There’s a long list of films that have taken advantage of the desert scenery and historical points of reference in and around Palm Springs. Many of them are still worth watching today. Let’s travel back in time to these famous movie sets.
About 35 minutes south of Palm Springs, near Thermal, you can visit one of the area famous hot springs and view the landscape that served as the backdrop for the movie Bugzy. About 90 miles south of Palm Springs, in Borrego Springs, Desert Rats was filmed. There is a huge national park, the Anza-Borrego, featuring hiking trails that boast wildflowers, stunted desert trees, and huge cacti.
The San Gorgonio Pass is a favorite Hollywood backdrop. A few local companies provide tours of the area. You get up close to the gigantic structures, including historic windmills. Learn the science behind Palm Springs’ source of renewable energy. These are just a few of the places that you can still visit that allow you to take the same path as Hollywood heroes like Tom Cruise. Let’s explore other Palm Springs movies and their locales.
This 2013 HBO film about Liberace (Michael Douglas) chronicles the pianist’s life and love affair with long-time partner Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). After treating Liberace’s dog for a form of temporary blindness, Thorson becomes the star’s assistant. One of Thorson’s duties was to drive Liberace’s on stage in a Rolls-Royce limousine to create a grand entrance. Although the two men eventually parted ways, they spent a lifetime together. In the movie, when Liberace is dying of AIDS, he moves to his home in Palm Springs, the Piazza de Liberace. In a critical scene, Thorson drives to Palm Springs for an emotional farewell. The Piazza de Liberace on North Kaweah Road still bears a plaque with the performer’s name. Musical notes waft across the garden fence, and statues feature Roman cherubs and lions along the home’s ornate entrance. To go just a little over the top, the mailbox was made in the shape of a grand piano.
In this 2006 film, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has given up his place in the fabled Impossible Missions Force (IMF) and instead trains raw recruits. However, he’s called back to live action when the team is called upon to bring in Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a nefarious arms dealer.
In a climactic scene, Hunt has to electrocute himself to counteract a micro explosion implanted by his nemesis. After kissing his wife Julia and teaching her how to use a Beretta, he loses consciousness. While Hunt is unconscious, henchman arrive, but Julia shoots them and successfully revives Ethan, at which time he reveals his IMF job to her.
Another culminating scene involves a helicopter chase that weaves through huge wind turbines and was filmed over the San Gorgonio Pass. This wind farm in North Palm Springs contains 2,500 wind turbines and produces enough energy to provide power for the entire city of Palm Springs. It’s so windy here that the wind turbines operate 300 days a year.
Real life couple Annette Benning and Warren Beatty starred in the 1991 movie Bugsy. In the movie, he goes to LA and falls in love with Benning’s character, Virginia Hill. Hill impresses Siegel with her tough-talking personality delivered with Hollywood flair.There’s an interesting subplot regarding Virginia Hill’s motives. Does she love Bugsy or just the money?
For a film about crime, Bugsy exudes optimism. Con man Bugsy Siegel is a bad man, but you can’t help wanting a good ending for him due to Beatty’s innocent portrayal of the mobster.
In real life, Bugsy opened Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel in 1946. However, today’s pink behemoth is a far cry from the original hotel. So, the producers built a new one to maintain historical authenticity. The Flamingo of the movie was built in Thermal, south of Palm Springs on I-10.
1988’s Rain Man journals an American road comedy. Directed by Barry Levinson with writers Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the acclaimed movie features a selfish and abrasive businessman named Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise). Babbitt learns that his wealthy, estranged father has passed away but left his estate to another son, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Charlie didn’t know he had a brother and is equally surprised to discover that Raymond is an autistic savant. The movie’s bittersweet ending shows a tearful Charlie returning Raymond to his doctor’s care. However, the two brothers have bonded and share a close relationship.
Near the beginning of the movie, Charlie Babbitt and his girlfriend drive past the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm. Later, Charlie and Raymond stop at the Food Shop, a convenience store, at the end of a cross-country road trip. Charlie puts sunscreen on his brother’s nose causing Raymond to complain about his “slippery” face. The convenience store is still there and looks much the same as it did in the movie.
In this 1971 Bond film, James (Sean Connery) investigates mysterious activities in the global diamond market. 007 finds out his archrival Blofeld (Charles Gray) has stockpiled diamonds to use them in a deadly laser satellite Blofeld devised. Bond accepts the assistance of gorgeous smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). Together, they set out to defeat the murderous madman to save the world.
Bond is further motivated by revenge for his wife’s death at Blofeld’s hands. While hunting down Spectre operatives, he discovers a facility that creates Blofeld look-alikes using plastic surgery. Bond unwittingly kills a test subject, but later knocks off the real Blofeld, drowning him in superheated mud. The movie features a reclusive millionaire, Willard Whyte, who has a mansion in Las Vegas and a winter retreat in Palm Springs.
Sold for $8 million in 2016, the Elrod House is portrayed as Willard Whyte’s winter retreat. This futuristic home is an ethereal construction of exposed desert rock that protrudes into a 60-foot living area. The angular, vaulted ceiling and a smoked glass wall that opens to the elements appealed to film designer Ken Adams, who chose it for Diamonds are Forever. The home was constructed for an eccentric interior designer and fits in well with the bold, dramatic locales typical of the franchise.
In this 1963 classic, LA college kids head to Palm Springs for Easter weekend. Student Jim Munroe (Troy Donahue) falls in love with Bunny Dixon (Stefanie Powers). The only problem is, Bunny’s protective dad is the Palm Springs police chief (Andrew Duggan). Jim’s roommate, Biff Roberts (Jerry Van Dyke,) has a hit-and-miss romance with local girl Amanda North (Zeme North). The two try to get together while babysitting the son of hotel owner Naomi Yates, who likes the group’s chaperone.
The Mid-Summer Night’s Dream inspired plot continues to twist as rich playboy Eric Dean (Robert Conrad) and a Hollywood stuntman (Ty Hardin) fight over a pretty face from Beverley Hills (Connie Stevens). Plotlines converge, and all ends well in this early genre college mayhem collaboration.
The two hotels in the film are the Riviera Hotel (now the Riviera Palm Springs) on North Indian Canyon Drive and the swanky the Desert Palms Inn – (Las Casa Yates in the film) on Jones Road in Cathedral City.
Desert Rats is a black-and-white war film. Released by 20th Century Fox, the movie stars James Mason, Richard Burton and Robert Newton. The film was released a year after The Desert Fox, which was criticized for sympathizing with Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The Desert Rats is based on the 1941-1942 battles in Tobruk, Libya. Parts of the film were shot in Borrego Springs, just south of Palm Springs. The small town is surrounded by a state park.
In this 1943 film, Danny Churchill (Mickey Rooney), a young playboy, is enrolled by his concerned father at remote Cody College, located somewhere in the American West. His father hopes Danny will settle down and study and stay clear of girls. However, on the way to Cody, he meets Ginger (Judy Garland), a postmistress and Cody student. Danny doesn’t like the school at first but later fights to save it with help from his new friends.
A lot of the shooting took place in Palm Springs. However, large cutouts of saguaro cacti were used to enhance the desert backdrop, which are not native to the area. The temperatures of 120 degree days and dust and noise from low flying planes on a nearby WWII airfield production delayed the film. But, it was eventually completed, though overbudget.
Shot in Palm Springs in 1936, the movie features local casinos of the time. The plot revolves around the British Earl of Blythstone, who loses his fortune to gambling debts. Blythstone travels to Palm Springs and assumes the alias of Captain Smith. His daughter Joan follows him to Palm Springs, unaware of her father’s difficulties and fleeing a gambling addiction of her own.
Eventually, after her plan of finding a rich husband blunders, Joan settles on a cowboy who has fallen in love with her and has even given her a horse.
Gambling and casinos were an economic driver of Palm Springs in the 1930s as well as an established retreat for the rich, as reflected in early movies filmed there.
You can still visit casinos in Palm Springs, such as the 5-star Agua Caliente and Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, or use their luxury accommodations as a base of operations to visit other area attractions.
Trace the steps of Hollywood legends or forge your own path through the Palm Springs area for an unforgettable roadtrip you can use to inspire your own film for social media fame.
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