Happy anniversary, 'Vertigo': Said Novak at the time, "I don't like to fly–not in planes anyway."

Vertigo's 50th Anniversary

Miguel Pendás August 8, 2008

Not many movies call for a celebration of their anniversaries (did anyone celebrate the 50th anniversary of Citizen Kane?), but Vertigo is an exception, especially in this self-absorbed, any-excuse-for-a-party town, for what many have called "the ultimate San Francisco film." Celebrations have already occurred in the way of screenings, and more are planned, notably a renovation of one of the movie’s key locations.

The actual birthday of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnum opus can be traced to Friday, May 9, 1958, the day of the world premiere, which took place at the Stage Door theater. On May 8, the day began, typically, overcast and gray. A train from Los Angeles pulled into the station at Third and Townsend, and off stepped Kim Novak. A crowd of fans and reporters was waiting for the film’s star, who, at the age of 26 had already been featured on the cover of Time. The overcast light only highlighted the fact that her blond hair had a hint of lavender that day.

"I don’t like to fly," Novak pronounced [reported in the May 10 San Francisco Examiner], "not in planes anyway," making an ever-so-1950s sexual innuendo. (When Frank Sinatra sang "Come Fly with Me," he didn’t mean in an airplane exactly, either.) Novak, who began her career as Miss Deep Freeze in a campaign for a refrigerator company, was now the hottest thing in Tinseltown.

The what’s-your-favorite-color? fanzines had been reporting Novak’s preference for lavender and other such coy trivia (like her refusal to wear a bra) ever since she had become America’s number one female box office attraction. The local fans went with it. A group of 30 fraternity members of Kappa Nu (KN, as in you-know-who’s initials) from the Berkeley campus was on hand at the train station to deliver a rousing cheer and serenade Novak with "Lavender Blue." Apparently Paramount’s publicity campaign, one of the biggest ever aimed at college campuses, had paid off.

"A Paramount Studios publicist called me requesting Clift Hotel accommodations for Novak, James Stewartm, and director Alfred Hitchcock," recalled concierge Russell St. John in a letter to the editor published in the November 5, 1996, San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the film’s restoration. "My creative juices went into overdrive, and her suite had lavender bath soap, telephone, and silk bedsheets. Her guest flower bouquet included white and lavender iris."

When she checked out of her 13th floor suite a few days after the May 9, 1958 world premiere, the sheets were donated to charity, cut up, and made into neckties imprinted with the slogan, "Kim Novak Slept Here." "Who did they donate them to?" quipped Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, "Guide Dogs for the Blond?" He was not a big fan of either Novak or the film.

Meanwhile, those who did not mind flying in a plane (Hitchcock and his wife Alma, Stewart, and the Paramount entourage) arrived May 8 at S.F. International, and with little fanfare were escorted to the hotel. Friday was a busy day: cocktails at the Clift in the afternoon, the world premiere screening just down the street at the Stage Door on Mason Street (now Ruby Skye night club), and Ernie’s for a late supper.

Hitchcock must have felt a mixture of satisfaction and distress as Novak, the sexy thrillseeker, grabbed all the headlines. Satisfaction, because, as a shrewd promoter, he knew that any attention the film got would be good for business. But imagine American icon Jimmy Stewart and Hitchcock, who was totally aware of his importance as something akin to the Shakespeare of cinema, playing second fiddle to Novak’s antics. The reporters seemed to care little about the film. The hullabaloo of the moment was the alleged affair Novak was having with Rafael Trujillo Jr., son of the dictator of the Dominican Republic, who had become infatuated with the movie queen and had just given her an expensive sports car as a gift.

After Ernie’s, the group went to the Venetian Room at the Fairmont for a nightcap. The next day, Hitchcock led the press corps on a Vertigo tour of the city. All in all, they set a high standard for launching a film.

Disappointingly, the film that is today regarded as Hitchcock’s most personal, heartfelt effort, the film whose Saul Bass poster proclaimed to be "Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterpiece," did not receive great critical acclaim upon its release. An anonymous Variety reviewer declared it to be "too slow and too long," perhaps because "Hitchcock became overly enamored with the vertiginous beauty of Frisco. . . . It’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery." At the same time that Variety gave the film a lukewarm critical assessment, it predicted great commercial success. They were wrong on both counts.

"A lot of people were puzzled by it," noted screenwriter Samuel Tayler of the public and critical reaction.

One person that wasn’t celebrating was supporting actress Barbara Bel Geddes, whose father, Norman, the legendary set designer, had died the night before the world premiere.

The film’s warmer reception abroad began in July, when Hitchcock and company went off to the international premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain—where they adore Hitch to this day—and Stewart won the prize for best actor.

A few critics got the real value of the film at the time, but not many, and they were mostly foreigners like Robin Wood and the writers at Cahiers du Cinema. As late as 1998 the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies had it at only number 61, 36 slots behind E.T. By 2008 it had jumped to number nine in AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies and number one in the mystery genre. In contrast, Vertigo debuted in the British magazine Sight and Sound’s critics poll at number seven in 1982; in 1992 it was at number four, and in 2002 continued its dizzying climb to the top, ending up second only to Citizen Kane.

In the late 1950s, Hitchcock was nearly at his peak of success. Films like Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much had been the blockbusters of the day. His phenomenally successful TV show made his name and his silhouette known to all. But now in his late 50s, Hitchcock was assailed by a streak of physical ailments including hernia, colitis, and gallstones in the course of preproduction. A shadow loomed over his life, something to make one reflect on one’s own mortality. In a later interview, this great artist who was capable of portraying aching romantic love like few others, admitted that he had been celibate for 40 years. All this went into Vertigo.

What attracted him to this dark story of sexual obsession? "I was intrigued by the hero’s attempts to recreate the image of a dead woman through another one who’s alive," he told François Truffaut in 1962. Taking a French novel set in Marseille, he adapted it to San Francisco. The original story with its fall from a tower and a hero with acrophobia was perfectly suited to the verticality of the city, and Hitchcock and scenarists Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel elaborated that verticality into an extended metaphor of impossible love.

Shooting began on September 30, 1957 at Mission Dolores and moved on to the "McKittrick Hotel," a fake name for a real place called the Fortman Mansion at the corner of Eddy and Gough streets. "I pick out all the sites," Hitchcock told Paine Knickerbocker in the 1957 Chronicle, as they walked through a maze of cables and equipment inside the building. "San Francisco is a marvelous city to shoot a story like this. There’s one sequence where Jimmy is tailing Kim around Union Square. She parks her car and then walks down a rather sinister alley, entering a small door off it. Jimmy follows. Then he finds she’s merely gone into Podesta’s [florist shop] from a rear entrance. He smiled in triumph," noted the Chronicle columnist. That little red herring was one of many gimmicks that Hitchcock used to entice audiences and gain publicity.

Hitchcock could appreciate the box office value of Kim Novak. At the same time, she was just the kind of "obvious" blond bombshell he abhorred.

"Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with," Hitchcock told Truffaut, in regard to her wanting to decide her hair style and costumes, the kinds of indulgences that were normally granted to top movie stars of the time. "I went to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for months." Although she later admitted that her discomfort in the frowsy costumes Hitchcock had prescribed for her actually had helped her get into character. To her credit, she went with it and gave the best performance of her career. Nonetheless, the lavender hair at the world premiere must have felt liberating.

For two weeks the movie crew sped busily around taking all the location footage before hying back to Los Angeles for sound stage filming of interior scenes. Location shooting wrapped October 15 at Big Basin State Park among the magnificent redwoods.

Of the shoot at the Podesta Baldocchi florist’s shop, Jack Podesta remembered in San Francisco magazine in 1983, when the film was rereleased, "His original idea was to do a set in Hollywood, but he was a fanatic for detail and he wanted this tile floor and he couldn’t duplicate it. . . . Kim Novak was very nice. We sent lavender flowers to her room." Podesta got caught up in the whirl of Vertigo.

In 1957 it was the film’s Hollywood move star side that lured fans, but it’s growing high art reputation has resulted in the the Palace of the Legion of Honor celebrating the 50th anniversary with screening of the film July 10 this year. It was at the Legion that Novak’s character Madeleine Elster went to view the portrait of Carlotta, the ancestor whose ghost has supposedly possessed her. The Legion had an artist recreate the movie’s prop painting for the screening.

But the most ambitious 50th anniversary tribute on the horizon is the impending renovation of the Empire Hotel (currently known as the York), home of Novak’s other character Judy Barton, which will be renamed Hotel Vertigo. The renovation is expected to be completed by November. "I love the movie," says hotel General Manager Peter Friedman said to me last Friday. "That’s one reason why I took this job." The hotel is considering having Vertigo available on demand in every room 24/7. The rooms, designed by the orgasmically opulent interior designer from L.A., Thomas Schoos, will have bright orange stuffed chairs with "Vertigo" stenciled on the seat and framed Saul Bass spirographs on the wall. Food Network celebrity chef Tyler Florence will make over the Plush Room cabaret on the ground floor into a restaurant.

San Francisco has another landmark.

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