Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Memoriam: Cedric Gibbons

For every high-strung flash-in-the-pan pretty face in front of the camera, Hollywood has had a long-haul hard worker (or ten) behind it. They may be as obscure as you or I; they may be as celebrated as - or, in some cases, even more celebrated than - those they painted, clothed, or lit simply because their jobs didn't rely on looks alone but talent, fortitude, and discretion...

PhotobucketCedric Gibbons - born on this day in 1893 - was one such technician; he began working in the art department of Samuel Goldwyn in 1918, and when Goldwyn later merged with Metro and Mayer Gibbons went on to work with the fledgling MGM from 1924-1956 - a 32-year career under the thumb of Louis B. Mayer, a feat of the utmost endurance. During his tenure there the famed art director personally oversaw 150 productions and had his name on ten times as many - a feat which I can safely say will never be replicated.

As Head of the Art Department at MGM, Gibbons was one of 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an initiative by that studio to give itself trophies for work from which it already made obscene amounts of money. He even designed the Oscar statuette - a knight (whose physique was based upon that of Emilio 'El Indio' Fernández, a friend of Gibbons' then-wife Dolores del Río) standing atop a film canister with five spokes (one for each of the founding creative branches of film - namely actors, writers, directors, producers, and technicians); the work was then sculpted by George Stanley from Gibbons' design. From the day he designed it until the day he retired he earned 11 of them for his work, out of a total of 39 nominations.

It was said of Gibbons' work that if he was called upon to design Paris for a movie, it could out-Paris Paris; the films he worked on are simply redolent with style. I can single out one - Gaslight (1944) - that depicted a Victorian London so lavish that an actual Victorian would have been appalled by its exuberance. No slave to sentiment, he was also the first designer to use modern architecture in film, being especially fond of Art Deco and Art Moderne styles. For viewers, though, whether they knew it or not, his sets were a big part of the enthralling experience that was movie-going in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

After Gibbons and his ilk began retiring from the grinding schedule that was the film business during the studio era Hollywood underwent a sea change that took a full three decades to correct; while his successors in the 1960s and 1970s favoured a greater naturalism in film, their successors since the 1990s have begun to return to the more lavish style that made American cinema so great in the first place, many of them consciously honouring the work of great artists like Cedric Gibbons in the process.
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