Skip to content

True Fakes on Location

World-building, Hollywood-style
Film set for the movie Intolerance.

The most glorious set in movie history stood derelict for a few years where Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards meet, attracting curiosity seekers and growing steadily more unsafe. It was finally torn down in 1919 or so, depending on which source you check. A frowsy clutch of stores and bars has long since replaced its vestiges. When I drive past on my way someplace else, I often wish that Belshazzar’s Court—the literally Babylonian centerpiece of D. W. Griffith’s literally monumental 1916 Intolerance, with ornate walls ten stories high and rearing plaster elephants atop pillars as fat and tall as Martian ice-cream cones—could somehow have been preserved.

Fat chance. The elephants, at least, survive in facsimile form around three miles west at the Hollywood and Highland Center, whose plush Dolby Theater is currently home to Oscar’s annual glitz-fest. But I doubt very many of the tourists hoping to score tickets to Jimmy Kimmel Live or posing for selfies with the ersatz Chewbaccas and Darth Vaders outside the former Grauman’s Chinese Theater nearby have any idea of the pachydermal tribute’s object. A nod to Dumbo, maybe, or is Hollywood more Republican than they’ve been led to believe? Twenty-first-century culture may be built on allusions, but its true semiotic glories emerge when you catch on that the clientele doesn’t give much of a damn anymore about what’s being alluded to.

Nonetheless, 2016 marks Intolerance’s centenary, and that shouldn’t be a milestone only to high-minded fans of cinema’s artistic dawn. Because Griffith predicted everything in movies, it’s also a milestone for any garden-variety filmgoer who’s ever been wowed by coarse and costly Hollywood spectacle. I suspect only prigs are completely immune to the delights of whole foreign environments—whether antique, exotically international, familiar but exaggerated, or just plain fantastical—that have been erected, populated, and photographed for no better reason than to knock our socks off. For my money, Intolerance is where fake movie architecture began its complicated dance with the real thing, affecting how audiences perceive the past, reconfigure their present, and anticipate the future.

The ambition of Intolerance did have precursors. Griffith himself had built a biblical town in the San Fernando Valley for Judith of Bethulia two years earlier. The imported Italian period epics Quo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914) had stimulated both his ambition and his envy. But in scale and pull-out-the-stops grandeur, nothing like Belshazzar’s Court had ever been seen before—except by, well, Belshazzar and some two hundred thousand other lucky but very dead Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. Even Griffith’s own 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation hadn’t required particularly extravagant exterior sets, however unprecedented in scope (and vicious in sentiment—Intolerance was conceived in part to rebut its critics) his love song to the Ku Klux Klan had otherwise been.

One reason Intolerance’s Babylon still looks stunning is that the age of computer-generated imagery has all but ruined our capacity to experience Hollywood’s imagineering as something nonetheless rooted in the material world. Maybe Griffith’s epic is only a movie, but viewers can’t help registering that its artifice is paradoxically factual. Countless people labored to construct it; those towering elephants weren’t just clouds in God’s coffee. Countless other people really were cavorting in Assyrian cooch-dancer costumes and scratchy crepe beards on Belshazzar’s steps one day when Woodrow Wilson was president and gas for the tin lizzies parked just outside the frame cost fifteen cents a gallon.

Never call Griffith quaint, either. If he was quaint at all, he was far-sightedly quaint. The naive excitement of grasping that all this fakery is genuine—meaning the way “How’d they do that?” used to play leapfrog in viewers’ minds with “Wow, they must’ve actually done that”—stayed part of the appeal of Hollywood spectaculars up through the late 1960s. Even Pauline Kael, no fan of the 1966 Steve McQueen gunboat epic The Sand Pebbles, was staggered by the effort involved in “the almost incredible task” of reconstructing Chinese cities and waterfronts as they looked in 1926. Not long afterward, though, big-screen lollapaloozas of this type were looking as dead as the dodo: too square for the surly, hirsute youth audience exhibitors craved, too ruinously expensive, too damned risky.

The bulk of most people’s “information” about the architecture of archaic societies comes from movies.

The genre didn’t get revived until computer wizardry made a new kind of spectacular filmmaking possible, one largely confined to fantasy and able to dispense with Griffith’s—or Cecil B. DeMille’s, or David Lean’s—cumbersome real-world techniques even when it wasn’t. Today’s audience may still gasp on command at lavishly rendered palaces, fortresses, and highly demolishable modern cityscapes, but we all know they’re just a bunch of pixels. So, of course, are most of the “people” who inhabit them—poor little computer-generated expendables.

But even though it’s largely vanished from movies, the attraction of a reality that is recognizably phony and yet honest-to-gosh exists has hardly vanished from our culture. It isn’t just Griffith’s elephants that have been relocated to Hollywood and Highland. The barbaric, grand, almost insane example set by Belshazzar’s Court back when World War I was a going concern lives on semi-sanely in theme parks, resorts, and Vegas casinos. They’re all essentially movie sets that those who can afford it get to live in temporarily. In some cases—Universal’s Orlando and Studio City attractions, for instance—that’s not even a metaphor, or anyhow, just barely one.

Call this kitsch, which it is, and you’ll miss all the fun. I confess to being especially fond of Paris Las Vegas, with its Louvre and Opera House facades crammed together under a half-size Eiffel Tower right next to the Arc de Triomphe. (Disappointment only kicks in when you step inside and it’s just another dumb casino; talk about being brought back down to earth.) Funnily enough, such semi-illusory places have to be sturdier than their Hollywood precursors, since they’re built to last—for a while, at least.

Increasingly, shopping malls, hotels, and the like do their best to emulate the same effect. We’re all on location, baby, even when we’re just shopping or hunting for a bite to eat. Intolerance anticipated many things, and one of them was Disneyland. In turn, Disneyland anticipated a lot of the modern environment we live in—not just at the multiplex or while on vacation, but full time.

History’s Inventions

Resurrecting long-gone epochs in quasi-living form was a task that cinema’s pioneers—among whom we may want to include the audience, so quick not only to seize on new concepts, but to modify them with its own impulses and interpretations—recognized that movies were uniquely equipped for almost from the start. Griffith only added expansiveness and vision, not to mention the vital touch of megalomania that every director of period spectacles has depended on since.

Bible stories were one obvious draw. That’s partly because the Old and New Testaments had a guaranteed audience and partly because their backdrops were as picturesquely scenic as anyone could ask for. Maybe most important, a new commercial medium this crass and morally suspect had good reason to cloak itself in piety. But orgiastic ancient Rome, revolutionary and medieval Paris, Robin Hood’s England, and the Baghdad of The Arabian Nights were soon crowding the screen as well. As a result, the bulk of most people’s “information” about the architecture of archaic societies, as well as their mores, came—and to a large extent, still comes—from movies.

Needless to say, accuracy wasn’t mandatory. What couldn’t be documented was simply made up, and even what could be documented was mitigated by other factors, from budget requirements to dramatic fancifulness. Griffith had no historical basis for his crowing elephant statues, and he knew it. But the man wanted elephants, so elephants he got. Once Cecil B. DeMille—“a combination Belasco and Barnum,” as he was described by future Gone with the Wind impresario David O. Selznick, who would know—redefined ancient civilization extravaganzas as both his specialty and a Hollywood genre durable enough to outlive him by decades, any illusion of authenticity was bound to play the pimp to showbiz.

So consider how showbiz creates—or else, more tantalizingly, predicts—its own authenticity. As absurd as they often were, the DeMille versions of the Holy Land or Cleopatra’s Alexandria became, in a sense, the most persuasive documentation available. That’s simply because those renditions were what the public knew best. Specialists can grouse about what DeMille got wrong, but he and his imitators are still the ultimate authorities on how the rest of us imagine such places—including, it may be, architects themselves. If they want to quote from ancient Egypt or Jerusalem, they’re probably quoting from Hollywood as much as or more than from any data dug up by hard-working archeologists.

That worm has long since turned too. Some years ago, when I read that scholars were excavating the site where DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments was filmed—in search not of the “real” Egypt, but the fake one—I didn’t know whether to snicker or be moved. I decided on moved. I know which version of history I was raised to believe in.

This is where William Faulkner’s line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” takes on an unexpected new meaning. Because she knew most antebellum Georgia plantation houses were modest places built by roughneck upstarts, Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell was so dismayed at Hollywood’s glamorized Tara that she privately threatened to found the “Association of Southerners Whose Grandpappies Did Not Live in Houses with White Columns.” Upon seeing the designs for Twelve Oaks—the even grander Wilkes plantation—she “rolled on the floor screaming with laughter.” But David O. Selznick laughed last. As New York Times design critic Patricia Leigh Brown noted in 1991, “the myth” of Tara has been perpetuated in countless upscale suburbs nationwide.

As Brown recognized, Tara’s colonnaded portico and proud drive are still “a symbol of grace, roots, and grandiosity” to smooth-necked upstarts otherwise unacquainted with all three. Maybe someone should have founded the Association of Scarlett O’Hara Fans Whose Grandchildren Will Live in Houses with White Columns. While Tara may not be the ultimate example of a screen-bred architectural fantasy that’s become a reality, it’s certainly the most ubiquitous. If you seek Margaret Mitchell’s inadvertent monument, look around you; why we call them McMansions instead of MitchMansions beats me.

Babylonian-style monument in homage to the film Intolerance.
A homage to D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance at the Hollywood Center. © Rich Grant

Modern Love

At a time when a hefty percentage of Americans still lived in small towns or on farms, the movies were also their education in what much of the modern world looked like. That meant, above all, city life, where architecture rules because it’s got so little competition from nature. It’s impossible to guess how many rural moviegoers saw their first skyscrapers at their local picture palace, let alone how the sight might have stimulated them to urbanize themselves.

The under-recognized poet of this sense of discovery is silent comedian Harold Lloyd, born in 1893 in Burchard, Nebraska—a town whose population maxed out for good at 315 gaunt residents in 1910, the year he left it. Those origins add a tang to the fact that one of the most celebrated images in movies is a terrified Lloyd hanging off a clock at the top of an office building in 1923’s Safety Last, the best-known of his, count ’em, five stunt comedies to turn vertiginous locations in Los Angeles’s real business district into not merely a backdrop but an arena. He’s at once urban modernity’s victim and its defier, overcoming hazards with his agility. What’s more, since the hero’s panic doubles as the star’s daredevil confidence, the subtext seems to be that he really wants to take wing and zoom at will, Icarus-style, among these towering buildings, just as today’s superheroes do all the time in Gotham, Metropolis, and the sort-of-real Big Apple. Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are Harold Lloyd’s true successors.

As film historian John Bengtson has observed, Lloyd’s use of downtown Los Angeles’s existing architecture as his foil also makes his movies an invaluable photographic record of the city’s dizzying Jazz Age growth. But that approach grew rare once sound came in. By and large, Hollywood preferred fakery even in movies whose real-world contemporary settings—Prohibition-era New York or Chicago, say—weren’t remotely inaccessible. From slums to Art Deco penthouses to King Kong’s Empire State Building, the literally fabulous “New York” that became a worldwide byword for sophistication, reckless excitement, Brobdingnagian buildings, and hubris was almost entirely concocted in California. The hyperbolized version proved potent enough to infect people’s bedazzled perceptions of the actual city for generations.

That was true also of Hollywood’s fake Europe, a largely imaginary place even—or especially—when the studio facsimiles were relatively plausible. The reconstructed Monte Carlo of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives was painstakingly accurate, von Stroheim being a fanatic about realism. (It was promoted as the first movie ever to cost a cool million, and over a third of that was spent manufacturing the ersatz locales at Universal City and in Monterey.) But Monte Carlo itself is such a confection—the aristocracy’s ur-Disneyland—and was so remote from the average moviegoer’s experience in 1922 that what “realism” signified in this context is anybody’s guess.

Things started to change after World War II, with The Lost Weekend (1945) and Young Man with a Horn (1950), among others, making highly expressive use of genuine Manhattan cityscapes. But even after the war had given several million U.S. provincials a somewhat unwelcome chance to inspect London, Rome, and Paris for themselves, the studios went right on hoking up notional versions of all three for almost a decade, suggesting the fairy tale’s durability. It wasn’t until 1953’s Roman Holiday and 1957’s Paris-set Funny Face—both starring Audrey Hepburn, peculiarly enough—that Hollywood began to see shooting on location at the real Europe’s storied landmarks as a new way to delight audiences. It’s worth noting, however, that both movies turn the cities in question into stylized, ostentatiously magical theme parks—that is, playgrounds for Americans, with no other discernible function.

Back to the Future

Are you sci-fi fans getting grumpy yet? Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you. But Hollywood discovered the allure of futuristic fantasy only after decades of gorging the audience on imaginary yesterdays and fanciful todays, and held the genre in low esteem until the late 1960s. That’s why the movie that more or less invented futuristic screen architecture isn’t American but German: Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, of course—the sci-fi equivalent of Intolerance in both its unprecedented scale and its streak of lunacy.

Pitting ruthless oligarchs against proletarians in a gigantic beehive of baleful skyscrapers, skyborne monorails, and grinding factories, Metropolis is the original dystopian vision of tomorrow, imitated by every sci-fi flick that transposes today’s 1 percenters and their rebellious underlings to extravagant cityscapes designed to hyperbolize the gap between privilege and penury. Lang himself said that his film’s silly story interested him much less than realizing its visual design, inspired by his first stunned sight of New York.

Proving that one man’s idea of hell can be a führer’s idea of heaven, Adolf Hitler was so smitten by Metropolis that he tried recruiting Lang to make movies for the Nazis. Since Lang ended up fleeing Germany instead, Hitler had to settle for architect Albert Speer, whose preposterous buildings amounted to a triumphalist variation on the excess Lang had intended as an indictment. (Metropolis’s vast athletic stadium, in particular, looks remarkably like something Speer might have designed if he’d had even a touch of grace in him.) Movies and reality influence each other in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Hollywood’s alternative universes don’t evoke the future so much as a garbled, semi-fictional past.

Even so, Metropolis had no real competitors for decades, either abroad or here at home. The sci-fi serials that entertained B-movie audiences from the 1930s on—Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, chiefly—were low-budget affairs without the resources to envisage the future’s design elements very concretely. (Oddly, Chuck Jones’s Duck Dodgers burlesques were more interesting on that count, simply because animation can do a lot of things B movies can’t afford to.) One exception was the 1936 British film Things to Come, directed by the American William Cameron Menzies—the man responsible for devising the look of Gone with the Wind just three years later, which may be why the movie’s visualization of twenty-first-century urban renewal is usually reckoned to be the most interesting thing about it. Yet Things to Come remains such cinema esoterica that people who know about it at all often know it only from stills.

If you ask me, Hollywood’s real answer to Metropolis wasn’t a sci-fi film at all. When it comes to imaginary architecture in movies, the idyllic counterpart to Lang’s dystopia will always be the Emerald City of The Wizard of Oz (1939). That’s not because it’s all that spectacularly rendered; our first sight of it in the distance is obviously a painted backdrop, and not an especially well painted one either. (Its spires look like a bunch of thermometers all celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.) The visualization of the city’s innards is fairly clumsy, too, all but bereft of eye-popping vistas or inventive design, unless everything being green counts. Yet the idea’s appeal is so basic that we accept it as a wonderful wonderland anyway, and as in Metropolis, that’s largely due to the Emerald City’s contrast with its doppelganger: the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle, which is actually the more effectively designed set of the two. For this visual trope alone, every sci-fi and fantasy flick since that’s been conceived as a duel between Good and Evil—Star Wars, first and foremost—is in The Wizard’s debt.

Another way Oz was predictive was how its director, Victor Fleming, balanced off its more fantastical elements against reassuringly homey ones. One striking thing about most screen sci-fi is how seldom its architecture—or anything else, really—looks believably alien. Sometimes that’s deliberate, as in the kind of movie that conscientiously extrapolates from existing technology and design trends to guess at developments in the not too distant future. The apt example is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the product placements—which didn’t prevent the great Stanley from often guessing wrong. (Pan Am went belly-up in 1991, we don’t have a moon colony, and we’re still cretins no self-respecting higher intelligence would want to vault to the next upgrade.) Because recognizing that Tokyo and Shanghai were going to influence twenty-first-century urban design the way New York once did was pretty prescient stuff in 1982, Blade Runner did rather better at anticipating a world we’ve already begun to live in. And Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) was an entertaining and clever simulation of what Washington, D.C., will probably look like in 2054.

It’s the screen fantasies set in worlds unrelated to ours that aren’t as imaginative as they could be. One remarkable exception was 1968’s Planet of The Apes, whose building designs really did look like the work of nonhuman intellects, making the final twist even better: the planet in question was actually—gasp!—our own human-ravaged Earth.

But as was made explicit by the famous opening crawl in Star Wars—“a long time ago, in a galaxy far away”—Hollywood’s alternative universes often don’t evoke the future so much as a garbled, semi-fictional past, with the trappings of various long-vanished civilizations all jumbled together the way they are in dreams. If that sometimes includes unconsciously benign spins on fascist architecture in the bargain, at least you can’t say things haven’t come full circle.

End of a Dream

Nobody knew how soon it would all crash to a halt. But the 1960s were halcyon times for old-fashioned Hollywood architectural fakery on a newly extravagant scale. The look of today’s comic-book spectacles was predicted by the Bond franchise, largely thanks to one man: Ken Adam, the legendary production designer responsible for all those nifty villains’ lairs and outsize gizmos. From West Side Story on, even musicals featured gargantuan sets and cityscapes, and in the process almost wrecked the studio (20th Century Fox), which went on thinking they were surefire moneymakers for two or three years too long.

Meanwhile, historical epics were combining huge budgets with a new striving for bogus period authenticity, which sometimes just made them less interesting to look at than their irresponsible predecessors. Dr. Zhivago reconstructed blocks and blocks of circa-1905 Moscow outside Madrid with scrupulous (i.e., unimaginative) fidelity, and yet the effect was less grandiose—less convincingly Russian, even—than the gaga splendors of The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternberg’s 1934 fantasia about the life of Catherine the Great. Similarly, the painstakingly recreated pre-Communist China of The Sand Pebbles, a movie I admire much more than Zhivago, looked pedantic compared to the blatantly exoticized but electrifying China of Frank Capra’s 1932 The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Paradoxically, the moviemakers who just found or simulated existing architecture they could put to their purposes ended up being a lot more creative. One vital figure here is Alfred Hitchcock, who had been uncommonly alert to the uses of buildings as far back as his English films of the 1930s. His concerns were no more documentary than Harold Lloyd’s, which is why what’s most striking about his revived use of “real” locations from the mid-1950s on—the San Francisco of Vertigo, or New York’s United Nations building, Plaza Hotel, and Grand Central Station in the opening sequences of North by Northwest—isn’t that they look true to life, but how they’re transformed into quintessentially Hitchcockian environments. Even if it was built on a Culver City back lot, the villain’s pseudo-Frank Lloyd Wright house in the latter film—perched atop Mount Rushmore and projecting outward into unsupported space—ranks among the best examples in movies of using sort-of genuine modern architecture to combine preening luxury with peril.

When it comes to repurposing contemporary architectural reality to quasi-hallucinatory effect, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Tati are hardly less important. Godard’s 1965 Alphaville converted the more futuristic-looking bits of the real Paris of the time into settings for a sci-fi film noir, and did it hauntingly enough that I can’t pass through Charles de Gaulle Airport—which wasn’t even built then—without seeing it through Godard’s eyes. Tati’s 1967 Playtime does the reverse, since its modern Paris is almost entirely artificial—and quite deliberately so, the better to magnify the depersonalizing surrealism of the manmade environments we’ve come to accept as everyday. That example may have helped induce Francis Ford Coppola to rebuild Las Vegas on soundstages for One from the Heart, his way of emphasizing the city’s fairy-tale nature.

Yet Coppola had also transformed people’s sense of how movies can bring the past to life when he took over a sizeable chunk of New York’s East Sixth Street for The Godfather, Part II and restored it to the way it had looked in the early 1900s, something it’s impossible to imagine any director being allowed to do today. Once upon a time, people might have been awed if the movie’s gritty, teeming vintage Little Italy had been a set. But by 1974, the awe came from knowing that this was, in a sense, the real thing, miraculously resurrected for our benefit.

To some extent, Coppola had been anticipated by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), which made ingenious use of surviving 1930s-style locations and decor in Italy and elsewhere to conjure up a prewar Europe that was at once perversely romanticized, extraordinarily vivid, and irretrievably lost. The same year as Godfather II, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown—virtually the first movie to treat Los Angeles as a city with a history, or at least one separate from that of the movies themselves—pulled off the same trick with 1930s Los Angeles, whose own extant architecture, so derided when it was new, was suddenly imbued with a sense of tainted, vanished glory.

In their different ways, it was as if all three directors had realized that the great and terrible twentieth century was actually going to end one day and wanted to look back while they still could. If so, they were prescient. Today’s moviemakers say it’s now all but impossible to shoot period stories on location; everything has changed too much. Anyhow, today’s audiences don’t seem all that interested. It’s instructive that the one great “period movie” of recent years—the always architecturally minded Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—treats the twentieth century as pure Nabokovian fantasy.

But today’s Hollywood also has little interest in dramatizing contemporary life credibly. That’s the main reason it’s hard to think of a recent movie that used modern architecture dynamically to create a sense of milieu the way John Boorman’s 1967 Point Blank did, at least aside from the last couple of Bond flicks—now, oddly enough, almost the only movies that still get excited about what the modern world looks like. As for the famous buildings and monuments whose appearance in movies once induced a sense of reverence or enchantment in audiences, from the White House to the Eiffel Tower, they mostly exist to be destroyed—all on computers, of course. Otherwise, if you want to see interesting uses of architecture in an entertainment medium, you’re better off sticking to videogames.

All in all, it’s hard to escape a feeling that Hollywood’s work here is done. Everything real is fake, everything fake is real, and our knowledge that modern film technology has made everything possible means that nothing is truly magical anymore. But remember it, Jake. It was Babylon.