Ready for Their Close-Ups

Hollywood’s love affair with the desert’s midcentury modern masterpieces lives on in films

Matthew Link Arts & Entertainment 0 Comments

Since Hollywood’s first heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino, shot The Sheik in the desert in 1921, filmmakers have come to the Coachella Valley like bees to cactus blossoms. With DVDs and movie downloads, you can see some of the area’s best-known landmarks from the comfort of your sofa. Tahquitz Canyon’s 60-foot waterfall appears at the tear-jerking climax of Frank Capra’s 1937 classic Lost Horizon. In the 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man, Tom Cruise smothers sunscreen on Dustin Hoffman near the windmills of the San Gorgonio Pass. Cruise visits the wind farms again in 2006 — this time via a helicopter chase — in Mission Impossible III. And Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) comes face to face with the life-size Cabazon dinosaurs in 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

The vast Salton Sea basin surfaces in movies ranging from 1942’s Wake Island to 1957’s The Monster That Challenged the World to the 2002 Val Kilmer vehicle aptly named The Salton Sea. Even Knott’s Soak City, the Palm Springs water-theme park, and Cathedral City’s Boomers miniature golf course had Hollywood close-ups in 2000’s Ben Affleck-Gwyneth Paltrow romance Bounce.

A few of Tinseltown’s desert depictions caused tourism board officials to squirm in their seats: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway was not at its most visitor-friendly in TV movies Skyway to Death (1974) and Hanging by a Thread (1979). And in the 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the opening shots of Jimmy Durante careening his 1948 Chevrolet off a hairpin curve on the Pines to Palms Highway above Palm Desert did not bode well for tourists traveling by car, either.

But Hollywood got it right when showcasing the desert’s most important contribution to pop culture: its stunning collection of midcentury modern architectural masterpieces. Add these five films to your queue:


The poster shows a defiant Joan Crawford with arms akimbo and the tagline: “Call me cheap? Nothing’s cheap when you pay the price she’s paying!” The title of The Damned Don’t Cry originates from the Eugene O’Neill play Mourning Becomes Electra, but any artsy pretense ends there. This tawdry film noir about a tragic housewife who transforms herself into a gangster’s moll was based in part on gangster Bugsy Siegel’s sharp-tongued girlfriend Virginia Hill. Rather appropriate, as the last act of the movie is set at Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate (1145 E. Via Colusa, Palm Springs), where rumor has it Ol’ Blue Eyes hosted mafia members as houseguests.

In 1947, a then 31-year-old Sinatra waltzed into desert master architect’s E. Stewart Williams’ Palm Springs office and said he wanted a Georgian-style house built in the desert. Abhorred by the idea and fearful it would destroy his firm’s reputation, Williams finally swayed Sinatra with visionary renderings of a low-slung, redwood-clad, glass-walled futuristic structure. For the filming of The Damned Don’t Cry, Sinatra relented and allowed Twin Palms’ exteriors to stand in for a gangster’s desert hideaway, as repayment for an unknown favor Sinatra owed someone.

In the black-and-white film, Joan struts her stuff along Twin Palm’s canopy skylight entryway and piano-shaped swimming pool and is later violently beaten up by her gangster boyfriend. Which is somewhat fitting, considering Sinatra’s second wife Ava Gardner said of her time at Twin Palms: “It was the site of probably the most spectacular fight of our young married life, and, honey, don’t think I don’t know that’s really saying something …” As proof to Gardner’s point, the master bathroom sink still bears the scars of an off-target champagne bottle Sinatra hurled at the actress’s head.


Most of the 2006 indie film Alpha Dog — directed by Nick Cassavetes (son of actress Gena Rowlands and filmmaker John Cassavetes) — takes place in Palm Springs, although the story’s real-life kidnapping and murder occurred 200 miles away in Santa Barbara. In the film, Justin Timberlake’s character holds the kidnapped teenager (Anton Yelchin) in a gilded cage — the Koerner House on S. Calle De Maria in Deepwell, a coveted Palm Springs neighborhood. The four-bedroom, four-bath midcentury house sprawls over 4,224 square feet on 1.1 acres. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the back of the 1955 home, gazing out to the rectangular pool, grassy lawns, and wire-free views of towering Mount San Jacinto. It’s a perfect example of architect E. Stewart Williams’ open simplicity.  

Alpha Dog also capitalizes on the Burgess House (also known as The Bougain Villa House) on gated Palisades Drive. Architects Hugh Kaptur and William Burgess built the house high on the rocky hillside above Palm Springs Art Museum, making full use of the panoramic views by reflecting the vistas with floor-to-ceiling mirrored-glass windows and sparkling pools lined with an arched canopy walkwway. The 1958 house has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and 2,932 square feet of living space on a one-acre plot of land.

The film showcases yet a third desert landmark: The tiki-style Caliente Tropics Hotel. Opened in 1964 when Polynesian-themed resorts and restaurants bloomed, the 90-room Caliente Tropics was one of several tiki-inspired roadside properties owned by millionaire motelier Ken Kimes (later charged with various crimes by the FBI). A $2.2 million renovation in 2011 brought the property back to its retro glory, retaining its huge A-frame-covered driveway and grounds sprinkled with carved island statues.


The usually hardnosed New York Times called it “a harmless, good natured romp,” but when cameras rolled on the 1963 teen flick Palm Springs Weekend, it caused quite a local stir. Palm Springs Councilman Harry Paisley blasted the Warner Brothers’ script as “the most terrible thing I ever read … They make a fool of our police chief, our hotels, and everything else.” Today, this tale of teenagers on spring break looks about as wild as a detergent commercial. But Palm Springs Weekend placed the desert getaway squarely on the Baby Boomer map and showcased two local resorts: The Ocotillo Lodge and The Riviera Hotel. Built in 1956 as a collaboration between the Alexander Co. and the architecture firm of William Krisel and Dan Saxon Palmer, Ocotillo Lodge featured an enormous champagne cork-shaped pool and portico canopy entry. The 124-room resort served as the natural habitat for the movie’s sunbaked horny teens.

Palm Springs Weekend’s ponytailed kids also frolicked at Riviera Palm Springs, which reopened in 2008 after a $70 million overhaul. The 406-room hotel returned to its original 1958 color scheme of canary yellow, orange, and chartreuse, with the addition of retro-chic decor and a 12,000-square-foot spa with an indoor pool. First designed and opened by Irwin Schuman (owner of Palm Springs’ famous Chi Chi Club), the Riviera was the only hotel in the United States at the time to be built in a spoke-wheel shape.


Palm Springs stood in for Vegas in the 2001 remake of the Rat Pack classic Ocean’s Eleven. In the film, a clan of good-looking thieves (Clooney and Pitt among them) descend upon the swanky home of not-so-good-looking former casino owner Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould). The film’s producer, Jerry Weintraub, a Palm Desert resident, helped choose the lavish house at 999 N. Patencio in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood for Ocean’s Eleven. The filmmakers made full use of the 6,307 square-foot, three-bedroom, 4.75-bath single-family house in two of the movie’s key scenes — highlighting its sprawling back yard, trapezoid pool, front gate and carport, and mirror-and-rock walled living room. A. Quincy Jones designed the house in 1959 for a prominent Chicago family. The architect’s preference for glass, beams, atriums, interior light, cement blocks, and courtyards also show in other valley buildings, including his 1948 Town & Country Center in downtown Palm Springs and his 1966 Annenberg estate, Sunnylands, in Rancho Mirage.


In 1971’s campy 007 outing Diamonds Are Forever, a cool-suited Sean Connery (the wide pink tie can be forgiven) sneaks into the desert retreat of a reclusive billionaire and quickly has his backside expertly kicked by two gymnasts named Bambi and Thumper — wearing nothing but bikinis, of course. Just when it looks like Bond finally met his feline match, the trio all end up in a pool overlooking Palm Springs. When the Bond series’ visionary set designer Ken Adam set eyes upon the Elrod House on star-studded Southridge Drive, he recounted: “I said ‘This is as though I designed it. I don’t have to do anything.’” Called “the ultimate bachelor pad” by Playboy, architect John Lautner designed the Elrod House in 1968 (as well as Bob Hope’s UFO-style edifice at the dead end of Southridge in 1979). Lautner created a very Bondian lair by incorporating the massive boulders on the 23-acre site into the Elrod House’s actual structure, in keeping with the organic architecture philosophy of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright. The 2,400-square-foot, two-bedroom, 2.5-bath circular home features curved retractable glass walls opening up to a cliffside pool and sweeping mountain vistas.

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