Cedric Gibbons: Art Deco Man by matthew c. hoffman
“The decorating craze touched off by Our Dancing Daughters was unprecedented. Households began aping (Cedric) Gibbons’s use of such elements as venetian blinds, dancing figurines, and indirect lighting. Those with money and relatively adventurous tastes were soon having their homes redecorated in the ‘modern’ style. Unfortunately, few of these homes could fully capture the scale and luxury of Gibbons’s sets, which tended to depict drawing rooms roughly the size of Grand Central Station.” ~ Howard Mandelbaum & Eric Myers, Screen Deco
Anyone familiar with the screen titles of classic films will undoubtedly recognize the name Cedric Gibbons. Though he had but one directorial credit to his name– Tarzan and His Mate (1934)– it was as a designer at MGM that he is best known. From 1924 until 1956, Gibbons’s name appeared in 1500 movies as the credited art director. That’s a Hollywood record for individual film credits. (A clause in his contract stipulated that his name appear on every MGM release.) Though his actual hands-on involvement may have only been 10% of that total, 150 films is still an impressive number. More an executive than an on-the-set designer, he supervised a huge staff and made sure the designs they created were in keeping with the glossy style MGM was known for. For instance, Gibbons designed the “Big White Set” seen in such films as Dinner At Eight (1933). It was a distinct studio look that he originated.
Austin Cedric Gibbons was born in 1890 in Brooklyn of Irish descent. He attended the Art Students of New York school and worked as a draftsman for his father, who was a Manhattan architect. After his mother died in 1910, he was abandoned by his father. On his own, he worked various jobs including one in advertising. In 1915, Gibbons began his film work with the Edison Studios before moving on to the New Jersey-based Sam Goldwyn lot in 1918 where he served as art director. When Goldwyn merged with Louis B. Mayer’s company to form MGM in 1924, Gibbons retained his title and became head of the department. In 1925 Mayer experimented with the famed Russian designer Erte, but Erte had the misfortune of being an artiste in a studio system. It was a short stay for Erte at MGM. In his wake, Cedric Gibbons emerged as the visionary. He was more studio-minded and knew how to produce at a studio level while maintaining the high standards of quality.
Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Cedric Gibbons had visited the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which was the peak of Art Deco in Europe. Gibbons brought these ideas back with him to the States where he incorporated them into many of the studio’s films from the late 1920s. It could be said that it all started with Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the first in a trilogy of films starring Joan Crawford which told the stories of modern women in the Jazz Age. The follow-ups, Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930) also feature remarkable set design such as the Art Deco treehouse in the last of the series. Another star whose persona benefited from Gibbons’s designs was Greta Garbo, who appeared in such Deco films as A Woman of Affairs (1928), The Single Standard (1929) and The Kiss (1929). One of the most successful of all her films was Grand Hotel (1932), which won Best Picture. The hotel itself was also one of Gibbons’s greatest legacies. Being a prestigious MGM release, Gibbons most likely had a larger role in the design of this film than in the designs of many lesser films that also carry his name.
In the book Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies, author Donald Albrecht writes, “Circles are prominent in every aspect of the Grand Hotel’s design– an appropriate image for the spinning-wheel-of-fortune scenario. The circular motif appears in the hotel’s round, multilevel atrium with open balconies, in the continually revolving doors, and in ornaments on balcony railings. It also appears in the round reception desk, which acts as a pivot for the curving shots that follow the movement of the film’s characters, who travel across the black-and-white floor like pawns in a chess game. Movie plot and architecture have seldom been so closely harmonized.”
In the studio system there was always a supervisory art director at the top and then the unit art director beneath him. In the case of Grand Hotel, the unit art director was Alexander Toluboff. As mentioned, Gibbons did not build every set himself because he had a staff of quality designers who deserve just as much recognition. One of the most talented at the studio was Richard Day, who would go on to design Modernistic sets for films like Arrowsmith (1931) and Dodsworth (1936).
Cedric Gibbons with Johnny Weissmuller on the set of Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Though Gibbons has a co-directorial credit, Jack Conway did most of the directing.
Preston Ames, who joined the Gibbons staff in 1936, described his boss’s process:
“Cedric Gibbons worked very closely with me, as he did with all his art directors. The best way to describe our operation is to compare it to an architect’s office. You confer with the head man, but eventually you are assigned an architect who works on your assignment. The office, however, is going to be very much aware of whether the architect’s work is in keeping with the experience, the style, and the creativity of the head man. If there was bad taste, if there was bad composition, or if it couldn’t be photographed, Gibbons would spot it right off the bat and you were in trouble. If you did something which you thought was the proper thing to do and the director came along saying, ‘This isn’t right,’ Gibbons would defend you, or he might say, ‘It is a mistake.’ But if you were right you always had the support of your supervisor. He’d back you to the hilt. Gibbons had the background (I think that’s the proper word) to have the great respect and admiration of the entire studio. He represented quality, and he represented good art direction.”
Gibbons was a larger-than-life figure who had as much style as any star on screen. He lived the Art Deco life and even designed a Deco mansion in Santa Monica Canyon where he lived with his first wife, Dolores Del Rio. Anyone who might question the extent of his contributions at MGM needn’t look further than to this Art Deco paradise which shows off an inimitable taste in design. Structurally, it was as brilliant as any of his movie sets.
At home with his actress-wife, Dolores Del Rio.
“The house was and still is a tour de force in what was then known as the Art Moderne style. Beyond the sterile white stucco facade, Gibbons crafted an interior as elegant and flawless as his wife. In fact, the inside seemed to be a direct homage to her beauty and stardom. Del Rio’s dressing room was wall-to-wall mirrors, even down to the plates for the electric switches, which were held in place with star-headed screws. Her dressing table was constructed like an altar. A grand staircase for entrances was the focal point of the living room. In a touch that was both characteristic of the era and a metaphor for Del Rio’s style, the rooms were marked by angular forms, sleek surfaces, and streamlined built-in furniture.” ~ Annette Tapert, The Power of Glamour
Herbert Ryman, a sketch artist at MGM, described Gibbons as existing “in a kind of aura, or nimbus. He would arrive in his Dusenberg, in the grey homburg hat and the grey gloves, and he would walk up the stairs to the Art Department. By the time he was on the landing, one glove was off and his grey homburg was swept off, and he would walk in and say good morning to his secretary, with all of us in the art department watching him appear and disappear with this elegant procedure. I think it was intended on his part.”
In 1927, Cedric Gibbons became one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A year later, at the behest of Louis B. Mayer, Gibbons designed the “Oscar” statuette for an awards ceremony he helped establish: the Academy Awards. In his lifetime he would be nominated 39 times for this award– winning it 11 times: The Bridge of San Luis Ray (1929), The Merry Widow (1934), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Gaslight (1944), The Yearling (1946), Little Women (1949), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1957). But it is the films he made from the late 1920s through the late 1930s that are best remembered. It was work that was visionary and thoroughly modern. He created the template for Modernistic decor and he set the standard for Art Deco in film.
Gibbons passed away in 1960 at the age of 67, just four years after his retirement. He was survived by his second wife of nineteen years, Hazel Brooks.
Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929)