Watch the latest blockbuster and you might see scenes shot in a globetrotting array of locations. But back in the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood,” starting with the first talkies in 1927 until about 1960, Hollywood directors didn’t tend to go so far afield when selecting locations. Instead, they took advantage of California’s variety of terrains—including cities, beaches, mountains, deserts, and farmland—to work as stand-ins for far-off destinations. One High Sierra location, for example, was cast as a remote site at the base of the Himalayas, various parts of Arabia, and the African jungle neighbourhood of Tarzan.
Sometimes California locations helped create a certain look, style, or mood in silver screen classics. Director Alfred Hitchcock created some of his creepiest scenes in remote corners of the North Coast, and under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Directors of film noir classics couldn’t get enough of the quirky Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles.
While many locations have faded away, some are still visible—and accessible. (Angels Flight, for instance, recently appeared in 2009’s 500 Days of Summer, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.) Some areas even play up a location’s famous past, with museums and guided tours. Here, listed north to south, are some of California’s most recognisable cinematic time capsules, and the stories behind them.
— Terri Hardin
The coastal Sonoma County villages of Bodega and Bodega Bay exude a sense of lonely isolation—and that’s part of the reason Alfred Hitchcock liked them. When he filmed 1963’s The Birds, based on Daphne du Maurier’s gothic tale, the towns stood in for a few scenes in the English village besieged by the film’s namesake feathered tormentors. As it turns out, Bodega is indeed a natural bird magnet that regularly makes Audubon Society rankings for great bird-watching, thanks to the plethora of hawks, egrets, herons, and pelicans to be seen there.
While much of the area was re-created for filming in a studio, a few physical locations remain. In Bodega, for instance, you can see the two-story Potter Schoolhouse, where the birds first menaced the town’s children (though you can see it only from the outside—it’s now a private residence). To get inside a location from the movie, book a table at The Tides Wharf Restaurant, part of Bodega Bay’s The Inn at the Tides. Come for the Dungeness crab and views over the water—featuring happy (and non-homicidal) shore birds.
Back in the 1850s, the brick casements of Fort Point were an integral part of California’s Pacific defense, and remained the untested “spare wheel” of California military might until it became a National Historic Site in 1970.
While the fort never saw any real military action, it has seen some drama: In 1958, Kim Novak’s character Madeleine attempted suicide by jumping off a casement here in the Hitchcock classic Vertigo.
Tours at the fort focus more on its place in history rather than any perilous leaps: You can take an 1800s-themed lantern-lit tour, or try cannon-loading. To safely recreate other parts of the film, stroll through the cemetery at Mission Dolores, which figures prominently in the movie, and check out the gravestone of Luis Antonio Arguello, California’s first Mexican governor. Or stay at the Hotel Vertigo (called the Empire when it was used for the film), where Vertigo plays endlessly (one might say “vertiginously”) on the lobby ceiling.
The tiny town of Spreckels was the location for 1955’s East of Eden, based on John Steinbeck’s tragic tale of sibling rivalry set in the rural Salinas Valley. “The valley and agricultural fields of the Salinas Valley were used for a number of shots,” says Lisa C. Josephs, archivist for the National Steinbeck Center. “The main boulevard was used, but the sugar refinery stands out the most, as it’s the tallest building in the township.”
Today, the whole area is still a bit of a time capsule. The Spreckels Sugar Factory, seen in the opening frames of the film, is still operational, and both Steinbeck and his father, John Ernst—both of whom worked at the sugar factory at different times—would probably still recognize the early-20th-century homes that dot the town’s Historic District.
Head to nearby Salinas to tour the National Steinbeck Center, where you can see letters and even equipment that inspired East of Eden, and watch clips of the film. Other sections of the museum’s Exhibition Hall are devoted to other Steinbeck books-turned-films, such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.
The area around Lone Pine—including the Alabama Hills Recreational Area—has some of the most recognizable piles of rock in the history of cinema. The terrain here provided the settings for hundreds of B westerns and several classic films, such as 1939’s Gunga Din, 1957’s The Tall T, and 1962’s How the West Was Won. The Bureau of Land Management offers a self-guided tour of Alabama Hills movie locations, while the website of Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History helpfully contrasts the sites along the road with stills from the films shot there.
The Museum also keeps the memories alive with its Lone Pine Film Festival, held every October over Columbus Day weekend. The festival is enlivened by real and faux cowboys, film stars, extras, and experts. What’s more, since location work at Lone Pine is ongoing, visitors might witness a new classic: The area was recently used for scenes in Iron Man and Django Unchained.
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly once said, “I've always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere—where there's absolutely nothing.” He found it in the Central Valley—and used it for one of his most iconic scenes. Today, the lonely stretch of Garces Highway in the town of Wasco still resembles the frightening scene from 1959’s North by Northwest, when Cary Grant’s character is chased from overhead by a crop duster.
Today, the intersection of Corcoran Road and Garces, where many fan photos are taken, does not feel as threatening. Rather, it leads to the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, a birder’s paradise. To extend the Hitchcockian magic, take Highway 99 in nearby Delano and drive south into Bakersfield: Hitchcock shot some of Janet Leigh’s driving scenes from Psycho along this stretch of road.
The verdant San Bernardino Mountains and valleys around Big Bear Lake, and its neighbor Cedar Lake, frequently stood in for those of the Ozarks, Appalachians, and Canadian Rockies in early filmdom. Examples include 1936’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, 1941’s The Shepherd of the Hills, and Elvis Presley’s 1964 Kissin’ Cousins—all classic stories of mountain feuds and moonshine.
The sawmill featured in the Presley film is still standing, and you can see it at the Cedar Lake Camp, which was part of the area’s “back lot” (some of it originally built for movies) and is now rented out to groups. To reach further back into the area’s history, a cluster of vintage cabins and barns marks the Big Bear Historical Museum, which outlines the growth of the area from its early Gold Rush days.
The narrow-gauge, funicular railway called Angels Flight was built on downtown’s Hill Street in 1901 to ferry well-to-do denizens up and down the steep incline of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill. During the years of this area’s gradual decline—it was mostly demolished by 1966—the Bunker Hill neighborhood perfectly resembled the “mean streets” described by noir author Raymond Chandler. As a result, Angels Flight became a familiar sight in classic noir films, like 1952’s The Turning Point, when William Holden and Alexis Smith rode the funicular to find a witness in a corruption investigation. Two 1950s noir films—Joseph Losey’s remake of M (1951) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—both feature Angels Flight and exteriors of Bunker Hill’s tenements. The railway also made an appearance in 2016’s award-winning La La Land when the couple played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone ride up after eating across the street at L.A.’s Grand Central Market.
Angels Flight has been in its present Hill Street location since 1996, and even though it’s currently non-operational, it provides a great start to a noir walking tour of downtown L.A. The Los Angeles Conservancy offers guided tours, but you can also just go it alone: Start with lunch at the food stands of Grand Central Market, then walk past the splendid wrought-iron atrium of the Bradbury Building on South Broadway (as seen in 1950’s D.O.A.), then walk to City Hall on Spring Street, which was pictured in 1945’s Joan Crawford-starrer Mildred Pierce and 1946’s The Blue Dahlia. For a nosh with noir flavor, order a slice of apple pie and black coffee at the 24-hour Original Pantry Café on Figueroa Street, which has been open since 1924.
Completed in 1935, the Griffith Observatory is almost as iconic as the Hollywood sign. It appeals to anyone who “loves space, science, the stunning view of L.A., and the building’s Art Deco architecture,” says Bonnie Winings, a director for Friends Of The Observatory.
But for movie fans, the Observatory may be recognized most recently as the feature spot in 2016’s magical La La Land dance scene, wherein actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone waltz through the air under a star-filled ceiling. Prior to the award-winning film, the Observatory served as the signature location for 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s new-kid-in-town character tries to impress his classmates inside the planetarium, only to get caught up in a knife fight in the parking lot.
In an interesting real-life plot twist, Dean commissioned a bust of himself shortly before his death at age 24. That bust is now on prominent display near the front lawn of the Observatory. A lot of fan photos still get taken by that statue, says Winings, “since the backdrop is also the Hollywood sign.”
The Los Angeles beach community known as the “Venice of America,” first opened in 1905, was designed as a Southern California beach resort paying homage to its Italian namesake, with a Grand Canal, bridges, piers, a lagoon, an amphitheater, a colonnaded business district, and a miniature railroad.
By the late 1950s, Venice Beach had become so untidy with civic neglect, gang activity, and beatnik subculture that director Orson Welles cast Venice Beach as a seedy border town in 1958’s Touch of Evil. Today, the colonnade on Windward Avenue is still recognizable as the place where Welles’ camera roamed for the famous continuous-shot opening sequence (featuring a tragic dancer, played by actress Joi Lansing, who hauntingly says, “I’ve got this ticking noise in my head”).
For a deeper dive, Venice Beach Walking Tours offers a guided tour dedicated to locally shot films. Or get a bird’s-eye view of the area (and perhaps a blood-orange julep) from the High Rooftop Lounge, atop the boutique Hotel Erwin, while you ponder the film that brought Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Zsa Zsa Gabor together.
If this incongruous structure of Pioneertown reminds you of an Old West cowboy flick, your memory serves you well. Back in 1946, when the public couldn’t get enough of Western movies, silver-screen cowboy stars Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (and other investors) saw an opportunity, and created this 1870s-era frontier town–style movie set about 48 kilometres north of Palm Springs, in hard scrabble desert near Joshua Tree National Park. The site, called Pioneertown, had camera-ready façades resembling saloons, jailhouses, and stables. Inside, the buildings doubled as tourist attractions, with a bowling alley, an ice cream parlour, and motel. The site that’s now Pappy & Harriet’s was used as a “cantina” set for Westerns well into the 1950s.
“It reminded me of the first Star Wars when they walked into the bar and saw all the aliens just drinking and having fun.” — Linda Krantz, co-owner, Pappy & Harriet’s
When Western movies died, the building became a burrito joint popular with outlaw biker gangs. In 1982, Harriet and her husband, Claude “Pappy” Allen, turned the site into the more family-friendly (but still quirky) Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, where you could relax with a cold one, order some Tex-Mex food, and listen to the couple and their granddaughter Kristina sing. When Pappy died in 1994, Pioneertown lost its way, until two women from New York who had visited and loved the site found out it was for sale.
“When I first walked into Pappy & Harriet’s as a customer, it reminded me of the first Star Wars, when they walked into the bar and saw all the aliens just drinking and having fun,” says Linda Krantz, who bought the business with Robyn Celia in 2003. Fixed up but forever eclectic and low-key, Pioneertown still brings together a colourful mix of people. “From bikers to grandmothers to hipsters to cowboys,” notes Krantz. Pappy & Harriet’s now attracts a mix of really good musicians and performers, such as indie-pop favourites Miike Snow and the Shadow Mountain Band. For a just-about-perfect day, hike a Joshua Tree trail, then head here to dig into a bowl of signature carne asada chili (rumoured to be made with a secret blend of tequila and coffee), and dance, clap and hoop it up while the band plays into the night.
There has been a lot of cross-pollination between Palm Springs and Hollywood over the years. The desert’s stark beauty made it a location both for early westerns (Gene Autry lived here) and for the beautiful Tahquitz Canyon waterfall scene in the 1937 classic Lost Horizon.
But the city’s signature mid-century modern architecture has gotten the most cameos. Notably, Frank Sinatra allowed his home on East Alejo Road, known as Twin Palms, to be used as the setting for the 1950 Joan Crawford noir, The Damned Don’t Cry. Today, Twin Palms is frequently listed on city tours (especially during February’s Modernism Week) and you can even rent the place for a few thousand clams a night.
You can more easily access another local film site: the Riviera Palm Springs, on the north side of town, which provided the hotel setting for 1963’s Palm Springs Weekend, an early spring-break feature starring then-emerging stars Stefanie Powers, Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad, and Troy Donahue. The retro-chic Riviera has been updated over the years, but the original Irwin Schuman–designed footprint is still discernible, including the zigzag angle of the guest room balconies.
Having San Diego's Queen Anne–style Hotel del Coronado—about 120 miles south of Los Angeles—portray a Florida resort was a stroke of geographic luck, according to Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder. “People who have never seen this beautiful hotel will never believe we didn’t make these scenes on a movie lot,” the late director was once quoted as saying. “It’s like the past come to life.”
For bystanders, the main attraction during the film shoot was a reportedly relaxed and happy Marilyn Monroe, who portrayed a singer tangled up with on-the-run musicians played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. While only exteriors were shot on location, the cast, crew, and entourage all stayed at the “Hotel Del” during filming (including Curtis’s wife Janet Leigh, who was pregnant at the time with Jamie Lee Curtis). Indoor scenes were shot on sets designed to mimic locations inside the hotel, like the lobby stairs and elevator.
As befits a National Historic Landmark, the Hotel Del has stayed relatively unchanged ever since. For a selfie related to the film, pose by the striking, century-old Dragon Tree next to the resort entrance, which was the backdrop for one scene featuring Jack Lemmon in drag.