“Gibbons was responsible for the physical look of most of the 20th century through his designs for MGM, which were wildly influential both at the time and now, when we look back at his era.”
— Historian Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, in an interview with Stuart Galbraith IV
Cedric Gibbons, a graduate of New York’s Art Student League, began his long association with the movies at Edison Studios in 1915. In 1918, he served as art director at Goldwyn Studios. When Goldwyn became incorporated with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1924, forming MGM, the young designer signed on as the new studio’s art director, a position he would hold for the next 32 years. More than 1,500 films bear his name as art director while a number of designers on his staff went uncredited. Nevertheless, the look of MGM films—and much of the studio proper—are reflections of Gibbons’s taste, creativity and discipline.
Here’s a brief look at his legacy.
Lust for Life (1956)
Location shooting where Vincent van Gogh lived added to the verisimilitude of the production. Assisting Gibbons in recreating the famous painter’s surroundings were Hans Peters, E. Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis and F. Keogh Gleason.
Marie Antoinette (1938)
Gibbons created the Versailles ballroom set—twice the size of the real McCoy—by taking the sets he designed for the 1937 pictures Conquest and Maytime and adding candelabrum and mirrored walls. Designed for Technicolor, the already expensive production switched to black-and-white filming to save some dough. For this period piece, Gibbons received the Oscar for Best Art Direction.
Louis B. Mayer’s Office
“Everything inside the Gibbons-designed studio gates, from the backlot to the screening rooms to the commisary to L.B. Mayer’s white inner office—all of it owed their physical look to Cedric Gibbons,” says Bingen.
Quo Vadis (1951)
Gibbons and his team of William A. Horning, Edward C. Carfagno and Hugh Hunt created ten hand-carved chariots for the film, which took advantage of Rome’s vast, newly opened Cinecitta Studio and cheap Italian labor. The film proved to be an enormous hit and reportedly saved MGM from going bankrupt. Gibbons and gang went on to win the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color.
At Home with Dolores del Rio
In 1930, Gibbons married actress Dolores del Rio and, with architect Douglas Honnold, codesigned their art deco house in Santa Monica.
Born to Dance (1936)
James Stewart sings in this, his only musical. Costarring Eleanor Powell, the film featured a long, long finale called “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” that ended on the fancifully realized deck of a battleship created by Gibbons, Edwin B. Willis and Joseph C. Wright.
An American In Paris (1951)
Forty-four sets were built for this MGM musical, much to the dismay of star Gene Kelly, who would have preferred to shoot on location. In addition to the streets of Montmartre, Gibbons and his team went to town for the famous ballet that closes the film, creating stylized versions of a flower market, a fair, the Moulin Rouge, the Place de l’Opera and the Place de la Concorde. Gibbons shared the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color, with E. Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis and F. Keogh Gleason.
Loma Theater, San Diego
Influenced by Gibbons’s movie sets of the 1930s, designer Carl Moeller created a number of theaters for the Skouras brothers, including San Diego’s Loma Theater.
Gibbons was one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). The Oscar statuette is his creation—an award he went on to win 11 times.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Nature provided the clouds seen during the opening credits; Cedric Gibbons and team provided everything else. The by-now familiar and beloved sets include a Kansas farm, a tornado (made of a 35-foot-tall spinning muslin sock), the cities Munshkin and Emerald, a haunted forest with personified trees, a witch’s castle and—running throughout most of this—a road of yellow brick. Gibbons and William A. Horning saw Lyle Wheeler take the Oscar that year for awards magnet Gone With the Wind (1939).