The Making of The Night of the Iguana in Mexico

Curator's Note

On the Trail of the Iguana is a promotional featurette that captures the making of The Night of the Iguana (1964). The featurette was produced by Professional Films, a company that specialized in this kind of promotional material for movie studios. To sell the theatrical feature, Professional Films employs strategies typical of the making-of form. It advances an auteurist through-line by highlighting director John Huston, who is depicted as an eccentric visionary. A voiceover ballyhoos, “He is one of the screen’s most gifted creative artists. A winner of Academy Awards. Distinctive, original, offbeat.” Another strategy is the focus on authentic locations. The featurette plays up the Mexican locales of Puerto Vallarta and Mismaloya, which are remarkably rendered in vivid color even though The Night of the Iguana was shot in black and white.

These promotional strategies tell us a lot about how Hollywood films were being marketed in the 1960s. But something more immediate is at play: a documentary impulse that records the filmmaking experience. We see onscreen the contributions of the Mexican crew members, from set builders to master cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, whose lighting set-ups—though briefly glimpsed—prove useful to the researcher of stylistic technique. We also see hanging around the set Elizabeth Taylor, referred to in passing as a “visitor.” Arguably, nothing brought more attention to the production than the affair between Taylor and Iguana star Richard Burton.

As I recently discussed in a Cinema Journal piece, these promotional and documentary impulses are sometimes at odds. At one point, actor Deborah Kerr recounts how walking uphill to the set reduced her legs to “jelly.” To illustrate this point, the featurette doesn’t show us Kerr but the Mexican set builders transporting heavy building materials. Her description feels incommensurate with the actual effort of these workers. This attempt to visually represent Kerr’s words inadvertently reveals the invisible labor that is so often omitted into making-of accounts. It’s a striking moment that demonstrates how making-ofs can serve as critical primary sources for understanding movie promotions and the visible evidence of production work.


I really enjoyed this, and particularly the verité feel struck by the asynchronicity between voice and image, as you mention, Daniel. I especially like when Richard Burton says that the best part about being actor is that you can see the world, but the shot is centered on Elizabeth Taylor, marked prominently by her red scarf, like some exotic bird. There's a poetic incoherence in the way voices, music, and sound are interwoven and disentangled. When you mention the disparity in the image when Kerr talks about her "jelly" legs (when the film cuts to Mexican laborers), do you think this is an intentional subversion or attempt to undermine her? It's almost as if when actors speak, the images don't want to take them seriously...

Great observations and question. Having watched many of these kinds of featurettes, I tend to see this disparity as a strategy of trying to visualize the voice-over with whatever footage is available but not always getting the right association. Your attention to actors raises a really interesting question of whether there is an attempt to undercut what she's saying. I appreciate this perspective, which highlights how as much as marketing me be driven by stars and their personas, the labor of actors is often undervalued.

Great piece, Daniel. It made me wonder (yet again) about how watching these kinds of featurettes shapes the way outsiders view filmmaking and film labor. Would we be more critical of certain filmmakers' labor practices if we hadn't all been taught by the Star Wars making-ofs and documentaries about films or productions--which are usually at least partly promotional but are framed in far more romantic terms-- that the director and/or major star is on a hero's journey and everything else is just part of their road of trials. Thanks for introducing me to this one.

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