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According to pre-production news items, this film was to have begun production in the Spring or Summer of 1934, starring Gary Cooper and Gloria Swanson, under William Wellman's direction. In May 1934, it was announced that the picture was to star Cooper and Anna Sten, but, a January 1935 news item in Daily Variety noted that producer Samuel Goldwyn had decided to shelve the picture because he thought it could not pass censors. Because Cooper had, by 1935, completed a one picture deal with Goldwyn and returned to his home studio, Paramount, he had to be replaced in the lead, and Goldwyn no longer wanted Sten for the female lead, new leads were needed. Miriam Hopkins was signed for the role of "Mary Rutledge" in January 1935. Some modern sources state that William Wyler was actually the film's first director and that filming began in mid-1934 with Cooper and Sten; however, contemporary information makes no mention of Wyler, who was working at Universal at the time, and news items refute the implication that filming actually took place in 1934 under any director. Wyler's first work for Goldwyn was the 1936 release These Three (see below). Other contemporary news items noted that Goldwyn had signed actor Paul Kelly for a role in the picture when Cooper and Sten were cast as the leads, and that writers Dwight Taylor and Courtenay Terrett were hired to write the script at various times in mid-1934. Kelly was not in the film; it is possible that he was to have played the role of Louis Chamalis which was taken over by Edward G. Robinson. Neither Taylor not Terrett were mentioned in contemporary sources after 1934 and the extent of their contributions to the final screenplay has not been determined.
A Daily Variety news item on March 20, 1935 noted that screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur decided to do this film for Goldwyn because the pictures they had produced for Paramount had failed at the box office. This was the first of four films which Hopkins made for Goldwyn, all of which co-starred Joel McCrea. It was also the first film that Howard Hawks directed for Goldwyn. According to modern sources, this was David Niven's first American film, however, he appeared in the Paramount film Without Regret (see below), released prior to Barbary Coast, on August 23, 1935. Production on Without Regret began on June 18, 1935, one day after production began on Barbary Coast. It is possible that Niven's role in Barbary Coast was completed before his role in Without Regret. This also marked Walter Brennan's first appearance in a Goldwyn film. Modern sources include the following additional cast members: Wong Chung (Ah Wing), Russ Powell (Sheriff), Fredrik Vogeding (Ship's Captain), Dave Wengren, Clarence Wertz, Harry Semels, Theodore Lorch, George Magrill, Jack Pennick, Nina Campana, Constantine Romanoff, George Lloyd, Jimmie Dime, Leo Willis, John Ince, Frank Rice, Patricia Farley, Hank Mann, Blackie Whiteford, Edward Gargan, Monte Montague, Harry Holman, Ethel Wales, Kit Guard, Heinie Conklin, Tom London, and Jim Thorpe. According to modern sources, the film was re-issued in 1960 under the title Port of Wickedness.