The swarms of tourists that clog Highway 1 every weekend to soak up the beauty of Point Lobos might believe that social media made them privy to a long-held Monterey Peninsula secret. Little do they know that Hollywood moviemakers discovered this gem and have been using it as a backdrop for more than a century.
At last count, around 50 films have been shot on or around Point Lobos, beginning with the 1914 adaptation of Jack London’s novel, “Valley of the Moon.” Since then, the park has been the scene of productions large and small, of films famous and not-so. And to the surprise of no one familiar with Central Coast culture, the relationship between Carmel locals and Tinseltown artisans has been sometimes contentious, sometimes controversial, but always interesting.
For instance, the Point Lobos League (headed by famed photographer Edward Weston’s wife Charis) was formed in 1944 after “considerable damage to foliage and terrain of certain areas in the park was done,” by a production crew, according to a December 20, 1945, Monterey Peninsula Herald article. At the time, MGM was hoping to use the location for a film production, and the League, whose ultimately successful hope was to turn Point Lobos into a park for all to enjoy, was concerned about further insult to sensitive flora and fauna.
They had good reason. One big-budget 1919 silent film production, Erich von Stroheim’s “Foolish Wives,” built hugely elaborate sets at Sand Hill, and in a climactic scene, burned them to the ground. That bit of cinematic realism was repeated a decade later for “Evangeline,” starring Dolores del Rio. On February 26, 1929, (“under the admiring eyes of more people than one was aware lived on the Peninsula,” according to The Herald) Evangeline’s village was torched for the cameras.
“Sand Hill is right next to our last natural Monterey Cypress grove,” says Point Lobos Docent and historian Kevin Shabram. “They burned down the set right next to it. At that time, you could drive in and park just about anywhere and there were a thousand cars carrying onlookers.”
When MGM came calling in 1946 to seek permission for directors George Cukor and Mervyn LeRoy to build a set at Sea Lion Point to shoot “Desire Me,” starring Robert Mitchum and Greer Garson, “there was a big uproar,” Shabram says.
“In the 1930s, Sand Hill had to be totally restored because it was still damaged from the filming of ‘Foolish Wives.’” Thankfully, production companies have been more respectful of Point Lobos’ delicate beauty in the ensuing decades.
Over the years, a galaxy of Hollywood Golden Age stars trekked north to film scenes at Point Lobos: Douglas Fairbanks (“The Iron Mask,” 1929), James Cagney and Joan Blondell (“He Was Her Man,” 1934), Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper (“Treasure Island,” 1934), Doris Day and Louis Jordan (“Julie,” 1956), Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak (“The Notorious Landlady,” 1962), Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (“The Sandpiper,” 1964), Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft (“The Graduate,” 1967), Bruce Willis and Kim Bassinger (“Blind Date,” 1987), Tom Hanks and Mare Winningham (“Turner and Hooch,” 1989). Not all the productions gave star billing to Point Lobos; several were shot by second unit crews and used as establishing shots.
As one of the biggest screen divas of her era, Elizabeth Taylor had firm control over every aspect of her career. She could pick and choose which projects to accept, what directors to work with, with whom she would share the screen, and where she would travel to work. The fact that the globe-trotting superstar gave a thumbs up to filming in and around Point Lobos and Big Sur for “The Sandpiper” speaks volumes about how she and her equally famous husband and co-star Richard Burton felt about the area.
Taylor and Burton were headline grabbing tab-loid news during their tumultuous relationship. They were hounded by paparazzi and left a big impression on everyone they encountered. That included a young Fisherman’s Wharf bartender named Bert Cutino (see sidebar above).
But if your celluloid dreams include filming scenes of that blockbuster screenplay at Point Lobos State Park, sad to say that’s not possible right now. The outgoing voicemail message for the person responsible for permitting declares that all applications for use of the park are currently suspended due to the pandemic. But you can still visit (pro tip: weekday mornings are typically much less crowded) and walk in the footsteps of the Hollywood legends who chose “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world” as a backdrop for their films large and small.
A comprehensive list of the movies filmed at Point Lobos is at pointlobos.org.
Elizabeth Taylor Visits Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf
Bert Cutino, co-owner of Cannery Row’s famous Sardine Factory restaurant, has worked in the restaurant business since he took a dishwashing job at a Carmel Valley resort when he was just 13.
Over the years, he has met and interacted with hundreds of celebrities and became friends with many, including crooner Bing Crosby, the founder of what became the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
He has many, many stories of memorable encounters with the rich and famous, but perhaps one of his favorites is about the early 1960s day that Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Richard Burton, in town to film “The Sandpiper,” showed up at Cerrito’s, the eatery where the young Cutino was working.
“I started at Cerrito’s as a busboy when I was 15,” Cutino says. “And I was managing the place by 19. I had learned every aspect of the operation—front of the house, kitchen, accounting—except for the bar because I was still too young.” But he had to have bartending skills in his quiver, so he started working slower afternoon shifts to learn the trade.
“One afternoon, about one or two o’clock, who comes through the door but Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton! She came up to me and asked, ‘May we have lunch here? People are chasing us everywhere.’ She was so beautiful. Her eyes were like violet.”
To respect the superstar couple’s privacy, Cutino locked the door. “I was excited, and I called my boss Sal Cerrito to tell him the news,” he says. “When I told him that I’d locked the door, he asked me if I was crazy. But he understood when I told him that there were 400 people waiting outside to get a glimpse of them.”
Cutino recalls that Taylor wasn’t drinking but that Burton put back a few Scotches and a bottle of white wine. They dined on Clams Bordelaise.
“They were really pleased with their experience,” Cutino recalls. “Elizabeth came up to me as they were leaving and said she wanted to thank me for what I’d done. She kissed me on the cheek. I fell apart. I’ll never forget that face or those eyes. She was fantastic.”
Sadly, given the many actors, actresses, politicians, sports stars and other personalities that dined at Cutino’s world-renowned restaurant over the decades, Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t among them. “She never came into the Sardine Factory,” he laments. “I would have loved to see her again.”