In the French port of Marseille, a lovely young woman named Madelon (Maureen O'Sullivan) is in love with a young sailor, Marius (John Beal). Madelon in turn is loved by Honore Panisse (Frank Morgan), a well-to-do middle-aged sailmaker. When Marius finds out he must go to sea for three years, he leaves without saying goodbye to Madelon; in a note he tells her that it would break his heart to tell her in person. She rushes to the dock, but sees his ship sailing away and faints. Marius's father Cesar, (Wallace Beery) who already thinks of Madelon as one of the family, carries her to her home.
Later, Madelon finds out that she is pregnant, and to spare her the shame of a child born out of wedlock, Panisse asks Madelon to get an abortion. She agrees, and goes to find a rusty clotheshanger. She proceeds with her attempt to kill her fetus. She did not succeed, and was rushed to the hospital bleeding.
A year later Marius unexpectedly returns from sea to buy some equipment for his ship. Visiting Madelon that night, he sees the baby and realizes that he is the father. He asks her to steal away with him, but she refuses. Despite her love for Marius, she knows that Panisse, who adores the child, will be a better father than Marius, who will be away at sea for many years at a time. Marius leaves, shaking Panisse's hand before he goes, and Panisse and Madelon happily look at their baby's first tooth.Wallace Beery as Cesar
Frank Morgan as Panisse
Maureen O'Sullivan as Madelon
John Beal as Marius
Jessie Ralph as Honorine
Cora Witherspoon as Claudine
Etienne Girardot as Bruneau
E. Alyn Warren as Captain Escartefigue
Jerry Colonna as Arab Rug Dealer (uncredited)
Henry Hull as Uncle Alzear (uncredited)
Doris Lloyd as Customer (uncredited)
Fred Malatesta as Bird Seller (uncredited)
Robert Spindola as Boy (uncredited)
Although the credited basis of Port of Seven Seas was Marcel Pagnol's 1931 play Fanny, the screenplay incorporated some incidents from three French films written by Pagnol based on his plays: Marius (1931), directed by Alexander Korda, Fanny (1932), directed by Marc Allegret, and César (1936), which Pagnol directed. The play "Marius" was a great success and was played more than one thousand times in Paris.
William Wyler was slated to direct the film at the time that Preston Sturges was brought into the project, the working titles for which were "Fanny", "Madelon", "Life on the Waterfront" and "Man of the Waterfront". Ernest Vajda had been reported to one of the screenwriters, but was not credited. The project was considered by Universal Studios in late 1933 or early 1934, but was dropped sometime after Joseph Breen, who supervised the Production Code, rejected the submitted script. Paramount Pictures had some interest in it, before the script ended up at MGM by July 1936. Although the MGM script was still essentially the one that Universal had submitted to the Hays Office, this time the censors found it "acceptable", and it was approved on 15 March 1938. This did not prevent the Legion of Decency from protesting that the film "lower[ed] the standards" that the Production Code was designed to uphold.
Port of Seven Seas was in production from late December 1937 through 28 January 1938, with retakes completed on 23 February. Shortly before production started, Luise Rainer, who was to have played "Madelon" was replaced by Maureen O'Sullivan because of a bad cold.
The film was released on 1 July 1938, the long delay coming about because the studio considered the subject matter "dangerous" for the film industry while Congress was considering legislation which had implications for film censorship.
The movie was premiered on July 1, 1938 in New York City. Marcel Pagnol and Raimu (the great French actor who played Cesar in the French plays and movies) were invited but did not come, supposedly for fear of air travel. The movie was premiered in France in Marseilles, later in 1938 at the movie theatre "Le Noailles" with Wallace Beery, Marcel Pagnol and Raimu in attendance.
Pagnol's plays provided source material for the three French films noted above, a 1933 Italian film named Fanny, the 1934 German film Der Schwarze Walfisch ("The Black Whale"), the 1954 Broadway musical Fanny, and the 1961 non-musical film based in part on it. Even though many situations and incidents in the 1961 film originated in Port of the Seven Seas, neither it nor Preston Sturges was credited.