In the 1970s, after growing up in California and moving to the East Coast, I happened to attend a revival showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s great film North By Northwest (1959). By this time I knew more about the terrain along the Atlantic Coast than I had known when I first saw Hitchcock’s film in the 1950s. Early in the movie, there is a scene in which Cary Grant nearly loses his life while driving drunk, supposedly along the coast of Long Island. Viewing the film for the second time, I suddenly realized that the winding, precipitous road along which Cary Grant was careening could not be anywhere near Long Island, because all the seacoast in that area is flat or nearly so. But, I realized, the topography did look a lot like California, which is in fact where the scene was filmed.
Ever since that time, I have played a mental game of noting and remembering film and TV scenes that are not supposed to take place in California but in fact do.
Many uses of California topography as substitutes for someplace else are quite convincing. In Rebecca (1940), a story set in England, Hitchcock uses rocky cliffs along the California coast for the climactic scene in which the heroine is nearly killed by her dishonest lover. In North By Northwest, there is a chase scene, one of the most famous in all of cinema, in which Cary Grant is buzzed repeatedly in an Illinois cornfield by a crop-dusting airplane. The scene was actually filmed on a flat farm field north of Hollywood and was made to look very convincingly like Illinois by Hitchcock’s amazing technicians.
In the thrilling Warner Bros. film version of Robin Hood (1938), the sequins on Errol Flynn’s costume may have become a bit suspect with the passage of time, but the dense clusters of California oak trees and the streams that run through them serve very well as Sherwood Forest even if the soil is drier than it would be in England.
We can witness the same degree of success in the great adventure film Gunga Din (1939), which depicts the nineteenth-century exploits of three British soldiers who battle against a murderous cult on the Northwest Frontier of India. To provide atmosphere and situate the story, the film makes excellent use of locales such as a British frontier fort and rock-bordered trails along which the British soldiers and their bagpipers must march. Our belief that we are in India is very strong. But the film was actually shot entirely in areas north and east of Hollywood that bear a powerful resemblance to northern India.
Among television shows, an example of very convincing use of California locales was Mission Impossible (aired 1966-1973). It was about an elite group of intelligence operatives who carried out difficult takedowns of Cold War-style tyrants and their agents in countries that closely resembled actual states in Latin America and Central Europe. All of the episodes were said to take place in those countries but the episodes were filmed entirely in Los Angeles and environs. When the dictator was Latin American, choice of locales was easy, given California’s heritage of Spanish architecture. But even in more difficult cases the carefully chosen scenery was very convincing. In one episode, for example, there was a foot chase in and out of a frightening, shadowy but artistically curved set of archways that were supposed to be somewhere in Eastern Europe but might be recognizable by a few viewers as exactly what they were: the concrete arch supports under the famous highway bridge in Pasadena that crosses the arroyo near the Rose Bowl stadium. An equally convincing backdrop in another episode was the front view of an ornate building said to be the palace of a Central European dictator. It was the front of Glendale City Hall.
Another example of successful use of local terrain in television was M.A.S.H. (aired 1972-1983), one of the most popular and honored TV series ever produced. The story takes place at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. All the settings bear a very believable resemblance to that locale even though they were filmed in carefully selected topography outside Hollywood.
The practice of using California to stand for someplace else in films and TV programs is not, in principle, anything that should bother us. After all, one of the reasons the film industry first concentrated in Hollywood, in addition to the sunny climate, was the great variety of terrain that could be accessed easily and lessen the need for expensive construction of indoor sets.
But it is still a good idea to be alert for sloppy uses of the Golden State as background. In the TV series Dukes of Hazzard (aired 1979-1985), the action is supposed to take place in the Deep South, but the settings for the numerous car chases are much too obviously located in California. Similarly, in the currently- running and often very well written TV police series Battle Creek, the action is supposed to be occurring in a small city in Michigan, but the sunlight and the vegetation and the architectural styles of the houses are unmistakably in California. Egregious contrasts of this kind diminish our ability to enjoy what we are watching. In such cases it is a good practice to remember that drama is, among other things, manipulation.