From the first full-length film to a teen sensation’s sitcom, the South Bay has provided the backdrop for many memorable moments on both the big and small screens. Film historian and local writer Jerry Roberts reveals the assorted characters that roamed our beaches and boulevards, including noir detectives, treasure-seeking pirates and even a high-schooler named Hannah Montana.
When Jack Nicholson’s private eye Jake Gittes discovers a water scandal in the classic Chinatown (1974), he does so, literally, in San Pedro’s Point Fermin Park. One of Mel Gibson’s more dangerous cocktails was Tequila Sunrise (1988), a neo-noir caper with Michelle Pfeiffer in sun-blinded Manhattan Beach. Johnny Depp’s finest hours include those as Ed Wood (1994), Hollywood’s most overachieving, bargain-basement, gender-bending filmmaker, for whom Old Torrance provided a moody and tawdry backdrop as it depicted horror-movie star Bela Lugosi’s drug-addled dotage via Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning performance.
The camera, they say, never lies. Location film and television crews have often captured the South Bay’s piers and streets—Pacific Coast Highway to Palos Verdes Drive East, San Pedro and Hermosa Beach. The human interactions were provided by Charlie Sheen and Charlie’s Angels, stunt drivers fishtailing cars for the old A Team, and bevies of beach beauties, including for the blithe exploitation item Hardbodies (1984).
Then, of course, the lens does lie, and not just in deceitful film noir, such as the Redondo Beach-filmed Night Must Fall (1937) with Robert Montgomery, the San Pedro-shot The Street with No Name (1948) starring Richard Widmark, and the Torrance-lensed classic White Heat (1949) featuring James Cagney bellowing, “Look Ma–top of the world!” from the roof of a flame-engulfed oil reservoir. Raw nerves were frayed as well in the Carson-filmed Super Bowl group-jeopardy epic Black Sunday (1976) and the Hermosa-shot Bad Influence (1990) with James Spader.
Hannah Montana walks the campus at Mira Costa High School. The crowd from the old Beverly Hills 90210 consistently appears-even in reruns–at Torrance High. The new 90210 crew congregates at the 1927-vintage El Segundo High, an adaptable edifice with a visual durability that served Mickey Rooney in A Yank at Eton (1942) and Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and was TV-friendly for such series as Room 222, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Boston Public.
El Segundo also has survived as the career-long butt of Redd Foxx jokes, some in the scripts for his sitcom Sanford & Son, with the sing-song kicker, “El Segundo-o-o-o,” as in his reference to a cologne called Days of Paris, intoning, “Smells more like Nights in El Segundo-o-o-o.” Affection also exists somewhere for the El Segundo-lensed stoner tribute Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000).
IT’S ALL ABOUT LOCATION
With some of that Hollywood hocus-pocus and maybe a paint job and a load of chutzpah, San Pedro becomes Mississippi, El Segundo is Egypt, Hawthorne fills in for Miami, and Carson converts to Reno. In fact, Hollywood has been coming to the South Bay since moving pictures went Hollywood, that is, to Hollywood—for director Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1914), the first feature-length film made in what became Hollywood proper, shot in a barn that now serves as the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Well, portions of The Squaw Man were also shot in San Pedro.
Some of the oldies-but-goodies shot in and around the Port of Los Angeles converted the harbor into West Africa for Tarzan of the Apes (1918) starring Olympic athlete Elmo Lincoln, the industrialized “future” for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), various fog-shrouded ports for John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), New York City for the World War II-era Stage Door Canteen (1943), and some place along some coast that never really mattered when Elvis Presley impersonated a salvage diver with a girl-magnet voice in Easy Come, Easy Go (1967). The late Gloria Stuart, from James Cameron’s Pedro-shot Titanic (1997), had worked the same waterfront six decades earlier with Cagney in Here Comes the Navy (1934).
The harbor has been such a usual suspect as a location that not only was the neo-noir The Usual Suspects (1995) shot there, it has also hosted originals and remakes: King Kong (1933) with Fay Wray and the first remake in 1976 with Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. The low-budget Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), director-writer-star H.B. Halicki’s ode to car-boosting, was shot throughout the South Bay–in Carson, Redondo Beach, and Torrance, and the 2000 version with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie spectacularly tied up traffic on the Vincent Thomas Bridge for a long weekend in 1999. The film-versatile San Pedro is called “a location manager’s dream” in the 2010 photo-history Location Filming in Los Angeles by Karie Bible, Marc Wanamaker, and Harry Medved.
THAT’S A WRAP
The South Bay has a long and illustrious history in front of Hollywood’s cameras, continuing to this day, as film crews arrive in the dead of night after city permits have been obtained, representatives have quietly informed neighbors in advance, and parking zones have been commandeered with police aid to smoothly oversee the bivouacking of the convoy carrying equipment, dressing rooms, stars’ and directors’ quarters, and a “honey wagon” to feed everyone.
Since Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach opened in 1998, location filming in the South Bay intensified, according to venerable historian Wanamaker, author of more than two dozen books and owner of Bison Archives. The base studio for dozens of TV shows±Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, The OC, Boston Legal, CSI: Miami, The Medium—and innumerable features, Raleigh Studios brought with it a natural flow of work that extended beyond its walls at 1600 Rosecrans Avenue and into the nooks and crannies of the South Bay.
Hollywood in the South Bay continues with that world-famous, century-honored, geographic fakery that’s really tough to hide when you understand that it’s Boston Legal shooting in Manhattan Beach and CSI: Miami filming in El Segundo. The OC takes the cake, though. Filmed largely in Redondo Beach, The OC also often has been shot elsewhere in the South Bay–Hermosa Beach, Hawthorne, Torrance, and San Pedro. No doubt good reasons exist for this, and cheaper and more convenient methods and avenues are always at issue in the film business.
HOORAY FOR HAWTHORNE?
The one filmmaker whose life and work have converged on South Bay locations is the mercurial Quentin Tarantino. He grew up in Hawthorne and Torrance, attended Narbonne High and worked as a video store clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach before blasting to prominence as the writer-director and co-star of the quirky, low-budget action comedy Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Tarantino shot scenes of his all-star magnum opus Pulp Fiction (1994) in Hawthorne; this film won the Oscar for best original screenplay for Tarantino and a fellow former video-store clerk, Manhattan Beach’s Roger Avary. The famous, bookending, diner-set sequences featuring Tim Roth’s Pumpkin and Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny converging with the philosophical hit men—John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield—was lensed in the Hawthorne Grill at 13763 South Hawthorne Boulevard in Hawthorne.
What might be called Tarantino’s paean to the South Bay is Jackie Brown (1994), the conversion of one of Elmore Leonard’s gritty, Florida-set crime novels, Rum Punch, into, literally, a feminist neo-noir in the South Bay, focusing on Pam Grier as a resourceful courier breaking ties to gangster Samuel L. Jackson. Jackie Brown contains Del Amo Fashion Center scenes, a little Hermosa Beach, some Hawthorne, and smatterings of Carson and Compton.
One bar scene with Jackson and Robert De Niro is set and played inside the once fabled Cockatoo Inn at 4334 Imperial Highway in Hawthorne, where legend and fact have mixed a cocktail over time including racketeers, the FBI, Hollywood starlets, the Kennedys and other elite clientele, narcotics, vice, unmarked envelopes, and, by the way, Robert De Niro.
Robert Forster played a bail-bondsman who, against his better judgment, falls for Jackie Brown in an eventually Oscar-nominated way as he operates Max Cherry’s Bail Bonds in a joint that Tarantino’s minions created at 724 East Carson Street, right across from Carson City Hall.
In the eastern reaches of the South Bay, a region that ends at the Long Beach border or the Los Angeles River, depending on who’s talking, Carson has been the staging point for many episodes of public safety, from producer Jack Webb’s squad in Emergency! to the shenanigans of Reno 911, shot at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s substation behind Carson City Hall.
L.A. County Fire Station No. 127 at 2049 East 223rd Street in Carson was where the garage door opened weekly and faithfully for Emergency! and where today the front of 127 is adorned with large metal lettering identifying the building as “Robert A. Cinader Memorial Fire Station,” commemorating the show’s creator and executive producer for Webb’s Mark VII Productions. The Emergency! victims usually were transported to the concrete and glass stand-in as the show’s hospital du jour, Harbor UCLA Medical Center, at 1000 West Carson Street.
HAVE YOU SEEN THE VIEW?
But the great beaches and the Pacific Ocean and vistas of both have been Hollywood’s continual draw to the South Bay, from the silent The Girl from Montmartre (1926), shot at La Venta Inn on Palos Verdes Peninsula overlooking the South Bay, to Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert on location in El Segundo, to Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) with Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and crew moored for more swashbuckling and narrow escapes than usual at Redondo Beach Pier.
Land’s end in the South Bay has served as the ultimate goal in slapdash chase movies. Spencer Tracy led a legion of your granddad’s favorite comedians (Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, et al.) to a “W” formed by four palm trees, signifying buried treasure above the surf on Palos Verdes Peninsula in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). And one of the more pointless Burt Reynolds car-crack-up vehicles was Cannonball Run (1981), with the unlikely mix of Dean Martin, Jackie Chan, and Terry Bradshaw along for the ride to reach the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach. Talk about product placement. Few hotels have had better exposure in a movie. They have, however, had better movies.
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