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Variety commented concerning the relation of the film to the original book, "The lion-hearted dog that was Jack London's creation as the leading character...emerges now as a stooge for a rather conventional pair of human love birds. Changes have made the canine classic hardly recognizable." In the pressbook for the film, producer Darryl Zanuck stated his intent in changing the emphasis of the book: "I saw the man answering a call just as inexorable as that symbolized by the wolf-call which drew Buck in pursuit, back to the wilderness from whence he came. I suspect that Jack London wrote his simple, but lovable story with something of this hidden meaning behind his words. In his mind's eye were additional chapters, additional settings, characters and incidents. These we have developed with London's theme and plot structure as guide."
Fredric March was originally cast as "Jack Thornton," but Zanuck decided that he was more suited to play "Jean Valjean" in Les Miserables (see below), and Clark Gable was substituted, according to a Daily Variety news item. Madeleine Carroll was originally announced as Gable's co-star, according to Hollywood Reporter. According to Time, "Buck" was played by an eighteen-month old St. Bernard named King, who was owned by Carl Spitz, considered the number one dog trainer in Hollywood. Although, according to Time, Spitz wanted the studio to cast another dog, Cappy, in the role, Wellman and Zanuck picked King, and with his new name of Buck, the dog soon became the greatest dog star since Rin-Tin-Tin. Cappy was relegated to Buck's double.
According to news items and the pressbook, the beginning of production was delayed because of sickness among various cast members, including Gable, who developed laryngitis. A setback also occurred because Gable was required to do retakes on M-G-M's Copy Cats, the working title of After Office Hours. For the first day of shooting, according to the pressbook, Joan London, the author's daughter, and her son were invited to the set by Zanuck. Wellman and other production staff went location hunting in the Pacific Northwest and Canada in December 1934, and the entire film, with the exception of four days in the studio, was scheduled to be shot at Mount Baker, Washington, where a complete soundproof stage was to be built. On January 13, 1935, according to news items, a company of eighty people left for Mount Baker, but because of blizzards and lack of adequate accomodations, the company returned on 10 February with scenes still to be shot. In Feb, while at Mount Baker, cameraman Charles Rosher suffered a heart attack which was attributed to the high location. According to news items and information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, additional scenes were shot at Feather River, CA, Truckee, CA and the Universal Western Street.
Footage from a scene in which "Shorty Hoolihan" is murdered by "Smith" and his henchman, was cut after an audience expressed disapproval in a preview, according to modern sources, and Zanuck ordered the script changed and retakes shot. The deleted scene, which has survived, runs as follows: On his way to file the claim, Shorty eats alone by a stream. Imitating an announcer at a racetrack, Shorty describes a frog race that he initiates, but the race is interrupted by Smith, his henchman Kali and Blake. When Smith asks whether Thornton is with him, Shorty says that they broke up and then tries to run. Kali catches Shorty, and Blake tells Smith that he will not stand for any violence. At night, by a campfire, Smith interrogates Shorty about the gold he is carrying, but Shorty refuses to acknowledge that he and Thornton found the mine. When Kali twists Shorty's arm behind his back, Shorty, in pain, admits that they did find the mine. After Kali continues to torture him, Shorty offers to tell them in detail how to get to the mine and then asks for a cigarette. After he lights the cigarette, he sets his map on fire, and he is shot in the back. Blake then goes to him and he dies. Blake accuses Smith of murder, and Smith says that when things get in his way, he gets a little impatient.
Two sequences featuring the character "Marie," who was played by Katherine DeMille, were in the final draft of the script dated November 26, 1934 but were not in the print viewed. The first scene, which takes place near the beginning of the film, shows "Marie" crying as "Jack," who has left her a "poke" of gold dust, is about to leave her cabin. He reminds her that he earlier said he would be going home as soon as he made his "pile," and when she cries hysterically and urges him to remain, he leaves her with more gold, which mollifies her. Later, after he has lost his money gambling, and Shorty has talked him into becoming his partner, he returns to Marie's cabin and finds another man with her. The man stares in terror at Jack, who hits him and says to Marie, "Didn't take you long, did it?" Marie asks Thornton if he's going to hit her, and he replies that he hasn't made up his mind. He then finds his gold, and says, "This is the best way to hit you, sweetheart," before proceeding to sing to her "My Gal Sal." The next scene is the one in which Jack meets Buck. According to the cutting continuity in the Produced Scripts Collection, only the the second sequence was in the original release of the film. According to correspondence in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, PCA Director Joseph Breen warned Zanuck that the scene with Marie must carry no suggestion that she is a prostitute. About that scene, Breen wrote, "We get the definite impression from the script that Thornton and Marie have been living together and that the 'poke' which Thornton first gives to Marie, and later takes away from her, is money given for prostitution. This scene, as it now stands, is a Code violation....The line, 'Two healthy people who took their fun and asked no questions' will have to be entirely deleted." The second sequence, which was DeMille's only appearance in the film, was cut sometime after the original release and is not in re-release prints that are shown publicly today.
Breen was also adamant that Thornton and Claire "do not indulge in a sex affair as is suggested in the present script" and that the scenes between Buck and the she-wolf be rewritten "to get away from the very unpleasant connotation which these scenes now suggest." Zanuck replied to Breen that they had eliminated all the major objections, but Zanuck defended the scenes of the love affair between Thornton and Claire. He wrote, "There is a deep, real, profound love. There is nothing of a sexual nature about it. Certainly there is no law against her falling in love with another man after she believes her husband is dead....in a parting scene...she tells him that a love as great as theirs can't easily die and that if their love is to live, some day, sometime, somewhere they will get together if God means for them to get together. However, it was never our suggestion or implication...that she intended to deceive her husband, get him back to civilization and divorce him or kick him off and go back to the new man."
Modern sources have speculated that Gable and Loretta Young had a love affair while they were on location, and that Young, a few months later, announced her retirement, supposedly for health reasons, but in reality because she was pregnant; she went to New York and then to Paris, and in 1937, adopted a twenty-three-month-old baby girl. Modern sources contend that the father of the child was Gable.
The film was re-released on June 23, 1945 and in May 1953 in 81 minute versions. Other film versions of the book include a 1908 Biograph Co. production, directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Florence Lawrence and Charles Gorman; a 1923 Hal Roach Studios production, released by Path Exchange, directed by Fred Jackman and starring a different dog named Buck and Jack Mulhall; a 1973 German, Spanish, Italian and French co-production by CCC-Berlin, directed by Ken Annakin and starring Charlton Heston; and an NBC-TV broadcast in 1976 of a Charles Fries production, directed by Jerry Jameson and starring John Beck.