Tucson on Film
Catch a glimpse of Tucson's rich film history
The desert southwest has been a filming location for nearly as long as motion pictures have been in production. When the nascent film industry of New York first looked west—for better weather and wide-open spaces—they stopped first in Arizona on the way to California and fell in love with our wide variety of locations and scenery that were perfect for all manner of movies. While production has shifted around the country and the globe in the ensuing 90+ years, Southern Arizona has had its fair share of iconic films made here. And despite a rapidly changing and evolving urban landscape, many iconic locations from these films are still recognizable and accessible, if you know where to look. The first step is to do your homework and watch the film and then use our guide below to visit the film sites.
America firmly embraced the western as a pop culture phenomenon in the 1920s, and Tucson with its beautiful surrounding desert was an obvious location to film a slew of “oaters,”—as westerns of the day were referred to. One memorable silent film of that era, Ridin’ Wild (1926), stands out for its depiction of the desert and of Tucson life of the era. But perhaps most notable is the film’s extensive footage of the Tucson Rodeo as the film’s hero wins the hand of the leading lady with his riding prowess, despite the villain’s efforts to thwart him. That same rodeo still takes place each February in Tucson, although now taking place at a different location all these years later. The site of the rodeo grounds in the film is now adjacent to the world-famous Arizona Inn at Elm and Campbell, and the views of the mountains have changed very little.
Jumping ahead a few decades the dramatic thriller, A Kiss Before Dying (1956) stars Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward and features several still recognizable Tucson landmarks such as the Broadway Village shopping center on Broadway at Country Club, and the iconic (now Chase Bank) building at Congress and Stone where the murdering college student takes his rooftop date. With a revitalized and vibrant downtown now on display, much of the architecture has changed, but several iconic structures remain and can be seen today looking as they did in this “B” thriller.
The 1960s saw more than a few westerns being filmed at Old Tucson just west of the city and other locales including classics like; Mclintock! (1963), El Dorado (1967), and even Sam Peckinpah’s The Deadly Companions (1961), which had its world premiere at the Fox Tucson Theatre on Congress Street. John Wayne was practically a regular attraction at Old Tucson due to all the time he spent making films in Southern Arizona, where he also had a ranch just south of town for a number of years.
1974’s groundbreaking and Academy Award-winning film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was filmed entirely in the Old Pueblo. Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese brought his cast, which included; Ellen Burstyn, Diane Ladd, Kris Kristofferson, Harvey Keitel, and Jodie Foster to town to tell the story of a woman starting over on her own. With key scenes filmed downtown at the old Chicago Store on Congress, at Monterey Village, and at a diner on Main Ave., along with other southern Arizona places like the Longhorn bar in Amado, this is one film that still has many locations that can be easily spotted. The film was nominated for three Oscars and won the Best Actress statue for Ellen Burstyn.
A Look Back at Tucson's Film History
Another classic of the era was The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) by director John Huston with Paul Newman and Ava Gardner that filmed near town. The tale of the near-mythical life of Texas legend Roy Bean is told both seriously and comically and may have been a first for that style of westerns as it was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe when released.
In the 1980s Tucson hosted a number of high-profile and diverse feature films including; Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Three Amigos (1986), and Major League (1989) which filmed at the University of Arizona, Old Tucson, and Hi Corbett baseball field, respectively. But another slightly under-the-radar film of this era is the drama Desert Bloom (1986) that saw Tucson standing in for late 1940’s Las Vegas, Nevada. The film was shot in local neighborhoods, and also has some shots of Congress Street transformed to look like the Vegas Strip of the era and has the old Rialto Theatre marquee in one scene.
Into the 1990s additional films of note featured locations that are easy to find as well. A personal favorite, Bodies, Rest & Motion (1993) with Tim Roth, Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates, and Eric Stoltz featured Tucson Mall exteriors and University area bungalows. Two westerns of note featured recognizable locations for key sequences—the downtown train depot in Tombstone (1993), and the satellite Old Tucson location in Mescal for The Quick and the Dead (1994). Other films of note include: Away We Go (2008) with shots from the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort, Tin Cup (1996) with Congress Street, La Paloma Country Club, and Tubac Golf Club on screen. Boys on the Side (1995) with Teatro Carmen in the barrio near downtown among other locations, Goats (2011), which is practically a love letter to Tucson with its gorgeous foothills scenery, and the gritty border tale 600 Miles (2014) that has Robert’s restaurant and several local gun shops making key appearances.
With the changing landscape of entertainment and the globalization of audiences, much more content is being created and consumed. While Tucson continues to attract feature film work, for example, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2008), a great deal of filming is now done in support of television shows related to food and reality TV, but Tucson’s 90+ year history as a film location continues as we head into the second century as a unique and memorable place to make a film.