On Location: the Golden Gate Bridge in Hollywood Movies

In honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Public Library has curated an exhibition, Bridging Minds: San Francisco Reads, 1933-1937; selected Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge by Kevin Starr for On the Same Page; and planned programs such as Jim Van Buskirk's On Location: the Golden Gate Bridge in Hollywood Movies. The San Francisco History Center invited Jim to be our guest blogger so that he could share his inspiration, as well as teasers, for his upcoming program. Included  here is a selection of publicity stills from the films and of the bridge. To see the Golden Gate Bridge in action, we encourage you to go to one of the programs!

On Location: the Golden Gate Bridge in Hollywood Movies by Jim Van Buskirk

When Susan Goldstein proposed a library program to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, I was dubious. Until she said, “Other organizations are doing history programs. Let’s do something more fun. Like how the bridge appears in Hollywood movies.”

I was immediately intrigued. Having coauthored Celluloid San Francisco: the  Film Lover’s Guide to Movie Locations with Will Shank, I remained captivated by how San Francisco has been portrayed in the movies. Our book listed a few films featuring the bridge, including Flower Drum Song, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The High and the Mighty. We claimed that the Bridge had appeared in more films than any other single San Francisco location and included descriptions of scenes from It Came from Beneath the Sea, On the Beach, Superman, Mother, Bicentennial Man, and The Love Bug.

Golden Gate Bridge in On the Beach, 1960

Kim Novak on location near the Golden Gate Bridge, 1957

I began exploring the Internet and found many more films purportedly featuring the bridge. I started watching them, locating the images of the bridge, and noting the beginning and end times of the sequences. Some were just an image of the bridge at the beginning of a movie to establish the San Francisco location, or it hovered in the background of one or more scenes. Often, the bridge actually played a pivotal role. Escape in the Fog (1945) was said to feature the Golden Gate Bridge, but after arduously tracking down a copy, it turned out to be the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge.

Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge, 1952

I reserved DVDs from the San Francisco Public Library’s well-stocked circulating collection, added titles to my Netflix queue, and viewed copies from the San Francisco History Center’s invaluable non-circulating collection of San Francisco-related titles. San Francisco History Center’s staff helped track down DVD copies and deliver them to a member of Media Services, who assembled the disk for the program. I asked  to include still images from films and posters featuring the iconic span.  I couldn’t have done this project without the library staff’s dedicated assistance.

When I mentioned the project to friends, many suggested titles not on my growing list. One former colleague alerted me to a scene at the end of Psych-Out (1968), in which a deaf Susan Strasberg has a bad acid trip in the middle of the bridge while Dean Stockwell and Jack Nicholson look on helplessly. The film also has fascinating location footage of Haight Street, demonstrating the inadvertent archival aspect of feature films. I suggested ordering it for the collection, along with several other films that significantly document San Francisco in time and place.

After thinking to include clips from San Francisco television series, I realized I had more material than I could use and decided to focus exclusively on movies. I ultimately identified about 30 clips from feature films. I decided to also include two documentary films, The Bridge and The Joy of Life, both of which deal with the bridge as a site of many suicides.

Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, 1963
In the course of my research, I uncovered some fascinating bits of trivia to weave into the presentation, like how Hitchcock originally envisioned ending The Birds with a shot (never filmed or even story-boarded) of the Bridge covered in birds. I’m still trying to understand more fully why the Golden Gate Bridge so quickly became such an icon for the Bay Area, California, and even the United States. The bridge is a brilliant engineering feat, in a beautiful natural location, a striking color, and is photogenic from many angles. Perhaps that is why it has “starred” in so many movies. I look forward to the audience’s input when I offer the program at the Main Library on Wednesday, May 16 and subsequently at several branches.

On Location: the Golden Gate Bridge in Hollywood Movies at San Francisco Public Library

Wednesday, May 16, 6 p.m.
Main, Koret Auditorium
Presented by the San Francisco History Center

Saturday, May 26, 3–4:30 p.m.
Potrero Branch / 1616 20th St. (near Connecticut)

Saturday, June 9, 3 p.m.
Noe Valley Branch / 451 Jersey St. (near Castro)

Wednesday, June 13, 7 p.m.
Merced Branch / 155 Winston Dr. (at 19th Ave.)

Saturday, June 23, 2–4 p.m.
Ortega Branch / 3223 Ortega St. (at 39th Ave.)

Wednesday, June 27, 7–8:30 p.m.
Excelsior Branch / 4400 Mission St. (at Cotter)

Photographs courtesy of the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection. There are over 900 photographs online of the Golden Gate Bridge! Explore online or come and visit during the open hours of the Photo Desk. A curated sample of Golden Gate Bridge images are on Flickr.