For someone who shaped much of the visual aesthetic of film in its formative years, Cedric Gibbons isn’t well known outside of art and production editors and classic film enthusiasts. Surprising, considering that his name is associated with more than 1500 films between 1924 and 1956, thanks to a stipulation in his MGM contract that ensured he received art director credit for every movie the studio released in the US, and he took the Academy Award statue he designed (allegedly on a paper napkin) home 11 times. In terms of Oscar wins, he’s the Academy’s most successful art director. It’s not just contemporary audiences who are unaware of Gibbons’ influence, it’s likely that audiences of the day were unaware of the man and perhaps even his work – after all, set design is meant to fade into the background and complement the ‘action’.
Thanks to Gibbons’ prolific name-checking, it’s impossible to ascertain exactly which movies films were art directed solely by him. Generally, he collaborated on, oversaw or approved the ‘look’ but was not responsible for every detail. All employees responsible for visuals – including costumes, props, make-up and special effects – were required to submit their ideas to Gibbons. According to art director Preston Ames, who joined Gibbons’s staff in 1938, “[he] worked 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 project.” Similarly, Vincente Minnelli described Gibbons as “medieval fiefdom, its overlord accustomed to doing things in a certain way.”
Rather than hampering creativity, this ‘certain way’ created a visually unified MGM look; usually characterised by all-white rooms or sets that oozed luxury, elegance and glamour. Audiences would always have known when they were watching an MGM production, and not just because they were greeted by Jackie or Tanner. Gibbons was instrumental in creating an aesthetic that ran across all MGM films, tweaking each one to suit its genre.
In fact, the sets resembled the stars that acted out tableaux upon them, and were an extension of the escapism that wartime and postwar audiences craved. Gibbons often opted for luxury even if the screenplay didn’t call for it – this was an amped-up ideal of everyday life, where polished floors, mirrored surfaces and crystal surfaces were de rigeur. George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933) is typical Gibbons. Based on a Broadway play written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, there are no exterior shots, all the action takes inside, allowing Gibbons to create a ‘show off’ set, that makes use of 11 shades of white. This, and other similar sets, were often known as BWS (the Big White Set); although the original design is credited to Astaire-Rogers musicals, it’s a look that Gibbons helped perfect.
The streamlined, modern Deco look was visually effective, and was likely directly inspired by a trip he took to the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris (1925). By then, Gibbons was already working at MGM, formed by Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer in 1924. He succeeded Russian designer and fashion illustrator Erté, who struggled to turn his artistic ambitions into commercially viable sets. Gibbons, who understood how the studio system worked thanks to a stint at Edison Studios and on Goldwyn’s New-Jersey lot, was a natural fit. Some of Gibbons’ earliest films at MGM, including Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Our Modern Maidens and Grand Hotel exemplified the ‘Gibbons look’.
Our Dancing Daughters, the first in a trilogy of films starring Joan Crawford, was a quintessential Jazz Age movie. The look of the film celebrated a particular Paris-borrowed modernity that was heavily influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Beautiful and the Dammned was published in 1922, The Great Gatsby in 1925), set against a remarkable decor designed by Gibbons and Richard Day. Diana, Crawford’s character, resides in a beautiful home filled with glossy floors (perfect for dancing!), beautiful furniture (perfect for housing all those beautiful clothes!) and Deco sculptures. Moderne interiors, with their geometric shapes and elaborate stepped recesses were the perfect look for black and white movies, especially following the development of incandescent lighting, which was able to pick up and highlight all the details. In Our Dancing Daughters, the look was all about wealth, elegance and the finer things in life, and the American audience adored it. The aesthetic directly contributed to the film’s success (other aspects – it was a silent with a synchronised soundtrack – seemed somewhat out-dated) and inspired other set designs and home decor trends. The American public didn’t just want to watch the dream; they wanted to live it too.
Set in Berlin but shot in LA, Grand Hotel was a collaborative effort. Gibbons was assisted by Edwin B. Willis and Alexander Toluboff; the trio created an elaborate lobby with a circular check-in desk framed by a curved chequered floor. The desk is finished with banded metal strips that are echoed in the window frames; it’s a highly stylized vision that’s perfect for a black and white film. The circular motif was echoed in the sweeping shots that accompanied each characters entrance, usually through a revolving door, which was the focus of the films opening, establishing the set as a character in its own right, and acting as a marker between interior and exterior action. According to Donald Albrecht:
“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.”
Although Gibbons didn’t win an Oscar for the movie, it collected the Best Picture gong in 1932, cementing his reputation as one of the most influential art directors. His Oscar wins included The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Blossoms in the Dust, Gaslight, Little Women and the elaborate An American In Paris. Gibbons may be best remembered for the Art Deco template he created in the late 1920s, but An American In Paris (1951) proves that time did not diminish his creative output. A celebration of Parisian joie de vivre, the film was actually shot at the MGM studios in California, much to Gene Kelly’s dismay. Gibbons designed 44 sets, and much of the effects (including the final scene) were achieved through clever camera angles and trickery. The movie doesn’t have the sophisticated elegance of Gibbons’ earliest works but it’s an effective recreation of faded Paris streets, albeit in an unrealistic, faketastic way. That’s not to the film’s detriment though; choreographed musicals are by their nature somewhat dreamlike and the set picks up on those elements, especially during the closing 16-minute ballet scene.
Gibbons’ artistic interiors weren’t just restricted to film. One of his best productions was the Art Deco residence he designed and lived in with his first wife, silent film star Dolores Del Rio. The cinematic two-storey residence, which was completed in 1930, could almost pass a film set, and included details that could have come straight from a movie – including a rumoured trapdoor that connected the master bedroom closet to the closet in the downstairs bedroom. Apparently Gibbons slept downstairs, and would climb through the door to reach his wife’s bedroom. True or not, it’s the kind of detail that wouldn’t be out of place in his Big White Sets.
Gibbons died in 1960, just four years after retiring. It’s impossible to overstate how much his vision influence film and American interiors, but perhaps his legacy is best summed up by Elia Kazan: “MGM was not run, oddly, by L.B. Mayer, but by the head of the art department”. The Golden Age of Hollywood was saturated with talent, but even within that field, Gibbons stood out. By all accounts a larger-than-life character, he would arrive at the studios in a Dusenberg, wearing a grey hat and grey gloves. His aesthetic style didn’t start on the screen – it started off it; his talent was in his ability to translate an artistic language into commercial set pieces that tapped into American consciousness and established ‘the movies’ as a place audiences frequented to live out their dreams.