “performances.”
By 1941, Hitchcock was considered by pop culture to be in the same league as Frank Capra and Orson Welles as being a recognizable personality as well as filmmaker. Hitchcock had begun to receive some autonomy on his films of this periods from studios like RKO (who also afforded the same courtesy to Welles). However, while Welles’s autonomy came contractually, Hitchcock’s came from people’s dislike of confrontation with the standoffish director. With RKO unsatisfied with the progress of one of his projects, they began to seek more direct involvement. Hitchock responded by leaving the studio after the projects completion, with David O. Selznick helping him work out a deal with 20th Century Fox.
Unused to and unaccepting of studio interference, Hitchcock’s brief stint at 20th Century Fox saw Hitchcock having to deal with studio head Zanuck over many of the elements of production. Zanuck’s biggest issue with Hitchcock was his slow production pace. It took twenty weeks for a script for Lifeboat to be produced. A short production schedule was imposed on Hitchcock which was ignored. Zanuck constantly sent letters complaining of the inefficiency of Hitchcock’s shooting scenes in sequential order and wanted cuts to be made to keep the project under budget, with Hitchcock frequently never responding. Hitchcock disliked the even stronger studio interference then in his earlier projects, and Zanuck disliked Hitchcock’s disregard for the budget. With Hitchcock’s value to the studio questionable, a second film for Fox was not produced (as originally intended).
Leff also notes that although Hitchcock sought after Steinbeck, he still hesitated working with The Grapes of Wrath author. Familiar with Steinbeck’s work, Hitchcock was afraid of the “political baggage” that would be brought to the film that was meant to be a technical challenge above all. Ironically, Steinbeck’s original work was far less politically controversial then Hitchcock’s eventual film. Even in interviews after filming, Hitchcock denies any reading of the film other then a political one. Leff states this as being the film’s chief weakness. Instead of focusing on the development of real characters, Hitchcock is more concerned with the allegory of political ideal and ideals colliding.
After critical reaction to the flim Lifeboat complained of the weak portrayal of Americans in comparison with the superman Nazi, producer Kenneth Macgowan wrote this article about the intent behind the film. Macgowan tries and provide explanations for several of the issues that critics had with the film. He claims the reason the German is the only one who can row the boat because he's the only one with water and food tablets, avoiding the fact that no one man should be able to paddle that lifeboat, no matter how strong he is.
Interestingly, in the article Macgowan includes Steinbeck's name in the list of primary creators of the allegory that was being so strongly criticized because at the time, Steinbeck was seeking to have his name removed from the film.
Macgowan credits Hitchcock with the idea of shooting a film in a lifeboat, and saying that first and foremost, this was a gimmick film. It was Hitchcock's idea of a challenge to shoot the first ever film with only one set. For this reason, Macgowan claims that the allegory was never intended, and they stumbled upon it by accident, throughout the creative process. Steinbeck is the only one for whom this is definetly true as his early manuscript proves. However, a few paragraphs earlier, Macgowan was crediting Steinbeck, a man only involved only very early on in the process, with having an allegorical intent that was supposedly developed later on.
Macgowan's contradictions are best summed up in his final paragraph when he essentially says (paraphrasing), "You misinterpreted our intent. Oh, and if you still disagree, we didn't have any intent to begin with."
In the same issue of The New York Times as the Macgowan letter in defense of Lifeboat, Bosley Crowther responds with a strong critique of Macgowan and the film.
Crowther's article is a strong reflection of the American view of films during the height of censorship. His article is not one of strongly synthesized arguments about why Lifeboat is bad for the war effort. Instead he frequently employs the use of rhetorical questions, asking questions like "What's going on out there[Hollywood]?" as if any film whose portrayal of America's strength is questionable is an outrage in itself and needs no further explanation.
One of Crowther's criticisms that does not feature a question mark is that of all the abilities given to the German. He is the only one with the mental, physical, and emotional ability to amputize Gus's leg, navigate the ship through the storm, and row it towards its destination. He credits all of his abilities as being well-explained, but critizes Hitchcock (and unfairly Steinbeck) for giving them to him in the first place. His argument can be summarized as no matter how well you explain Superman's ability to fly, his super strength, or his heat vision, they still make him look like Superman.
He closes his critique claiming that anything that casts doubt on America is inherently bad to morale and for our image overseas, giving credence to the idea of film as Will Hays's silient salesman. Censorship in the 1940s is often attributed only to organizations like the PCA and OWI. However, the critical reaction to Lifeboat shows that if they weren't strictly enforcing unquestionable pro-American ideals in film that their would be outcry from other outlets.