The Aviator | 2004
No, your DVD player doesn’t need adjusting. The first half-hour of Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes (initially intended to be directed by Michael Mann) recreates the old magenta-and-turquoise, two-strip Technicolor look of 30s Hollywood.
For instance, the ‘Cocoanut Grove’ was recreated on a soundstage – as it was for George Cukor’s 1954 A Star Is Born – but this time in Canada. The legendary hangout of the stars, where the Oscars were presented in the 30s, was part of the old Ambassador Hotel, 3400 Wilshire Boulevard at Catalina Street, midtown Los Angeles.
The wonderfully kitschy fake palms were stripped out in the 70s, and the hotel itself has closed down in the 80s. Since then it's been used solely – and frequently – as a film location. It can be seen in dozens of films including A Star Is Born, The Graduate, Se7en, Rocky and Apollo 13. Howard Hughes actually lived at the Ambassador for a while, and it was in the hotel’s kitchen that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.
You can see the entrance to the Cocoanut Grove in Jim Carrey comedy The Mask (as the entrance to the ‘Coco Bongo Club’) and in the training sequence of S.W.A.T. Incredibly, this historic landmark has – after years of wrangling – finally been demolished. You can check out the hotel’s history at theambassadorhotel.com.
Another great Los Angeles landmark, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, was also duplicated in Montreal This time, it's the extravagant mock-Oriental exterior, used for Hughes’ nervous arrival with Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) at the premiere of Hell's Angels.
Apart from the logistics of closing down Hollywood’s main thoroughfare long enough to stage a huge crowd scene, this stretch of Hollywood Boulevard has been massively redeveloped since the 30s.
John Schlesinger, facing similar problems with the apocalyptic climax of his 1975 film of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, duplicated three blocks of central Hollywood on the Paramount lot. This also allowed the crafty addition of a convenient sidestreet directly opposite the famous movie house. Coincidentally, it was the frenzy of the Hughes premiere in 1930 which inspired the mob hysteria of West’s book.
The exterior is fake, but Scorsese’s film uses the actual interior and lobby of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. The heart of Hollywood, Grauman’s was rebranded for years as Mann's Theatre, then reverted to its original 1927 name, but now appears to be known as TLC Chinese Theatre. I’ll just carry on calling it by the name most people know it by. Thankfully it retains its magnificently barmy glory. It’s a tourist trap, of course, swarming with resting actors togged up as Darth Vader or the Frankenstein monster, who’ll flog you tours of moviestar homes, but who can resist checking out the celeb footprints on the forecourt?
Didn’t John Wayne have tiny feet?
Mystery Mesa, a remote area south of Vasquez Canyon Road between Sierra Highway and Bouqet Canyon Road at Santa Clarita northwest of Los Angeles, was peppered with bi-planes to become the desert set of Hell’s Angels. The same location has been seen in The Scorpion King, Hidalgo, Spider-Man, and hosted battle scenes for Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.
At San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, a hangar of San Bernardino International Airport, 294 South Leland Norton Way was emblazoned with the ‘Hughes’ name on one side, and rival TWA on the other for airport scenes. The Lockheed Constellation was borrowed from the Airline History Museum, Hangar 9, 201 NW Lou Holland Drive, Kansas City (tel: 816.421.3401).
A little east of the Ambassador Hotel site on Wilshire Boulevard is the location which doubled as the ‘Beverly Hills’ nightclub, outside which an irate Faith Domergue rams Hughes’ car. It's not a nightclub at all, but the rear of the old Bullock’s department store.
This is a venerable old filming location. The same entrance, which was intended for those swanky customers arriving by car, became Connecticut’s ‘Sea Breeze Hotel’ in the 1937 supernatural comedy Topper, with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. The store is long closed, but the magnificent deco building has been restored to become the Southwestern Law School, 3050 Wilshire Boulevard, midtown Los Angeles.
Hughes meets Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) when he comes ashore by the jetty at 72nd Place in Long Beach. Woodland Hills Golf Course, 21150 Dumetz Road, Woodland Hills (tel: 818.347.1476) stands in for the ‘Wilshire Country Club’, where Hughes and Hepburn play a round or two. Note that this is an exclusive club.
The wrap party for Hell’s Angels, and the celebration as Hughes announces his plans to build the biggest seaplane ever, were both filmed in the exquisite deco lounges of the Queen Mary 1126 Queens Highway in Long Beach.
Authentic Los Angeles locations include Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Boulevard (previously seen in Species, Batman Forever, Ed Wood and The Bodyguard), where Hughes attends a premiere with Hepburn; Hughes’ headquarters, where Hell’s Angels and The Outlaw were edited, at 7000 Romaine Street in West Hollywood; and Hughes’ seven-bedroom house at 211 Muirfield Road, Hancock Park, alongside his favourite Wilshire Country Club golf course. The interiors of both HQ and home were recreated in the studio.
The house of Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) is the astonishing 1926 Sowden House 5121 Franklin Avenue, between Western and Normandie Avenues, Los Feliz, east of Hollywood. Its striking design, looking like a set of prehistoric jaws emerging from a jungle, is the work of Lloyd Wright (son of innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Ennis Brown House itself featured on-screen as the original The House on Haunted Hill). Please note that this is a private residence and do not disturb the occupants.