Even though Los Angeles has been the center of movie making for most of a century, you wouldn't always know it to look at the movies. Elaborate sets, sound stages and backdrops could transform Los Angeles into any place in the world. That Welsh mining town from "How Green Was My Valley"? It was closer to the San Fernando Valley. "The Sting" in 1930s Chicago? Try Pasadena.
Look closely at some famous Oscar-winning movies and you'll find that Southern California peeks through. And movie fans can still see many of these spots.
On location with Oscar
Most early movie locations are long gone, torn down to make way for new homes, buildings or movie sets. But the primary setting for the 1932 Oscar-winning short comedy film "The Music Box" is intact. In the film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play piano delivery men faced with an impossible set of stairs. The steps, which recently were marked by a special street sign, are in Silver Lake.
"The Great Dictator," Charlie Chaplin's comic skewering of Adolf Hitler (Adenoid Hynkel in the movie) and the war in Europe, earned five nominations in 1940, including best actor, outstanding production and writing for Chaplin himself. Chaplin played two roles -- the dictator and a Jewish barber who is mistaken for him.
The grand palace where Hynkel lived, however, wasn't a European location at all. It was Pasadena City Hall, a hugely ornate wedding cake of a structure built in the mid-1920s. The Spanish Baroque dome is easily recognizable in scenes in which Hynkel is making speeches to the public. But, strangely, Chaplin didn't film there. A matte shot of the building was simply used as a backdrop.
A few miles away in Old Town Pasadena is Kendall Alley -- featured in 1973's "Paper Moon" (of three nominations, only Tatum O'Neal won for best supporting actress) and "Pulp Fiction" (seven nominations; winner for original screenplay). In 1994's "Pulp Fiction," Old Town is where Bruce Willis jumps into a taxi after leaving his boxing bout. As he speeds off, he passes the Raymond Theater.
Nearby is the Castle Green apartment complex, which was built as an annex to the great resort Hotel Green at the turn of the 20th century. The film "Bugsy" (10 nominations in 1991; wins for sets, art direction and costumes) played on its historic look when filmmakers passed it off as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. In "The Sting," Castle Green is where the sting went down.
"The Sting" -- which won eight Oscars out of 11 nominations in 1973, including best picture -- also used another famous Southern California landmark: the Santa Monica Pier. In the scene in which Robert Redford comes to find Paul Newman, Newman is working at the carousel there.
Of course, a few classic films show off Los Angeles, but academy voters give hometown movies a hard time no matter how great they are. "Chinatown" (12 nominations in 1974 but only one win, for original screenplay) used Echo Park Lake as a spot for Jake (Jack Nicholson) to spy on Evelyn Mulwray's husband. Likewise, "L.A. Confidential" (10 nominations in 1997; winner for adapted screenplay and supporting actress Kim Basinger) used the Crossroads of the World in Hollywood as the location for the office of the Tattler tabloid. "The Graduate" in 1967, which had young Dustin Hoffman driving up and down the California Coast, used USC's campus -- in particular a famous shot of the fountain in front of Doheny Library -- as UC Berkeley. (Of the movie's seven nominations, only director Mike Nichols won.) All three lost best-picture bids.
Best-picture winner "Going My Way," the 1944 film in which Bing Crosby saved his struggling St. Dominic's in, ahem, New York, was filmed at St. Monica's Catholic Church in, ahem, Santa Monica. Orange County was asked to stand in for L.A. at the end of another best picture, "Rain Man," in 1988. After driving cross-country, Tom Cruise puts his afraid-to-fly autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) on a train. But Union Station's filming rules were too restrictive, so the brothers' goodbyes were said at the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center.
But perhaps the greatest location-reality disconnect is this: The airport in "Casablanca" was actually in Van Nuys at the Metropolitan Airport, now Van Nuys Airport. When nasty Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt) arrives, the airport's hangars -- now on a nearby street -- are visible. The famous tearful goodbye between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman was not filmed on the airfield, however, but at nearby Warner Bros. Studios.
Oscar on the studio lots
Historically, Warner Bros. was best known for its low-budget movies, many of them gangster films and comedies, but it also produced landmark films, including 1943 best picture "Casablanca" at its studio in Burbank. What is still visible on most tours is the French street that stood in for Paris in the famous "Here's looking at you, kid" flashback.
"Oscar row" sits at the center of the Warner Bros. Museum, the first stop on any studio tour. The studio has six best-picture Oscar statuettes and displays related to each film: "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937), "Casablanca," "My Fair Lady" (1964), "Chariots of Fire" (1981), "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) and "Unforgiven" (1992). The piano Sam played in Rick's Café is on display, as is the red dress Bette Davis wore during her Oscar-winning turn in "Jezebel" in 1938.
Universal Studios is as well-known for its theme park now as for its movie studio, and some of the Universal City park's attractions have Oscar connections. The famous shark that comes swimming at tourists taking the tram tour is from "Jaws," a 1975 best-picture nominee that won three other awards (sound, music and editing). "Back to the Future," from 1985, has not only an Oscar for sound-effects editing but also its own Universal ride.
The giant back lot at Universal Studios has also been used in dozens of films, many Oscar winners among them. Spartacus Square got its name for being the shooting location for that 1960 film, which won five awards. "The Color Purple," which got stiffed in 1985 despite 11 nominations, was filmed in part at the lot's Six Points, Texas, street. The Colonial Street was used in two of Universal's best-picture nominees -- "100 Men and a Girl" in 1937 and "Three Smart Girls" in 1936. It was also used for "To Kill a Mockingbird," a 1962 best-picture nominee that won four other Oscars. An early winner, 1930's "All Quiet on the Western Front," a prestige project for Universal, was filmed in the area called Little Europe.
The first best-picture Oscar handed out -- to the 1927 film "Wings" -- is on display in a trophy case at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. The studio has produced memorable best-picture nominees -- "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950, "The Lost Weekend" (which won in 1945), "Double Indemnity" in 1944 and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in 1944 -- since then.
A walking tour of Paramount will almost always include stops on the studio's New York Street, where Patrick Swayze's character died in "Ghost" (best writing and supporting actress in 1990), and where James Caan beat up his brother-in-law in "The Godfather" (best picture, adapted screenplay and actor in 1972). Stop by the costume department and you'll see the shirt Oscar winner Tom Hanks wore as he sat on a bench musing that life is like a box of chocolates in 1994's "Forrest Gump."