Santa Monica In The Movies

In the movie-making mecca that is the Golden State, Santa Monica’s idyllic blend of city and sea is a perennial favorite setting for all manners of silver screen endeavors. A perfect cocktail of natural beauty and pop culture, this storied sliver of West LA has proven itself over the decades as a storyteller’s dream spot.

Cue: the Fairmont Miramar. Throughout its 100-year-history on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard (just 13 miles as the crow flies from the Hollywood sign), the resort has borne witness to countless movie sets in its immediate proximity, making it a convenient jumping-off point for those seeking to relive their favorite scenes.

Luckily for visiting movie buffs, a quick dive through the city’s cinematic archives reveals plenty of nearby opportunities to soak in the nostalgia of some of film’s most iconic moments. (And they would certainly have the blessing of Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon, who was recently named the global brand ambassador for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.)

 

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Perhaps the earliest motion picture filmed in Santa Monica was 1929’s Spite Marriage starring “The Great Stone Face” Buster Keaton, an actor whose talents included sporting a perpetual deadpan look in his physical comedy performances. With scenes shot from a set on Broadway and 2nd streets, it was Keaton’s final silent feature before he transcended into the inevitable era of sound film.

Two blocks west, the Santa Monica Pier is showcased in the final scenes of the 1950 black-and-white classic Quicksand, which is considered to be actor Mickey Rooney’s crowning onscreen achievement. In the film’s dramatic climax, the gun-wielding protagonist (Rooney) passes under the “Yacht Harbor” welcome arch before kissing his love goodbye and leading police on a foot chase.

As filming locations go, it’s not hard to see why so many directors turn their cameras toward Santa Monica’s most iconic landmark. From a distance, the pier’s distinguished silhouette, complete with boardwalk and amusement park, is set against a sprawling and picturesque Pacific backdrop. Up close, its vibrant attractions and beach-town character provide an undiluted dose of Americana, suitable for all types of cinematic storytelling.

 

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On the pier’s east end, several scenes from the 1974 best picture winner The Sting were filmed inside the historic Looff Hippodrome Carousel, where ex-con Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) lives and works as the ride’s operator while hiding from the FBI. The celebrated caper film shows an exterior shot of the carousel building too, but because the story takes place in Chicago, the façade’s coastal background is replaced with a convincing matte painting of the Windy City skyline by award-winning artist Albert Whitlock.

The carousel can also be seen in the 2004 action-thriller Cellular as Sergeant Bob Mooney (William H. Macy) beats up a bad guy before the spinning animals (and to the horror of the children riding them). The movie culminates as Ryan (Chris Evans) and Ethan Greer (Jason Statham) have their final showdown on, around, and under Santa Monica Pier’s wooden planks.

On the pier’s west terminus lies the very spot where a bearded Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) encounters a large, shimmering impasse on his cross-country jog. “I ran clear to the ocean,” Gump recalls of his journey from a bus stop bench, “and when I got there, I figured since I went this far, might as well just turn around and keep on going.” An instant classic, Forrest Gump went on to win six Academy Awards in 1995, and a year later, the film’s fictional-meets-reality restaurant Bubba Gump Shrimp Company became a permanent resident on the pier. (A bench outside the restaurant even displays Gump’s running shoes, right alongside a briefcase and, what else, a box of chocolates.)

 

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Probably the most defining fixture of the Pier’s nearby Pacific Park is its Ferris wheel, which is seen up close in 2008’s Iron Man as a boy in the top gondola gapes at Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) jetting past in his bespoke suit of red and gold. In Stephen Spielberg’s parody film, 1941 (filmed in 1979), the wheel is shown, somewhat comically, rolling into the ocean as the result of a Japanese submarine attack.

The coastal amusement park has also been featured as the venue for an epic birthday party in the 2009 teen musical comedy-drama Hannah Montana: The Movie, and in the background during the concluding scene of Wild Hogs (2007) as its four affable heroes reach the “we finally made it” part of their biker’s excursion.

Four blocks inland from the pier, Santa Monica’s legendary music club, Harvelle’s, can be seen in the 1984 action-comedy Beverly Hills Cop as Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) plays pool with an old friend in its darkened interior (many of the decorations from 25 years ago have since stayed the same). And just a stone’s throw away, Third Street Promenade is where Pee-wee Herman’s red Schwinn cruiser bike gets stolen in the 1985 Tim Burton directed comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, setting into motion a quirky escapade spanning from California to Texas.

 

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On nearby Ocean Park Boulevard, it was one of the city’s Big Blue buses that Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) chases down, boards, and ends up driving on that fateful day depicted in the 1994 action thriller Speed. “It’s just like driving a really big Pinto,” she later tells Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) as she, in spite of LA traffic, keeps the rig’s speedometer above 50 mph to prevent it from exploding.

The Ocean Park neighborhood, along with adjacent Venice Beach, is also the setting of the 2005 biographical drama Lords of Dogtown, a true story starring Emile Hirsch and Heath Ledger, which outlines the inception of Santa Monica’s beloved skateboarding culture in the mid 1970s. (Homages to this origin story remain in full sight at Dogtown Coffee, which recently opened its second location in the Fairmont Miramar.)

And yards from the Miramar’s front doorstep, the California Incline was featured in the final chase scene of the 1963 celebrity-studded comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, when police captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) decides to steal off with a briefcase of unearthed cash and bolt for Mexico.

Santa Monica has also been the location of choice for a number of television shows, hosting sets for popular series like Pacific Blue, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NCIS: Los Angeles, and the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice. Throughout its telecasting tenure, the city has also served as the stomping grounds for the wacky trio of roommates in Three’s Company, the backdrop for Billy Bob Thornton’s unraveling mystery in Goliath, and the sandy setting for the buoyant cast members of Baywatch.

Through a self-guided tour of Santa Monica’s legacy in filmmaking, visitors can expect to recognize more than a few familiar scenes. And it’s up to the viewer’s discretion whether to pair their close-up of the city’s cinematic history with a soundtrack of their own making, a tub of popcorn to-go, or the pink and orange crossfade of a world-famous Pacific sunset — or all three.

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