Two UT professors document the untold history of Hollywood’s greatest scenic artists.
In one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are caught in a high-stakes chase across Mount Rushmore, climbing precariously down the stony curves and arches of presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. When Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 North By Northwest debuted, the film’s bold choice of location became the talk of audiences and media everywhere. The American public was in awe. But those working behind the scenes during the Golden Age of Hollywood had a secret: The monument on screen was a fake.
Grant and Saint were running around in a studio at MGM where a 40-by-100-foot painted backdrop of Mount Rushmore stood. “But this was a time when studios were still trying to keep things hidden from audiences—it was the magic of the cinema,” says UT Department of Theatre and Dance lecturer Karen Maness. She’s one of the authors of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, which details the largely unacknowledged history of cinema’s use of backdrops and the then-uncredited scenic artists who created them.
Maness, who is also the scenic art supervisor for Texas Performing Arts, has been working on the book with UT theatre professor and scenic designer Richard M. Isackes since 2012. For months, they interviewed surviving artists and their family members to document the influence of a practice that shaped American cinema. From movies like The Sound of Music (1965) to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), the book pays homage to a world rife with competing studios, dynastic families, and an aging art form that manages to live on today.
As far back as the late 1890s, artists have been working behind the scenes to create the illusion of another place or another time for audiences—though in those days backdrops were shot for the penny arcades and looked much more theatrical than cinematic. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Hollywood entered the golden age, giving rise to scenic artists like Ben Carré and George Gibson, who helped create the Mount Rushmore backdrop.
The book covers the careers of just a few of Hollywood’s biggest scenic artists—Carré, Gibson, and Duncan Alanson Spencer (who all belonged to MGM Studios) along with two families, the Coakleys and the Strangs. These artists were connected in every way, having worked side by side on iconic backdrops and offering mentorship when needed. Though their names are far less known than the actors who stood before their work, they too went on to do big things. Gibson became the lead art director of MGM, the Strangs eventually took control of Warner Bros., and the Coakleys created J.C. Backings—a backdrop studio still in use today.
“We could’ve picked 20 people. It was a very hard choice,” Isackes says. “We picked Gibson because he created the quintessential scene-painting studio at MGM, which is still on the Sony Studios lot. Spencer was a consequent artist who repped all the artists of the times. And we picked the two families because they owned competing principal studios.”
The period between the ’60s and the ’80s saw a decline in the use of painted backdrops. The film industry ventured out of Hollywood, as it became cheaper to shoot in other locations. Film became grittier and more realistic, and the painted backing as a tool became far less useful. It wasn’t until the age of Star Wars and the increase of blockbuster movies that backdrops saw a revival. These movies demanded grand settings that could be controlled, leading directors back into studios.
“The ’80s were the renaissance of backdrop painting,” Maness says, noting the importance of the 1988 action film Die Hard. While not all viewers may realize it, the scene in which Willis hangs by a rope outside a skyscraper is set in front of a nighttime backing from Warner Bros. lit up with small, twinkling lights.
Backdrop paintings began to decline again once computer-generated images (CGI) garnered popularity. Maness recognizes that CGI has its advantages over painted backdrops, including more control and greater special effects. But depending on a director’s vision, painted backdrops still fit needs today. Personally, Maness says she likes it best when both practices come together. In the 2014 film Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan used a painted backdrop of space that the actors could directly interact with throughout a special effects-heavy film.
Neither Maness or Isackes believe that scenic painting will make a comeback that mirrors the likes of what Hollywood saw in the 1930s, but they’re sure the art form will still be put to good use. With The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, both authors hope to secure the legacy they feel these unsung scenic artists deserve.
Photos from top:
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest.” Courtesy of MGM.
A painted backing from The Sound of Music (1965) and other sketch paintings in the foreground from the 2014 J.C. Backings open house. Courtesy of J.C. Backings.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) painted backing is attributed to MGM scenic art supervisor George Gibson and other scenic artists. Courtesy of MGM/The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, NY.
The Sound of Music (1965) backdrop was painted at J.C. Backings under the supervision of John H. Coakley. Courtesy of 1965 Twentieth Century Fox.
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