Gene Kelly poses in “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS”, but he isn’t really in Paris. The backdrop has been painstakingly painted to look as real as possible.
Before green screens and C.G.I., Backdrops ( or ‘Backings’ as they are called in the industry) played a vital role in Hollywood movies in the era where the studios very rarely left their sound stages.
The world of Oz in The Wizard of Oz was created by scenic artists over a period of three months.
The art and craft of Hollywood’s hand painted backdrops were documented in The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop (2016) by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness.
And finally the names of the artists who painted these enormous back drops came into the light – Ben Carre, Verne, Ronald and Ed Strang, Duncan Alanson Spencer.
Mountains, jungles, skyscrapers, all were the work of these men. They painted on canvas, calico, cloth – always with a view to how would they look through a camera lense.
The massive, wall size paintings were done with brush, roller, spray gun.
In a way, like song dubbing, the use of backdrops was a guarded secret . Nowadays we are probably far more aware of backdrops in vintage films, but back in the day, if an audience recognised the backdrop as a painting, the scenic artists had failed.
Born in Edinburgh, George Gibson joined MGM in 1934 and became head of MGM’s scenic dept. He did not retire until 1969. During his tenure at the studio he constructed a new building where all the backings could be painted on movable frames.
Gibson was never credited for his work and died in 2001 at the age of 96. His daughter said he was most proud of his work in BRIGADOON.
Part of the North by Northwest backdrop (40 feet by 100 feet) painted by MGM scenic artists, Ben Carre, Wayne Hill, Clark Provins, Harry Tepker and Duncan Spencer.
The Mount Rushmore backdrop was donated by JC Backings to the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and it was so large it required a two-story gallery.
And there hangs a tale.
Several generations of the Coakley family have been involved in scenic design.
John Harold Coakley Jr. (1918-1970) was trained by Ben Gibson and worked on backings at MGM and Fox.He formed his own backings rental company, J.C. Backings in 1962 . He bought 100s of unused backings from the studios.
Currently the company is run by Lynne Coakley.
Most of their business was now digital and photographic printing , and Lynne Coakley donated many of 200 backdrops ( which hadn’t been rented out for years) to the Art Directors Guild , and the Guild Archive project ( under Tom Walsh) unrolled, photographed and catalogued the 200 and set out to find homes for them.
(The Coakley family have been called “the Barrymores of Backdrops”.)
Lynne Coakley in front of the BEN HUR backing at the Scenic Art building at Sony Pictures studios, Culver City (MGM).
We can be grateful that so many backdrops from the classic era were saved from the dumpster.
The Art Directors Guild had long wanted to preserve the legacy of its film scenic arts. Over time the backdrops were donated to museums, film archives,universities.
Author and artist Karen L. Maness described the “North By Northwest” backdrop as “….the grandaddy , the Babe Ruth of all Hollywood backdrops.”
A classic scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST, as Eva Marie Saint walks in front of the massive backing outside the window of the recreated Mount Rushmore cafeteria – the illusion that the actors are not studio bound.
I was lucky enough to attend an event at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow in 2022. Called THE LOST ART OF HOLLYWOOD.
The Conservatoire have several backings donated by the Art Directors Guild and it was exciting to see them unfolded and on display : the backings are used on Production Arts and Design courses.
The three illustrations below are from the Conservatoire evening.