Name recognition in the movies is awarded to actors who are far too celebrated by a 24/7 cottage industry that preys on the audience’s fascination with celebrity…the Star System, created in the Silent Era, is now on steroids. Name recognition spills over to directors since the advent of film schools and celebrity directors in the 1960s and the saturation of movie websites. But other contributors to the movies remain nameless—well-paid, but not easily identified in a line-up. Part of this anonymity is the result of confusion in distinguishing among the artists, technicians, and craftspeople involved with interlocking jobs during a movie’s production. Additionally, technological advances are redefining responsibilities as well as creating new roles to accommodate technical and aesthetic evolution.
Movie-making responsibilities split into theoretical and practical duties: “I have the plan; you make it real.” Before 1939 the person responsible for the physical look of the film was called the “Art Director” or “AD” (The term "Production Designer” or “PD” was coined by William Cameron Menzies when working on Gone With the Wind. Confusingly, both terms are in use today. Looking back pre-1939, let’s stick with AD.) The AD is responsible for the physical overall look of a film and works directly with the Producer and Director to select the settings and style that visually tell the story. If any ADs deserve to be household names, they are Hans Dreier and Cedric Gibbons.
Born in Bremen, Hans Dreier began his career in German film in 1919 (think Expressionistic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). Dreier relocated to Hollywood and served as Supervising AD at Paramount from 1923 to 1950. He contributed to nearly 500 films and was nominated for 20 Academy Awards for his Art Direction. As Paramount’s Supervising AD, Dreier allowed individual creativity on Paramount shoots but took personal charge of Ernst Lubitch’s and Josef von Sternberg’s productions. Dreier’s characteristic use of shadow and chiaroscuro led him to close collaboration and his most exciting work with Billy Wilder on both film-noir Double Idemnity and Sunset Blvd. He scored two Best Art Direction Oscars in 1950, (Color) Samson and Delilah and (Black and White) for Sunset Blvd. Dreier’s flamboyant decadence in the Sunset Blvd house that he created for Norma Desmond is classic set design: Reality and the Movies decay and are embalmed on screen. Exteriors of the house were filmed at the Jenkins mansion on Wilshire Boulevard, abandoned for more than a decade. The pool was built there for the movie shoot. Decadent interiors include an avalanche of velvets, fringes, gilded frames, and a massive pipe organ.
Already overloaded with silent-film star Gloria Swanson’s framed personal images, Dreier also “raided” the studio’s enormous prop collection, most famously, for Norma’s swan-shaped bed. Owned by dancer Gaby Deslys, when she died in 1920, the bed was bought by the Universal prop department at auction and appears prominently in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). AD Hans Dreier created a garish dreamscape of flamboyant luxury and style gone-to-seed: 10086 Sunset Boulevard is the Hollywood address after the Dream-turned-Nightmare has festered into Hallucination…Dr. Caligari’s asylum—with a swimming pool.
Film pioneer, Cedric Gibbons spent his earliest career as an assistant at Thomas Edison’s Studio. In 1924 Gibbons became MGM’s founding, supervising AD. He insisted on the use of three-dimensional scenery rather than painted backdrops. In 1928 his film Our Dancing Daughters popularized the Art Deco style in the US. In 1930 Gibbons married actress Dolores Del Rio (The couple divorced in 1941.). Every film coming out of MGM listed Gibbons as AD. Cedric Gibbons was a tyrant who felt strongly about what was right and wrong for MGM. Thus all MGM films shared a distinctive "look" because anyone responsible in any way for the visual appearance of an MGM film—from props to costumes to special effects—had to have Gibbons’ approval. Gibbons movies from Grand Hotel to The Wizard of Oz and An American in Paris still influence movie set design. Nominated for 37 Academy Awards in his career, Cedric Gibbons won 11 competitive Oscars. Because he was an artist and architect, Gibbons preferred a sculptural look. Therefore, his influence was felt beyond Hollywood set design. His influence on American architecture, interior decorating, and design during his studio tenure is also gargantuan.
Believing that Paris masterpiece Maison de Verre was the Moderne Gold Standard, Gibbons designed a Hollywood home for himself and Del Rio that was their—and is my—dream house…with a swimming pool.
Ah yes—and indeed, the original Oscar statuette was also wrought from a design attributed to AD Cedric Gibbons.