Having—finally—finished reading Christina Wilson’s wonderful doctoral dissertation “Cedric Gibbons and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: The Art of Motion Picture Set Design” (University of Virginia, 1998), I’m particularly delighted that the Gibbons’-supervised masterpiece GRAND HOTEL will be first up in our “Hollywood Modern” film series.
As Wilson writes: “As head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Art Department during the 1920s and 1930s, Gibbons received accolades for setting the film industry’s artistic standards through his elegant sets and sophisticated sense of style…His sets gave MGM films the distinctive look that attracted audiences, garnered critical acclaim, and popularized ideas about architecture and interior decoration.”
To sum up Gibbons’ less-than-glamorous background, he was born in Brooklyn in 1890 (not Dublin, as MGM press claimed) and it is possible that he worked within his father’s Manhattan architecture office during his teens. However, after his mother’s sudden death in 1910, he was abandoned by his father and subsequently worked odd jobs to support himself and his siblings. After cobbling together an arts education at the Art Students League in New York City, Gibbons worked first in the field of advertising before being hired at the New Jersey-based Goldwyn Pictures in 1918.
In the years that followed, Gibbons managed to survive relocation to the west coast, a brief military stint, various studio mergers, and the upheaval caused by the arrival of sound. Rather than find himself battered by these changes, Gibbons became established as a respected artist among his peers and a design star in the architectural press during the late 1920s. One of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, Gibbons also helped establish the Academy’s annual awards ceremony, for which he also designed the statuette—’Oscar.’ The same award he himself would receive 11 times, with 39 nominations.
While Cedric Gibbons wasn’t nominated for GRAND HOTEL, the film nonetheless won “Best Picture” for 1932. One wonders whether the picture would have been quite so successful were it not for the thoroughly dazzling sets within which the story takes place.