Movies may be ephemeral, flickering shadows on a screen, but (or perhaps because) I have always been attracted to their physical remains.
As a kid at Disneyland I was thrilled to walk through sets from the Disney films Babes in Toyland and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. On my first trip to Europe in 1971, my friend Jim and I saw our surroundings, indeed planned our itinerary, through the lens of movies. We experienced London as the home of Mary Poppins and Vienna as that of Miracle of the White Stallions. When we heard that Castle Combe had been used in Doctor Doolittle we hightailed it there, and splurged by taking the Sound of Music tour of Salzburg filming locations.
My early memories of visiting San Francisco include walking down Flower Drum Song‘s Grant Avenue and driving through the towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay to find Hitchcock’s setting for The Birds. I have collected various maps, publications and websites denoting movie locations. This fixation developed into the book that Will Shank and I coauthored, Celluloid San Francisco: The Movie Lovers Guide to Bay Area Film Locations. Since then I have presented film clip programs depicting the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in feature films. National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell agrees that much of Alcatraz’s appeal is due to its depiction in the movies, citing nearly one and a half million visitors annually.
Over the years, I toured the backlots of Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount studios, and drove by the Hello Dolly set behind Century City more times than I can remember. I was impressed by the Hollywood Heritage Museum, the (now-relocated) barn used by Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille in early filmmaking. I was surprised to learn how many films were shot at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, known as “the movie railroad,” in Jamestown. In nearby Sonora, an exhibit identified locations in many famous movies. A visit to eastern California included the Lone Pine Museum of Film History, followed by a drive through the Alabama Hills to see the unique terrain in Gunga Din, How the West Was Won, Tremors, and many Hollywood westerns.
Costumes are another physical element of what remains after the movie makers have moved on to other projects. Exhibits over the years included original costumes worn by famous stars and had loftier goals than mere hero worship. “Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film” (1988) at LACMA posited that “…Hollywood historical costumes have often initially appeared to be authentic recreations of dress from earlier eras. Contemporary viewers are not aware that the costumes reflect their own standards of style and beauty — that the cave-dwellers’ costumes are cut to emphasize the 1940s silhouette, that the antebellum dresses are made with 1930s bias-cut fabrics. It is only with the passage of time that one can see clearly how all-pervasive the designers’ contemporary aesthetics have been. “Hollywood Costume” (2015) at the forthcoming museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences displayed explanations and examples about the role of costume designers in creating a film’s characters and helping to shape its narrative. Most recently “Dressing Downton”(2017) offered a historical perspective on changing mores and fashion, inspiring me to rewatch the entire series.
I realize I am not alone. Film tourism is a thriving industry. Witness the popularity of the Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand and Harry Potter sites in London and Scotland. Next month Allen will take a TCM bus tour of Manhattan locations. High on my agenda is visiting the archeological dig of the sets from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments, recently discovered in the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes.
The attraction of visiting a setting inspired by fond memories of a film, and the desire to watch the movie again after seeing the site seems to be a symbiotic relationship, All I know is that I look forward to my next “location vacation”.