“Cedric Gibbons was the grand cardinal of the art department.” - Vincente Minnelli
Irish American film art director and production designer, Austin Cedric Gibbons was born on March 23, 1890 to architect Austin P. Gibbons and Veronica Fitzpatrick Simmons in New York City. He was the second of three children, raised in the Brooklyn boroughs.
After attending the Art Student’s League of New York in Manhattan, the young Gibbons went to work for his father as a junior draftsman. In 1915, he joined the art department at the Edison Studios in New Jersey, working under Hugo Ballin, a fellow League alumni. There, they did away with unrealistic painted backdrops, opting for real furnishings and settings.
During World War I, Gibbons was drafted and served in the US Navy Reserves at Pelham Bay. In 1918, after leaving the military, he began work at the Goldwyn Studios as an art director. When Goldwyn Studios merged with Metro Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, Gibbons began a 32 year long career with the motion picture studio, soon rising to head of the art department.
Gibbons would marry three times. His first wife was Gwendolyn Alice Weller, an actress, whom he married in 1925. They divorce in 1926. In 1930, he wed Dolores del Rio, a Latin American actress referred to as the female Rudolph Valentino. They would remain together until 1941 when they divorced. His final wife was Hazel Brooks, a 19 year old model, turned actress from Cape Town, South Africa. They married in 1944 and remain together until his passing.
Gibbons was one of the original 36 founding members of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He designed the Academy Awards statuette in 1928, in which he would be nominated for 39 times. He won 11. His first win was in 1930 for “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”.
On April 26, 1956, Gibbons retired from MGM as head of the art department due to an illness. At the time, he had over 1500 film credits to his name. Many of which he only supervised, receiving credit as indicated in his contract with the studio. On July 26, 1960, he died in Los Angeles at the age of 70. He was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
Though Gibbons has worked on many amazing films such as “The Merry Widow” (1934), “Gaslight” (1944), and “An American In Paris” (1951), I have picked a silent film to keep within the era in which we are currently exploring.
“Ben Hur: The Tale of the Christ” (1925) is the film I believe demonstrates this art director’s masterful skills in his chosen profession. Irving Thalberg, an executive at MGM, called Gibbons to be a part of this project personally. Under the direction of Andrew McDonald and with the assistance of A. Arnold Gillespie, he aided in the creation of the epic sets of the film. Through the clever mixture of hanging miniatures, matte painting, and actual large structures, they produced the breathtaking scenery the cast of characters would reside in.
This film, in my humble opinion, is a true treasure and of the three (the 1959 and 2016 remakes) is by far superior. The chariot race alone leaves these revamps in the dust.
So, grab you cup, prop up your feet, and get ready to go on a two hour and twenty-one minute journey with Judah Ben Hur. It can be rented for $1.99 through Prime Video, youtube, and Google Play. However, I happened on this gem for free on its wikipedia site.