Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie.
PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. / YOUTUBE
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what drove Greater Palm Springs’ popularity as a go-to destination for the movie industry. It might have been the fair weather, the distinctive quality of light, the visual versatility, and the proximity to Los Angeles.
The resort region’s exotic locales unfold within driving distance of Hollywood backlots, enabling it to double for locations ranging from Judaea in the silent film Salomé (1918) and the North African desert in The Sheik (1921) to Asia’s Kunlun Mountains, the site of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1937). Couple that with a reputation as a safe haven for even the most ill-behaved celebrities; people, including Hollywood’s notorious gossip columnists, just seemed to leave them alone here. Decades later, the California Film Commission offered filmmakers another incentive: up to 30 percent in tax credits for qualified productions shot in the state.
In last year’s Don’t Worry Darling, the Olivia Wilde–directed thriller starring Harry Styles and Florence Pugh, the charming midcentury neighborhoods of Palm Springs substitute for the fictional utopia Victory Project. While critics hammered the film, the city itself never looked better. When Victory’s desperate housewives step out into their perfectly manicured cul-de-sac, it’s like watching Dorothy stepping out into Munchkin Land. Shot at Canyon View Estates, the Kaufmann Desert House, and the Albert Frey–designed Palm Springs Visitors Center and City Hall, the film is a visual valentine to the city’s proliferation of midcentury modernism. The dreamy backdrop secured location manager Chris Baugh and his team two wins at the California on Location Awards in 2022.
Florence Pugh in Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling.
PHOTO VIA WARNER BROS. / ALAMY
Before that, when Bradley Cooper set out to make A Star Is Born (2018), a remake of the 1937 romance about the tribulations of life in the spotlight, he sought to film the big concert sequences at live music festivals. Home to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Stagecoach, the Empire Polo Club in Indio received significant screen time. The production started principal photography there on a weekday in April 2017 so as not to interfere with Coachella’s two consecutive weekends, headlined by Cooper’s co-star, Lady Gaga, who jumped into the festival lineup when a pregnant Beyoncé bowed out. The production returned to the polo grounds the following weekend, during Stagecoach, to shoot the movie’s opening concert sequence with Cooper as rocker Jackson Maine. The performance was filmed discreetly — and without a live mic, so as not to publicize the original tracks — in between sets by Willie Nelson and Jamey Johnson.
What’s in a name? Well, that’s a question for the producers of Palm Springs, the 2020 Andy Samberg comedy that The New York Times called “wildly funny.” What’s not so funny is that, although the plot centers around a destination wedding in our desert, the movie was primarily shot in less costly Santa Clarita, Palmdale, and other Southern California locations, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Fortunately, the desert wins an appreciable number of productions.
Anyone who’s ever driven the twisty Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, aka Highway 74, will find themselves hitting the imaginary brakes while watching Jimmy Durante negotiate its hairpin turns at 80 mph in the opening scene of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). While far less unsettling, additional high-speed segments of the star-spangled movie were filmed in Palm Springs and Twentynine Palms.
The midcentury neighborhoods and sun-drenched landscapes of Palm Springs garnered Don’t Worry Darling awards for its location crew.
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The action takes to the sky in Mission Impossible III (2006), which includes a hold-your-breath helicopter chase filmed through the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm. A wind turbine can cost upward of $300,000, so while the explosions were plentiful, the effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic supplemented their destruction with computer-generated rocket sequences. (Conversely, nothing was added when Tim Robbins bared it all stepping out of a mud bath at Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs in Robert Altman’s scathing 1992 take on Hollywood, The Player.)
Released in July 2023, the florid world of Barbie may appear to rely on CGI, but production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer fabricated Barbie Land at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in England. Albeit across the pond, the set was informed by midcentury gems in Palm Springs (the Kaufmann Desert House, the Moorse House) and features a hand painted backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains.
If high camp in the real-life low desert is what you’re after, check out 1950’s The Damned Don’t Cry starring Joan Crawford. Portions of the film, loosely based on the relationship between Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill, were shot in Palm Springs at Twin Palms, Frank Sinatra’s first desert home. Speaking of Siegel, the avocado-, rust-, and gold-painted Flamingo Hotel in the Warren Beatty crime drama Bugsy (1991) was re-created in Thermal because the Las Vegas hotel had been modified so many times since its 1946 opening that it no longer resembled the original.
Agnes Ayres disguises herself in the name of love opposite Rudolph Valentino.
PHOTO VIA FAMOUS PLAYERS, PARAMOUNT, ALBUM, ALAMY
Although Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), with Paul Reubens, doesn’t mention where trucker Large Marge transports Pee-wee, it’s hard to mistake the Cabazon Dinosaurs, Mr. Rex and Dinny, for anything but what they are — an iconic local landmark and one of America’s most popular roadside attractions.
It was during Pee-wee’s heyday that Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono put the kibosh on spring break shenanigans, which had spiraled out of control. Palm Springs Weekend (1963) arguably established the town as the West Coast epicenter for teenage rites of spring.
Apparently, when Warner Bros. honcho Jack Warner saw the box office receipts of rival studio MGM’s Fort Lauderdale–set Where the Boys Are, he greenlit production on Palm Springs Weekend and cast many of his studio’s young contract players, including Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, and Robert Conrad, in the starring roles. For three months, the production — including its 64 extras — moved to the Riviera Hotel (now the Margaritaville) on North Indian Canyon Drive and The Desert Palms Inn in Cathedral City. At the time, Donahue was starring in the Warner Bros. series Surfside Six. “We all wanted to be movie stars,” he reportedly said of the Palm Springs Weekend cast, “butnobody thought this was the kind of movie that would be particularly advantageous to our careers. The best thing about the film was that it was being made in Palm Springs, and I was there to drink and get laid.”
Which calls to mind a young, Armani-clad Richard Gere in 1980’s American Gigolo. Working as a high-priced Los Angeles–based escort, he agrees to drive to Palm Springs as a last-minute stand-in for a fellow hustler. Highway 111 makes a cameo as Gere speeds into town for the high-paying assignment, involving a husband who likes to watch his wife get tied up and … well, you get the picture. When the wife winds up dead, guess who becomes the No. 1 suspect?
A New York socialite (Joan Crawford) visits a gangster’s desert lair in The Damed Don't Cry.
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The singing cowboy and his sidekick fight for law and order in the West.
PHOTO VIA CBS, GETTY
College students head to Palm Springs for a groovy spring break weekend in the 1963 film Palm Springs Weekend.
PHOTO VIA PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Portraying a cab driver, Jack Weston joins the race for buried treasure in Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
PHOTO VIA PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Apropos of seduction, perhaps no screen icon has been more successful than James Bond. In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), he entangles not one, but two bikini-clad vixens — Bambi and Thumper — in a swimming pool overlooking what is supposed to be the lights of Las Vegas. However, the house where the frisky threesome enjoys more than just a dip in the pool is actually the legendary Elrod House located on Southridge Drive in Palm Springs. Designed in 1968 by John Lautner, its characterization as “one of the most architecturally significant homes in the world” might send Modernism Week visitors’ hearts aflutter, but it was Playboy’s apt description, calling it “the ultimate bachelor pad,” that attracted Bond’s set designer, Ken Adam. “It was as though I designed it,” Adam told Palm Springs Life in 2013. “I didn’t have to do anything to it.”
For almost a century, celebrities have made their home in Palm Springs, and numerous films and documentaries about famous residents have either been set or filmed here. One of the best is HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, Palm Springs’ most famous and flamboyant virtuoso. It received a rare 94 percent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the biopic about the relationship between the entertainer and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), his much younger boy toy, chauffeur, and adopted son — talk about versatility! — was shot at several Palm Springs locations, including Casa de Monte Vista and Our Lady of Solitude Church.
Of all the stars who left their handprints on our hearts and our desert, Sinatra was the kingpin. For more than 50 years, he called the Coachella Valley “home” and his Rancho Mirage compound “My Heaven.” Speaking about his heartfelt 2018 documentary, Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home, director Leo Zahn told KESQ News Channel 3, “I wanted to make a film specifically about Sinatra and Palm Springs — not a biography, not a film about his music, but [a film about] this town.” Featuring commentary from those who knew him best, the documentary goes into the homes, restaurants, and gin-soaked joints where Ol’ Blue Eyes reigned.
When director Mel Damski first saw The Fabulous Palms Springs Follies at the historic Plaza Theatre, he knew he had to make a movie about the show. His Oscar-nominated short film, Still Kicking: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies (1997), provides a backstage pass to a year in the life of the show, which packed in the AARP crowd for over two decades with its lavish costumes, chandelier headpieces, vaudeville schtick, and a unique twist: Everyone in the cast was 55 or older. When most women were planning
their retirement, the troupe of former show-girls, Rockettes, and June Taylor dancers was still performing high kicks and age-defying splits that left audiences gasping and the stage manager stocking up on liniment.
Sean Connery infiltrates a diamond-smuggling ring as Bond, James Bond.
PHOTO VIA PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
You can’t talk about the desert in film without nodding to the importance of Joshua Tree and the surrounding areas. Pioneertown was built in 1946 as an Old West movie set, after all. The brainchild of a band of Hollywood investors, including Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Gene Autry (whose eponymous television show was shot there), the dusty patch of land some 35 miles north of Palm Springs was modeled after a 19th-century frontier town. The original cantina became Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, the honky-tonk saloon that’s hosted legendary live performances by the likes of Kesha, The Psychedelic Furs, Wynonna Judd, Patti Smith, and Paul McCartney. The gritty venue has appeared in several movies, too, including the 2017 black comedy Ingrid Goes West, starring Elizabeth Olsen as an Instagram influencer and Aubrey Plaza as her unhinged stalker.
Long before the streaming revolution upset the balance of power, the desert’s screen time was measured in movies. But as early as 1955, television audiences were getting a glimpse of Palm Springs’ magic as re-created on Desilu’s Hollywood soundstage. In the fourth season of I Love Lucy, after having a spat with their husbands, Lucy and Ethel head to Palm Springs, where they meet Rock Hudson, who teaches them a hilarious lesson in love and acceptance.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga filmed scenes for A Star Is Born in 2017 in between Coachella festival weekends and during Stagecoach.
PHOTO VIA WARNER BROS. / ALAMY
In the first episode of High Desert, a short-lived Apple TV+ dramedy that premiered in May 2023, we meet characters played by Patricia Arquette and Matt Dillon as they gather to celebrate Thanksgiving in a midcentury home in the Indian Canyons neighborhood. Although the series is set in Yucca Valley and was partially filmed in Lancaster, Palm Springs dazzles in the premiere episode.
In the HBO series The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow stars as Valerie Cherish, a former A-list celebrity whose painful descent to the B-list is never more evident than in the episode “Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs.” Upon her arrival at the stylish Parker Palm Springs hotel, Valerie discovers just how far the mighty have fallen when she is unable to find an open lounge chair by the crowded pool and realizes that, to secure one, she’ll have to set her alarm clock for 7 a.m. the following day. For anyone who has endured a loudmouthed agent barking into a mobile phone at Norma’s, this episode capably captures the world of the upper-echelon industry folk who frequent our arid playground for weekend getaways.
The Coachella Valley stars as the ultimate spring break getaway in Palm Springs Weekend (1963) and the faraway paradise Shangri-la in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937).
PHOTOS VIA PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
According to World Population Review, with its 45,912 permanent residents, Palm Springs ranks as the 869th largest city in the United States. Yet due to its prominence in popular culture, it garners as much media attention as cities 100 times its size. The exposure this area receives through motion pictures, television, music festivals, and other forms of entertainment has not only earned the desert its well-deserved place in the sun … but in the zeitgeist.