Editor’s note: this article was updated to note the movie tour and lecture were canceled. The movie showing is still taking place. Last updated Sept. 24 at 4:40 p.m.
On Oct. 9, 1957, a 600-member movie crew, led by one of the world’s most famous directors and two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, checked into the Resestar Hotel in Watsonville for three days. They visited the area for location shooting for what is among the greatest film ever made. And almost nobody noticed.
The resulting film, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” will be shown at the San Juan Bautista State Park on Sept. 25. Taking top place in the latest Sight and Sound ranking of the The 100 Greatest Films of All Time, “Vertigo” edged out perennial favorite “Citizen Kane.”
This year, the San Juan Bautista State Park is resuming its annual free showing of the digitally remastered film on the plaza, presented in surround sound. Tickets will be available for a guided tour of the filming locations, with reenactments by State Park interpreter Marcos Vizcaino, as well as a lecture on the film by movie producer E. J. Stevens.
A brief article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Oct. 10, 1957, headlined “Movie Company to Film Scenes in Big Basin Park,” is the only coverage of the arrival to be found in local newspapers. It mentioned that director Hitchcock would be taking the group, including actors Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, to shoot footage in Big Basin, San Juan Bautista, and “possibly Carmel.”
According to an oft-repeated story, Hitchcock chose Mission San Juan Bautista based on having visited the mission years earlier, when its wooden bell tower was still intact. However, according to associate producer Herbert Coleman’s memoir, “The Man Who Knew Hitchcock,” the location was actually suggested by his daughter Judy, who thought that San Juan Bautista would be quieter and allow more space for the crew to use that Hitchcock’s first choice, Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel.
The bell tower was recreated on a soundstage in Hollywood for live scenes and a matte painting was inserted into the scenes shot in San Juan Bautista. The placement of the tower in the film, to the left of the mission’s front door, means that when Stewart enters the church, turning left to take the staircase up to the tower, he is actually entering the baptistry.
There are other geographical errors in the film. The most obvious to local residents is the scene where Stewart and Novak are driving south from San Francisco to San Juan Bautista. The trees they go through as they approach the town are in the eucalyptus grove south of San Juan Bautista on Highway 101. And in the scene at the top of the bell tower, the panoramic shot of the town, which was shot from a nearby hill, includes the mission.
Four places in town were used as locations. The Plaza Stables, Zanetta House, and the mission made it into the film; a scene shot in the Plaza Saloon did not.
The shoot in town was brief and there was little interaction between the crew and the locals.
“Alfred Hitchcock sat by himself,” said Mary Anzar, who lived in town at the time of the filming. “He was not to be talked to by anyone. My mother, Keturah Anzar, thought he was a strange person. Kim Novak stayed in her limousine. Some of the people in town got to be in the film and there is a picture somewhere of Al Casteneda, who founded Doña Esther’s Restaurant, as a little boy being kissed by Novak.”
If the crew was not anxious to mingle with the locals, Jimmy Stewart, of course, was the exception.
“My mother was working in the mission gift shop,” Anzar recalled. “She turned around and Jimmy Stewart was in front of her, asking to look at rosaries. She showed him some and he bought one. Years later, we found out he wasn’t Catholic so I always thought my mom did a great sales job. He was great, though—just Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart.”
One of the legacies of the film can be seen in the repairs made in the aftermath of the film crew’s setups.
“They did some damage to the stables, which we have preserved as part of its history,” said Vizcaino. “They brought these huge cameras and lights for the filming. They had a permit, but they needed to drill holes for the cables and they did it at will. They had permission to do the filming but they did not have permission to use any of the museum pieces for props, which they did, and they certainly did not have permission to alter the structure in any way.”
Vizcaino will be pointing out the repairs as part of his tour, which begins at 3 p.m. on Sept. 25. Tickets are $15. Tickets for the lecture, which begins at 5:30 p.m., are $10. The film begins at 8:10 p.m. and Vizcaino recommends bringing lawn chairs and blankets. For more information, call 831-632-4881.
(The San Juan Bautista State Park staff announced on Sept. 24 the movie tour and lecture are canceled as a result of various issues. The movie showing is still taking place at 8 p.m. on the grass plaza. It will be preceded by a free 15-minute presentation by park interpreter Marcos Vizcaino. )
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