Happy 150th! A Brief History of Golden Gate Park in the Movies

Scenes from Golden Gate Park in 'Dirty Harry,' 'The Lady From Shanghai,' 'The Wedding Planner,' 'Always Be My Maybe,' 'A Jitney Elopement' and 'Memoirs of a Geisha.'

Iconic San Francisco landscapes have long been used to enhance scenes on the silver screen. What would Bullitt be without Steve McQueen careering up and down the city’s distinctive hills in his ’68 Mustang? Or Vertigo without Kim Novak’s dramatic plunge into the Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge? And how could The Rock exist without an exploding Alcatraz?

In its 150 years, Golden Gate Park has played host to its fair share of memorable cinematic moments, starting all the way back in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin’s A Jitney Elopement. The silent film gave us the first ever San Francisco movie car chase, and it happened directly in front of the Murphy Windmill that stands at the western edge of the park to this day. After an old-timey sideshow, Chaplin speeds off up a dirt road that would later become the Great Highway.

That same year, the 13-minute Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle caper Wished on Mabel took a tour of some of the most romantic locations in the park: the Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake Bridge, Strawberry Hill’s waterfall and, finally, the stone path around Stow Lake, where Fatty and Mabel share a smooch.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand at Stow Lake in 'Wished on Mabel,' 1915; the stepping stone path today.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand at Stow Lake in 'Wished on Mabel,' 1915; the stepping stone path today. (Screenshots and photo courtesy of Tim Welsh)

No movie has better utilized Golden Gate Park as a romantic prop though, than The Wedding Planner. In it, Mary (Jennifer Lopez) and Steve (Matthew McConaughey) first fall for each other at a movie night at the park’s Music Concourse. (There’s a dance routine, a Ferris wheel and a rainstorm involved, naturally.) Later in the movie, when Steve attempts to comfort a crying Mary, he does so by saying, “D’you ever think about that night in the park? I do. All the time.” The couple return to the scene of their initial flirtations for the film’s finale.

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The 2001 rom-com also manages to include the single most popular movie location in all of Golden Gate Park—the Japanese Tea Gardens. In The Wedding Planner, it’s where Steve breaks up with his fiancée after realizing that Mary is The One, but the picturesque spot in the park’s northeast corner has also found its way into Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Petulia (1968) and noir-thrillers, Portrait in Black (1960) and Jade (1995).

Scenes from Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden in (above) 'Portrait in Black' (1960) and (below) 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (2005).
Scenes from Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden in (above) 'Portrait in Black' (1960) and (below) 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (2005). (YouTube)

Speaking of noir, 1958’s The Lineup—about heroin smugglers trying to retrieve packages from unsuspecting tourists—features the park’s Steinhart Aquarium (inside the California Academy of Sciences) as a murky backdrop to one such encounter. It’s possible that director Don Siegel took a cue from Orson Welles’ brooding The Lady From Shanghai (1947), in which Michael (played by Welles) uses the aquarium to meet his secret lover Elsa (Rita Hayworth).

The scene is memorably foreboding, not just because Welles and Hayworth were on the verge of real-life divorce at the time, but also because they’re surrounded by ominous-looking sea creatures, enlarged and distorted in the tanks behind them.

In happier representations, Golden Gate Park is often the backdrop to new romance. Just as the Music Concourse marked the beginning of Steve and Mary’s relationship in The Wedding Planner, it’s one of the first places we see Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) as a couple in Always Be My Maybe. (They also visit the de Young.) Additionally, in 1972’s Play it Again, Sam, Allan (Woody Allen) and Linda (Diane Keaton) make dinner plans on the Music Concourse’s green benches, a date that transforms their relationship from platonic to passionate.

Woody Allen gravitated towards Golden Gate Park as a romantic location on more than one occasion. For his first movie, 1969’s Take The Money and Run, his character Virgil, a petty thief, favors the park as a location to steal women’s purses. After he attempts to snatch a bag from Louise (Janet Margolin), romance blossoms. (This is a Woody Allen film, after all...)

Not that Golden Gate Park is a stranger to action. In Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood takes down a deranged serial killer inside the park’s 10,000-seater Kezar Stadium. And in 1952’s Scaramouche, Andre Moreau (played by Stewart Granger) is seen riding around the park on horseback, as he seeks vengeance against the swordsman who killed his friend.

Stewart Granger under the Stow Lake bridge in 'Scaramouche' (1952), and the bridge today.
Stewart Granger under the Stow Lake bridge in 'Scaramouche' (1952), and the bridge today. (Screenshots and photo courtesy of Tim Welsh)

The park was used in several Scaramouche scenes despite the film’s setting of 18th-century France. In Memoirs of a Geisha, the Tea Garden stood in for a school in 1930s Japan. Conversely, not all movies purporting to be in Golden Gate Park are actually filmed there. In Mel Brooks’ 1972 spoof, High Anxiety, his famous parody of The Birds occurs directly after he claims to be “in the Golden Gate Park... at the north by northwest corner.” Brooks was, in fact, in Pasadena.

Golden Gate Park is so expansive, and its environments so varied, that movies of nearly every genre have found their backdrops within it for over 100 years. And though we’ve yet to see a sci-fi flick filmed there, perhaps The Matrix 4 and Venom 2—both recently spotted filming on location around the city—will change that. (After all, Netflix sci-fi series Sense8 has scenes in the Japanese Tea Garden and Music Concourse.)

Happy 150th, Golden Gate Park! Here’s to another century of movie magic.