Palm Springs In The Movies

Palm trees and rocks against a blue sky in Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, California
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A destination for movie stars since the silent film era, Palm Springs has also long been on the short list for location scouts in search of substitutes for desertscapes around the world.

In 1918, Salome starring Theda Bara was filmed in the Indian Canyons (now the preserve with crazy good hiking). It wasn’t the first documented movie shot in Palm Springs — that was The Heir to the Hoorah in 1916 at the same location, directed by Cecil B. De Mille’s brother, William Churchill De Mille. The only copy of this film is in the Library of Congress. You can find the somewhat bizarre synopsis here.

The next two movies are both on streamers, and both shot in Palm Springs at Tahquitz Canyon’s waterfall. This area was used as a stand-in for Shangri-la in the 1937 film Lost Horizon (starring Jane Wyatt) and subbed for the Sahara Desert in The Sheik (1921) starring silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. He became a frequent guest at The Palm Springs Hotel after it was purchased by the White sisters.

Tahquitz Canyon waterfall

Tahquitz Canyon’s waterfall. Courtesy of Visit Palm Springs

Cornelia White was integral to Valentino not being convicted in a crime of a scandalous nature. Here’s the story: Valentino’s divorce decree to actress Jean Acker stated he could not remarry for one year after their divorce, but Valentino’s love for costume designer Natacha Rambova was reckless and apparently lawless, because one day before the year was up, they eloped to Mexico. Their honeymoon was spent at The Palm Springs Hotel, and somebody snitched. At trial, White testified that Rambova spent the night with her and not Valentino, who slept on the porch. As the marriage wasn’t consummated, Valentino was acquitted of bigamy.

But we’re not here for salacious stories (at least not today). We’re here for the movies that were filmed in and around Palm Springs and I’m gonna give you the locations of some of the places that still remain today. Let’s go!

The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950) starring Mommie Dearest herself, Joan Crawford, playing a gangster’s moll. This film noir is set at her boyfriend’s “Desert Springs” getaway. The home was actually the Twin Palms Estate, a.k.a. the main residence of Palm Springs’ most famous resident, gangster-friendly Frank Sinatra. It’s in what is called The Movie Colony neighborhood where — you guessed it — a lot of movie stars had homes. 

Frank Sinatra standing next to a microphone

Frank Sinatra. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Sinatra’s is a class one historic site designed by E. Stewart Williams and built by the Alexander Company, the one/two punch that solidifies its mid-century modern provenance. You can drive past it at 1148 E. Alejo Road, and if you get to the website fast enough, you can book a tour of it during Modernism Week. A wee bit of apocryphal gossip: a crack in the vanity of the main bathroom supposedly happened when Ava Gardner threw a champagne bottle at Frank during one of their famous fights. (Rent the movie on Prime, Apple, YouTube, Vudu.)

Palm Springs Weekend (1963) — Forget Daytona Beach and all the other Floridian hotspots where the spring break beach movies were set, this film has Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, and the Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Stephanie Powers, partying in Palm Springs. Still standing locations: the police station at 200 S. Civic Drive and Margaritavilla (known as The Riviera at the time) at 1600 N. Indian Canyon Drive. (Rent on Vudu, Apple TV, Amazon Prime.)

Diamonds Are Forever (1971), starring Sean Connery as Bond, used Palm Springs as a stand in for the South African portion of their hijinks. Most importantly, the marvelous summer home of billionaire brainiac Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) is still standing and also a class one historic site. The Elrod Home at 2175 Southridge Drive is architecturally significant, designed by starchitect John Lautner. Unfortunately you can’t go in, and you can’t really get to it. It’s way up on a bluff and it’s gated. The best way to see it is from East Palm Canyon and look up. (Do not do this if you are the driver, ‘k?) 

The "Diamonds are Forever" poster

The “Diamonds are Forever” poster.

It’s right next to Bob Hope’s house (also designed by Lautner), the spaceship looking residence you can spot while heading east on Highway 111. Your best chances to go in, or at least see the outside closer, are during Modernism Week, but it’s not a sure bet. A definite bucket list item for any Bondophile though. (Movie is available on premium streaming subscriptions only.)

American Gigolo (1980) — Besides the fact that this is about a male prostitute, a bit of a switcheroo for Hollywood, it is remembered (fondly) by many for its full-frontal nude shots of Richard Gere. As for Palm Springs? When he and Michelle (Lauren Hutton) come for the weekend they stay at 2389 S. Yosemite Drive in the Indian Canyons neighborhood. If you’re a golfer, you can actually play a round at Indian Canyons North Course and get closer than a driveby. If you’re a man who enjoys full-frontal nudity, check out our men’s swimsuit-optional boutique hotels. (Movie available on premium streamers Paramount & MGM and to rent on Prime, Apple, Vudu.)

We’re only up to the 1980s, and I actually skipped through a few decades of films that aren’t particularly recognizable in name or star, and we’ve still got plenty more to go, but we’ve run out of space this month. And I haven’t even told you about the films shot at some of our small boutique hotels yet.

While planning your next Palm Springs getaway, why not peep a few of the above films, then visit the locations when you get here. Fun! And when you stay and shop local you keep Palm Springs keeping on which means good karma!

I’ll see you next time because this will be continued…