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Cole Porter composed the score of the Broadway musical Panama Hattie for star Ethel Merman, marking their fourth collaboration. The show was a great success, and became the first book musical since the 1920s to run over 500 performances. Only two of Porter's songs from the stage musical-"I've Still Got My Health" and "Let's Be Buddies"-were used in the film, along with "Just One of Those Things," a song Porter wrote for the 1935 Broadway musical Jubilee. Among the original numbers from Panama Hattie omitted from the film, the most famous was "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please." Comedian Rags Ragland was the only member of the Broadway cast to repeat his role in the film.
The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits: "WARNING! Any resemblance between the three sailors in this story and human beings is purely accidental." According to a 1972 Variety obituary, nightclub owner Mary Lee Kelly, an American who moved to Panama just before World War I, was said to have been the inspiration for Panama Hattie, although a modern source claims the musical was inspired by Porter's song "Katie Went to Haiti," from the 1939 Broadway musical Du Barry Was a Lady.
Hollywood Reporter news items provide the following information: RKO bid against M-G-M for the film rights, intending to give Ginger Rogers the starring role. George Murphy was originally cast in the role of "Dick Bulliet," and Shirley Temple was to have played the part of "Geraldine" before she left M-G-M to go under contract to David O. Selznick. M-G-M sought Arthur Treacher to repeat his stage role as stuffy butler "Jay Jerkins." South American singer Estrellita was considered for a specialty number, but her appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
News items add Lester Dorr to the cast, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. During the film's extensive retakes, Hollywood Reporter news items reported that Robert Young, and later William Lundigan, would replace Dan Daily, Jr. as Dick. A April 7, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that footage featuring Jackie Horner as Geraldine would be eliminated and reshot with Joan Carroll, who had played the little girl on Broadway. According to a May 1, 1942 item in Hollywood Reporter, radio star Kate Smith turned down $100,000 to perform in a musical sequence. An May 18, 1942 column in Hollywood Reporter reported that an unreleased Judy Garland recording of "Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam" was making the rounds in Washington, D.C., adding that the song "looks like it might be the 'Over There' of this war." The column went on to suggest that M-G-M add a few new lyrics and make the song available to the government.
According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Hays Office was concerned that "our Latin American neighbors" might find the film offensive. In a July 3, 1941 letter to Louis B. Mayer, Addison Durland requested that the mosquito netting in a bungalow set be omitted, fearing that the sight of it might undermine the Panamanian government's efforts to promote its country as a "healthy" tourist destination, and stressed that the dancers, spies and laborers depicted in the film not be characterized as Latin American. Despite these changes, Panama Hattie encountered numerous problems with foreign distribution. The Office of Censorship deemed the film unsuitable for Latin American audiences because of the comic portrayal of the three American sailors, and the OWI classified the film as "The Enemy" because of its espionage subplot. A September 9, 1942 Hollywood Reporter column criticized Hollywood's poor sense of public relations on the international front, adding that "too many stories about spies, fifth columnists and saboteurs have been made, in the OWI's opinion, so that the American public and fans in foreign lands possibly think our nation is riddled with subversive activity." PCA files add that the local censor board in Argentina deleted "Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam" because of its pro-Allied sentiments, and Sweden cut the song because of derogatory references to the Japanese.
Panama Hattie marked Lena Horne's first film for M-G-M, following her debut in the 1938 film The Duke Is Tops (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.1147). Horne was the first African-American star to sign a long-term contract with a major studio, although her performances were generally limited to musical numbers that could be cut from the film before its distribution in Southern markets. On November 10, 1954, the CBS television network broadcast a one-hour version of Panama Hattie starring Ethel Merman.