New Book on Famed MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons Reveals Over 100 Never-Before-Seen Photos

Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Cedric Gibbons

'MGM Style: Cedric Gibbons and the Art of the Golden Age of Hollywood' celebrates the life and times of the influential set designer.

During the Great Depression, weary moviegoers often escaped to make-believe worlds where the wealthy sipped champagne in Park Avenue penthouses and danced the night away in opulent nightclubs all for the price of admission. Set against a gleaming backdrop of high gloss and glitz, the film designs defined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s trademark “metro style” and became as synonymous as its golden lion emblem.

Largely responsible for Hollywood’s high glam was the legendary Cedric Gibbons, who served as supervising art director of MGM from the studio’s early days in 1924 to the final days of the studio system in 1956. During his tenure, the Irish-American designer put his stamp on some 1,500 films ranging from Ben-Hur (1925) and the Broadway Melody series (1929 to 1940) to the classics The Wizard of Oz (1939), An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Now, Gibbons’ influential body of work is celebrated, with many never-before-seen photos, in Howard Gutner’s new book MGM Style: Cedric Gibbons and the Art of the Golden Age of Hollywood (Lyons, $44).

The book tells the rags-to-riches tale from the designer’s meager beginnings in Brooklyn and early career-defining days at Edison Studios to his storied reign at MGM. No stranger to the Golden Age (his previous book covered the life and times of another style maker, costume designer Adrian), Gutner says “Gibbons had the same kind of ability that Adrian had and was able to sense trends just before they became popular." 

Inspired by the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the designer introduced audiences to the modernist stylings of Art Deco, a look that shaped many of his films for decades to come. The striking black-and-white sets of the Joan Crawford vehicle Our Dancing Daughters (1928) started a national design trend and made the heroine a star in the process. Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931); Greta Garbo's A Woman of Affairs (1928), The Kiss and The Single Standard (1929); Wife vs. Secretary (1936); and Jean Harlow's "big white sets" on Dinner at Eight (1933) were all representative of the clean-lined, sleek décor.

"One of the things Gibbons contributed was an insistence on realism in historical and classical subjects," Gutner details. A stickler for authenticity, the designer had a disagreement with Irving Thalberg over adding an ocean to the background for the 1926 film Paris (the producer naturally won) and his work on classical pieces for the 1933 film Marie Antoinette led to the opening of one of the first studio research departments (headed by Nathalie Bucknall). Known as a pioneer and trendsetter in the industry, Gibbons's budget-conscious decisions on Ben Hur’s Roman Coliseum chariot scene laid the groundwork for his career as the head of the studio’s design department. 

"Gibbons and [special effects designer] Arnold Gillespie painted part of the set on a glass miniature, so they only had to build half the set and saved MGM $100,000,” says Gutner. “It really cemented him with Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg." Gibbons' work on The Great Ziegfield (1936) influenced the architecture of some of the stately movie palaces, while his love of Art Deco landed him the job as designer of the Oscar statuette (he was nominated 37 times and won 11 gold-plated knights which, no doubt, lined the streamlined mantel of his home). 

Married to actress Delores Del Rio, Gibbons' personal life was equally as glamorous as the films he designed. The couple’s Santa Monica 1930s Art Deco-style home served as a working laboratory for his set designs, while his weekend pool parties — frequented by guests such as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Garbo — were the stuff of Hollywood lore. The home, once owned by producer Joe Roth, remains one of Gibbons' greatest legacies.