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Grace Cathedral in Film and Fiction

Grace Cathedral has entered popular culture as a setting in novels and feature motion pictures. A scene in the movie The Pleasure of His Company (1961), starring Fred Astaire, shows Garry Merrill and Lilli Palmer squabbling over their daughter’s wedding, seated in pews now the site of the cathedral sanctuary. In a later exterior scene, mother and daughter (Debby Reynolds) flee the cathedral. Family Plot (1976) Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, has a cathedral scene of Bruce Dern climbing the old front steps and asking to see the bishop of “Saint Anselm’s Cathedral”, as a disguised couple (William Devane, Karen Black) drug and abduct the bishop (William Prince) before an astonished congregation. Cathedral lay staff served as vested extras. The wedding and reconciliation scenes in Bicentennial Man (1999) starring Robin Williams and Embeth Davidtz, were filmed in Grace Cathedral, Davidtz playing mother and daughter. The latter scene, set two centuries in the future, shows cathedral interior restoration underway, as humanized robot Williams wins the heart of restorer Davidtz. The scene is preceded by an exterior view of the cathedral surrounded by sleek Nob Hill skyscrapers of circa 2200. 

A large portion of the film Maxie (1985), about a flapper who possesses a bishop’s secretary, was set in the since-demolished Cathedral House, now the site of the cathedral’s front stairway. Glenn Close plays the secretary/flapper with Mandy Patinkin as her husband. At one point, the golf-loving bishop (Barnard Hughes) hits a ball from his office, the former Cathedral House dining room, to adjacent Huntington Park. A short scene of the famous Steve McQueen film Bullitt (1968), filmed on the former front stairway and plaza, shows congressman Robert Vaughn serving a writ to a police captain (Simon Oakland) attending a Sunday service with his family. Small portions of Bullitt (1968) were filmed on the former front stairway and courtyard. (image gcs 170- Bullitt, 1968) Grace Cathedral has also made short cameo appearances in several films, including Dark Passage (1947), D.O.A. (1949), Vertigo (1958), Daddy’s Gone A’ Hunting (1969), The Woman in Red (1977), Innerspace (1987), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), Metro (1997), A Smile Like Yours (1997), The Demon Within (1999), The Wedding Planner (2000) and Milk (2008). The final footage in How the West Was Won (1962) is a spectacular aerial view of San Francisco that passes directly over the unfinished cathedral and its close. Television has also discovered Grace Cathedral, and has included cathedral scenes in More Tales of the City (1998) and the Nash Bridges series. In More Tales a couple discover the existence of a cannibal cult that holds rites in the cathedral catwalks, and accidentally drop a severed foot into the sanctuary during a service. (Most interior scenes were filmed at St. Pierre l’Apôtre Church, Montreal.) Between filming episodes of Streets of San Francisco, actor Karl Malden often liked to come into the cathedral and sit in a quiet pew or attend a service. 

Grace Cathedral's literary role has included scenes or cameos in over eighty novels and even several comic books. The novel appearances have included Flint (Charles Norris, 1944), California Street (Niven Busch, 1959), five Howard Fast novels including The Immigrant’s Daughter (1985), four Danielle Steel novels, Lasher (Ann Rice, 1993), Suicide Blonde (Darcey Steinke, 2000), The Monk Downstairs (Tim Farrington, 2002) and The Day I Killed James (Catherine Hyde, 2008). Joan Didion writes about the building of Grace Cathedral and Bishop Pike in a New Yorker essay compiled in The White Album (1979). The cathedral cannibal cult television story was adapted from More Tales of the City (Armistead Maupin, 1980). Grace Cathedral items appeared on occasion in the columns of the late Herb Caen, beloved San Francisco columnist, whose memorial service took place at the cathedral (1997). Marvel Comics appearances have been in Wolverine and Young X-Men issues, the cathedral serving as a hideout, and its bell tower an exercise yard, for the young Xmen.

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