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.