Hollywood’s Immortalizing of Famous Palm Springs Locations

From Joan Crawford’s dip in Frank Sinatra’s desert swimming pool to Tom Cruise whirling over the San Gorgonio Pass windmills in a helicopter chase, Hollywood’s deep knowledge of the Palm Springs area has been showcased in many iconic film moments

Posted By: Matt Link Thursday, January 9, 2014
Palm Springs and Hollywood make the ideal on-screen and off-screen couple: The silver screen’s very first heartthrob, Rudolf Valentino, filmed scenes for his 1921 megahit The Sheik just outside Palm Springs, and later honeymooned here with wife number two. During the Midcentury apex of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, nearly every major star had a vacation house in Palm Springs – from Marilyn Monroe to Lucille Ball to Rock Hudson to Elvis.

The silent screen’s greatest heartthrob Rudolf Valentino strikes a pose alongside William Pester (aka “The Hermit of Palm Springs” who lived naked in a hut in the Palm Canyon oasis).

Decades of Hollywood filmmakers have focused their lenses on the Coachella Valley, including 1988’s Best Picture winner Rain Man (Tom Cruise smothers sunscreen on Dustin Hoffman on the highway into Palm Springs) and 2006’s Mission: Impossible III (Tom Cruise attempts to save Keri Russell’s life in a helicopter hurling over the San Gorgonio Windfarm just to the north of Palm Springs). 

One of Hollywood history’s most famous scenes gorgeously showcasing Palm Springs happens in Frank Capra’s 1937 classic Lost Horizon. In it, Tahquitz Canyon stands in for none other than Shangri-La itself, and Ronald Colman comes upon Jane Wyatt skinny-dipping at the canyon’s 60-foot waterfall (screenshots below).

Someone  must have been asleep at the wheel to allow the filming of not one but two 1970s TV disaster movies revolving around imminent death on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: 1974’s Skyway to Death and 1979’s Hanging by a Thread. (Let the record show the tram boasts an excellent safety record – fear not!)

More recently, Academy Award-winning actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were in Palm Springs in early 2013 shooting scenes for the hit HBO movie Behind the Candelabra, about the life of longtime Palm Springs resident Liberace. Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh filmed at actual desert locations from the famed pianist’s life, including Our Lady of Solitude Church where Liberace’s 1987 funeral was really held (as seen in a screenshot from the movie below).

In 2013, The Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism launched a new website aimed squarely at filmmakers and producers scouting locations for upcoming movies, television commercials, and advertising photo shoots. The city’s new “virtual film office” at www.psfilmfriendly.com knows what directors and producers need, and offers an easily-downloadable image library, a free film permit application, and a directory of film-friendly locations and local resources.

For its size, the Palm Springs’ area has a surprisingly large infrastructure in place for film production, including government offices and local filmmaking organizations: Palm Springs Film Office, Palm Springs International Film Society, Palm Springs Film Alliance, The Desert Film Society, Palm Springs Women in Film and Television, The Inland Empire Film Commission, Independent Filmmakers of the Inland Empire – the list goes on.

But on with the show! Below are clips from famous Hollywood movies both classic and modern, which featured iconic Palm Springs locales in pivotal scenes. Get the popcorn ready!

The Flick: The Damned Don't Cry (1950)
The Star: Joan Crawford
The Desert Icon: Franks Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate


In this gloriously tawdry film noir, Ms. Crawford plays a dowdy housewife turned gangster moll (based on gangster Bugsy Siegel’s sharp-tongued girlfriend Virginia Hill). Joan hangs out at her mafia boyfriend’s desert pad, which is actually Frank Sinatra’s 1947 estate Twin Palms in Palm Springs’ Movie Colony neighborhood. Built by Mid-Century Modern master architect E. Stewart Williams, the home is still a movie location rental and vacation rental property, although nowadays it’s not surrounded by as much empty desert as in the clip you can view right here.

The Flick: Palm Springs Weekend (1963)
The Stars:  Troy Donahue, Stephanie Powers, Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad
The Desert Icons: The Ocotillo Lodge, The Riviera Palm Springs

Today, this tale of teenagers on spring break looks about as wild as a detergent commercial. The film’s beefcake star Troy Donahue later described the milquetoast experience: “If you said your lines and didn’t fall down, they’d print it.” Palm Springs Weekend placed the desert getaway squarely on the Baby Boomer map, and featured two then brand-new desert resorts: The Ocotillo Lodge and The Riviera Hotel. The 124-room Ocotillo Lodge was a 1956 collaboration between the Alexander Co. and the architectural firm of William Krisel and Dan Saxon Palmer, and later owned by the “singing cowboy” Gene Autry. Irwin Schuman, the owner of legendary Palm Springs nightclub Chi-Chi, debuted the 406-room Riviera in 1958 to compete with burgeoning Las Vegas resorts. The Riviera reopened in 2008 after a chic $70 million overhaul. You can save two hours of your life but getting the general gist of Palm Springs Weekend by viewing the overview clip of the film right here.

The Flick: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
The Stars:  Sean Connery, Jill St. John
The Desert Icons: The Elrod House, The Kirk Douglas House

Bond discovers Lana Wood (sister of Natalie) tied to a cement block in the pool of a Donald Wexler-designed Mid-Century pad in Palm Springs’ Old Las Palmas neighborhood – a home that just happened to be owned in real-life by star Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne. But the most memorable scene in this campy 007 outing features Sean Connery in a wide pink necktie getting his backside expertly kicked by two bikini-clad gymnasts - named Bambi and Thumper, of course! When the 007 series’ visionary set designer Ken Adam first set eyes upon The Elrod House on Palm Springs’ star-studded Southridge Drive, he recounted: “I said ‘This as though I designed it. I don’t have to do anything.’” Dubbed ‘the ultimate bachelor pad’ by Playboy magazine, architect John Lautner designed The Elrod House in 1968 (as well as Bob Hope’s 1979 UFO-style edifice at the top of Southridge). The 2,400 square-foot circular home features curved retractable glass walls opening up to a cliffside pool – perfect for teaching the breaststroke as illustrated in this clip right here.

The Flick: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
The Star:  Paul Reubens
The Desert Icons: The Cabazon Dinosaurs

Nearly every visitor driving into the desert from the coast knows they are getting close to Palm Springs when they pass two life-sized dinosaur statues right off of Interstate 10. In 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (director Tim Burton’s debut feature film), Mr. Pee-Wee comes face to face with the Cabazon Dinosaurs during his Herculean quest to find his beloved bicycle. Pee-wee climbs inside the dinosaurs with his new platonic waitress friend, only to be chased round the monuments by her jealous boyfriend wielding a huge dinosaur bone. To reveal anything more would ruin one of the most bizarrely hilarious Hollywood films of all time. Here’s a taste at this clip right here.

The Flick: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
The Stars:  George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts
The Desert Icon: A. Quincy Jones’ Old Las Palmas Estate

Palm Springs stood in for Vegas in the 2001 remake of the Rat Pack classic Ocean’s Eleven. George Clooney and Brad Pitt descend upon the swanky home of casino owner Elliot Gould, who resides in a lavish Old Las Palmas house designed in 1959 by Midcentury architect A. Quincy Jones (of the Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands fame). The film’s producer Jerry Weintraub, a Coachella Valley resident for over three decades, helped choose the 6,307 square-foot, three-bedroom home, and two of the movie’s key scenes highlight its front gate and carport, mirror-and-rock walled living room, sprawling backyard, and trapezoid pool as shown in this clip here.


  • Russ Cugno Tuesday, January 14, 2014 10:49 AM

    This so fun, more please.

  • Patty Magaña Thursday, May 1, 2014 21:43 PM

    While filming "Rainman", one of the TWO cars that Tom Cruise drove was parked in front of our house! My nieces were visiting from Michigan, so we walked around the corner and saw the director chairs that had "Tom Cruise" & "Dustin Hoffman" written on the back! I asked if we could take a quick picture and they said "Of course!" I took LOTS of pictures but unfortunately I couldn't DEVELOP THEM ! I found out at the store there was NO FILM in the camera!! Only my nieces & I actually KNOW what & who we saw !!!

  • Eric Harnden Friday, October 17, 2014 11:04 AM

    Thanks for your mention of Independent Filmmakers of the Inland Empire. We are doing our best to bring back old Hollywood to the IE!

  • Jacqueline Overfield Friday, October 23, 2015 18:16 PM

    When i was about nine years old, my father would bring us to The Riviera Hotel and it was fantastic! There was the biggest swimming pool, with diving boards deluxe! It seemed very elegant, and just like Liberace, over the top! Around that same time, I was very lucky to grow up near the Sunset Strip in LA, and my next door neighbor was Troy Donahue. Troy was exceptionally handsome and humble. Gracious, and kind are a few words that come to mind when i remember Troy!

  • Leon Saturday, February 20, 2016 4:56 AM

    Shelley Hill Pools has over 40 years of experience providing in ground, concrete, indoor, built in, and infinity pools, in new york, hudson valley. Our focus on quality and aesthetics has made us one of the leading providers of high-end pools in the community, which is why we are the top choice for many of your neighbors. you can look us up at shelleyhillswimmingpools.com

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