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Although Sutter's first name is generally spelled "Johann," onscreen credits list it as "Johan." Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveals that as early as 1928, Universal was considering a production based on the life of Johann Sutter, although at that time, there was some concern that their production would be too similar to the 1929 M-G-M film Tide of Empire, which was also concerned with the gold rush of 1848 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.5718). According to modern sources, in 1930, Sergei Eisenstein chose the story of Johann Sutter to be one of his early projects with Paramount, after his plans for another film, The Glass House, fell through. Using Blaise Cendrars' novel as his foundation, Eisenstein added to the story with research from other materials, including a personal tour of Sutter's original land in northern California, according to modern sources. The project was shelved, however. Universal's interest in the story apparently continued, as evidenced by a 1931 letter in the MPAA/PCA files to the MPPDA. The letter, authored by the Society of California Pioneers, protested the proposed Universal production, as it was their contention that Blaise Cendrars' novel was "full of historical inaccuracies, besmirching the name and character of both General John A. Sutter and James W. Marshall."
The project was not taken up again until 1934, when, in a July news item, Hollywood Reporter reported that Howard Hawks was to direct a version of it for Universal with a screenplay by William Faulkner. According to a 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item, however, William Anthony McGuire was to prepare a treatment in June 1934. Although there was no mention of an alteration of the Hawks directorial assignment, in August 1935, Universal considered assigning William K. Howard to direct the film. Howard, however, was already committed to another film. Hollywood Reporter notes in August 1935 that producer Edmund Grainger went searching for locations in Northern California, and production was expected to begin September 1, 1935 with Hawks directing. In the Universal shooting schedules at the USC Special Collections Library, Hawks is credited with direction along with James Cruze, and Hawks and William Faulkner are included among the writers of this production. The exact nature of Hawks's and Faulkner's contribution to the final film has not been determined. Although the Hollywood Reporter review gives adaptation credit to Gene Fowler, pre-release studio correspondence in the Screen Achievements Bulletin questions, rather than confirms, this credit. In addition, a letter from writer Walter Woods in the Screen Achievements Bulletin file at the AMPAS Library indicates that while he used various historical reference works, he, personally, did not use any specific incidents from Cendrars' novel.
An unidentified news item dated December 15, 1935 noted that 250 Hawaiian extras were hired for this film. According to correspondence in the MPAA/PCA collection, although the AMPP felt that the script conformed to the requirements of the Production Code, they recommended that Universal take "care with the portrayal of the Mexicans in this picture, to avoid burlesquing them and thus causing an unfavorable reaction in Mexico and other Spanish American countries." Further correspondence reveals that in September 1936, "all the sequences dealing with Mexico and Mexicans and the annexation of California by the United States" were eliminated before submitting the film to the Mexican Board of Censors, "since this fact still remains a sore spot with the Mexican people." The film was passed by the censors. A March 1936 article in Hollywood Reporter notes that the picture's world premiere was held in Sacramento, where a parade was held featuring 5,000 citizens in period costumes, Carl Laemmle, twenty-nine Universal actors and studio personnel, Governor Frank Merriam of California and Sacramento mayor Arthur Ferguson.
A 1935 news item in Daily Variety reports that Luis Trenker, a director with German Roto Films of Berlin, photographed backgrounds of Northern California for a German-language version of Sutter's Gold, called Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (The Kaiser of California). The German production was written and directed by Luis Trenker, photographed by Albert Benitz and Heinz von Jaworsky, and starred Luis Trenker and Viktoria v. Ballasko. The German film won an award in the Mussolini Competition for Best Foreign Film at the 1936 Venice Film Festival. According to a modern source, however, Allied forces later forbade the exhibition of the film in Germany.