A Palm Springs-area film shoot early in the 20th century. Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society.

Palm Springs has long been known as a favorite place for Hollywood stars—but it’s also been a favorite of producers and moviemakers. Numerous movies, television shows, commercials and videos have been filmed in our desert oasis with its dramatic mountain backdrop since at least 1915.

That first known movie filmed in Palm Springs in 1915 was Lone Star Rush, directed by early Palm Springs homeowner Edmund Mitchell. The cast and crew were hosted by Nellie Coffman at The Desert Inn.

In 1918, silent-screen vamp Theda Bara starred in the popular Salome, filmed in the Coachella Valley. Around 1919, an old William Fox Western was filmed in Palm Springs. In 1920, the incomparable Rudolph Valentino, heartthrob of silent movies, filmed a French Foreign Legion movie in several locations in and around Palm Springs. His most famous movie, The Sheik (1921), was also shot in the Coachella Valley.

In 1922, The Covered Wagon with Ernest Torrence was filmed near Palm Springs, prompting many other silent films to follow suit.

Many movies were made locally in the go-go decade of the 1920s. One was filmed on the grounds of The Desert Inn, providing spectator entertainment for the village children. In 1923, Torrence starred in another Palm Springs made film about an African safari.

In 1926, William Powell and Shirley Mason starred in Desert Gold, filmed in several valley locations.

During the 1930s, Amos ’n’ Andy began broadcasting their popular daily radio show from the El Mirador Hotel.

Lost Horizon, directed by Frank Capra, was filmed in Palm Springs during the winter of 1935-36. An engaging movie, Lost Horizon was written by James Hilton in 1933 and is the story of five people who come across the mythical and elusive Shangri-la, where people never age, in a Tibetan valley. The waterfall they encounter—which is the essence of the unspoiled Shangri-la—is the waterfall of Tahquitz Canyon.

A dramatic scene called for a horse and rider on top of the falls, but there was no trail to get the horse up there, so the movie people enlisted the aid of the McKinney family, owners of Desert Nursery. They had hoists and winches to move large palm trees—so they just winched the horse up.

In 1938, Paramount Pictures came to Palm Springs and filmed the first jungle movie ever made in Technicolor, Her Jungle Love, with Dorothy Lamour and Ray Milland. While Palm Canyon south of Palm Springs is not a jungle, the movie people took care of that by transplanting $20,000 worth of rare tropical plants, trees and vines. About the filming, Mary Jo Churchwell, in Palm Springs, The Landscape, The History, The Lore, reported: “At the same time, the tourists came like they had never come before, a great goggling crowd more attracted to the jungle made by Hollywood than the canyon made by nature. For six weeks the film crew struggled to keep them out of the shots.”

During the 1950s, several episodes of Lucille Ball’s hit TV show I Love Lucy were filmed around Palm Springs. The religious themed The Big Fisherman with Howard Keel was also filmed in the valley in the ’50s.

In 1962, the big-screen comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with a host of stars, was filmed around Palm Springs. The opening scenes were shot on Highway 74, the curvy road above Palm Desert.

That same year, a movie was filmed in Palm Springs about Palm Springs: Palm Springs Weekend starred Connie Stevens, Stefanie Powers and Robert Conrad as teenagers having fun in the desert city.

During the 1960s, numerous TV-production scenes were shot in the valley, for shows including The Dating Game; I Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby; a Merv Griffin special; Mannix; and The FBI. Several of these featured scenes aboard the new Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

In the 1970s, the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever featured a scene from a Southridge home.

Movies partially filmed in the valley during the 1980s included American Gigolo, Fraternity Vacation, Less Than Zero, Lethal Weapon 2, Rain Man and Pacific Heights. For television, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers filmed numerous scenes for Hart to Hart at the La Quinta Resort and other valley sites.

By the 1990s, movie and television people were coming to town regularly to set up shop. Palm Springs played a central role in the TV series P.S. I LUV U, starring Connie Sellecca. TV movie Dead Silence (1991), also known as A Death in Palm Springs, featured 200 residents as extras.

In 1993, TV movie Fugitive Nights: Danger in the Desert, which was based on a Joseph Wambaugh novel, was filmed here. Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles cop, was a Rancho Mirage resident who has written two novels with Palm Springs-area settings: The Secrets of Harry Bright and Fugitive Nights.

A Charlie Sheen movie, Terminal Velocity, was filmed around the Palm Springs windmills in 1993.

Even the TV series Rescue 911 came to town, to film a re-creation of a fallen hiker. Scenes were filmed at the Moorten Botanical Garden and in the Indian Canyons.

In 1997, the movie City of Industry, about a big diamond heist that took place in Palm Springs, was filmed here.

In 2001, some indoor scenes for the new Ocean’s Eleven movie with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts were filmed in an Old Las Palmas home.

In a way, the movie business has gone full circle. Old Las Palmas and the Movie Colony are the sections of Palm Springs where the early stars came to escape the movie business. Now the spotlights, cameras and current stars of the movies have come back to those same areas to make movies for new generations. During one recent year, 88 film permits were issued by the city of Palm Springs to film at locations like Palm Canyon Drive, the Indian Canyons, the windmills, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the Palm Springs International Airport, and even City Hall. Those permits included feature films, an MTV series, numerous television shows and documentaries, and numerous commercials.

One huge irony: The 2020 movie called Palm Springs—directed by Max Barbakow, and starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons and Peter Gallagher—was a critical darling, nabbing two Golden Globe nominations and appearing on many critics’ year-end-best lists. However, Palm Springs was not filmed anywhere in the valley. The project apparently secured a lucrative tax credit—which required that it be filmed in Los Angeles County. Ergo, producers were forced to film in Santa Clarita and Palmdale. Non-Californians likely did not notice—but locals did.

Maybe if a movie called Palmdale is ever made, they’ll come to the Coachella Valley to film it.

Sources for this article include Palm Springs: Why I Love You by Tony Burke (Palmesa Inc., 1978); Palm Springs, The Landscape, The History, The Lore by Mary Jo Churchwell (Ironwood Editions, 2001); Palm Springs Confidential by Howard Johns (Barricade Books, 2004); and the Palm Springs Historical Society.

Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...