On This Day – 23.3.1893   Birth in Dublin of Cedric Gibbons

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There are numerous anecdotes about how the Academy Award statuette got its name. One story has it that Bette Davis named it after one of her husbands, the band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. The more probable narrative relates to the executive secretary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick who is supposed to have exclaimed, when she saw the statuette for the first time, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’.

All of which is apropos of the man who was given the task of designing the golden trophy, one of the founding members of the Academy, Cedric Gibbons. He was born Austin Cedric Gibbons in Dublin in 1893 and his family migrated to the USA in the early 1900s. His father was an architect, which must have influenced his future career as a Hollywood art director. Cedric, after graduating from Art school, began to work for his father before joining the Edison studio in New York in 1915. This was at a time when the movie industry still hadn’t quite made up its mind whether it was going to be a west coast or an east coast phenomenon.

The lack of year-round sunshine, and proximity to the litigious holders of film-making patents, like Gibbons’s first employer, put paid to New York as the spiritual home of La La Land by the 1920s and Gibbons, like most of his talented peers, headed for Hollywood.

In 1918 he started working for Samuel Goldwyn, the father of such celebrated Goldwynisms as ‘A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ and ‘Can she sing? … why she’s practically a Florence Nightingale.’ When, in 1924, Goldwyn’s company became the ‘G’ in the MGM sandwich—the ‘M’s, of course, being ‘Metro’ and ‘Mayer’, Gibbons had arrived.

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In negotiating his MGM contract, he insisted that he be credited as Art Director on every single movie the studio produced during his tenure. Which meant that Gibbons was credited on over fifteen hundred movies between 1924 and 1956. He probably had direct involvement in around a tenth of that number. Still, being art director on one hundred and fifty movies over three decades is quite a career.

As it happens he was one of the earliest winners of the award he had been asked to design. He won his first Uncle Oscar at the second awards ceremony in 1930. Altogether he received thirty-nine nominations and won eleven awards. His first award came in 1929 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his final nod was almost thirty years later, in 1957, for the Paul Newman boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me. He was also nominated for The Wizard of Oz, a film you would have thought was a triumph of art direction, but didn’t win. Similarly with the likes of National Velvet, and the more visceral The Blackboard Jungle, in 1957,  the film that launched the song ‘Rock Around the Clock’.

His marriage to the actress Dolores del Rio was probably not one of the best decisions either of them made. She was going through a divorce AND splitting up from her lover around the time they were introduced by William Randolph Hearst and his wife Marion Davies. The marriage lasted a decade, by which time Del Rio had taken up with Orson Welles – so no chance of any more matchmaking from Hearst or Davies there.

Gibbons died in 1960 and is buried in Los Angeles, in 2006 he became one of the earliest inductees into the newly formed Art Director’s Guild Hall of Fame.

Austin Cedric Gibbons, one of the first and one of the greatest Hollywood art directors was born in Dublin, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 20.3.1919 The birth of Cairbre, the MGM lion, in Dublin Zoo

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They used to boast that they had ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ though their official motto was the lofty ‘Ars gratia artis’ – which translates from bog Latin as ‘art for art’s sake’. Their first mascot was re-named Slats and was succeeded by, among others, Jackie, Tanner, George and Leo.

What am I talking about? This! [roar of a lion]

The boastful organisation told not a word of a lie – MGM in the 1930s and 40s had some of the biggest names in Hollywood under contract, stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire – need I go on? As regards the motto, don’t believe a word of it – it was art all right, but it was purely for the sake of money.

The logo was a different matter entirely. When Samuel Goldwyn’s old studio, Goldwyn Pictures merged with the exhibition business Metro and Louis B. Mayer pictures in 1924, the company had already started using a lion in their pre-credit sequence. MGM decided to continue the practice and the first occasion on which the MGM lion appeared before one of the studio’s movies was in the utterly forgettable and accordingly utterly forgotten He who gets slapped a silent movie starring Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer. Perhaps it’s a 1920s version of Fifty shades of grey who knows.

And what has all this got to do with us, I hear you say?

Well, its because of the identity of the very first MGM lion. The studio called him Slats but that wasn’t his real name. It was Cairbre. And he wasn’t African or even Californian, he was a genuine Dub. Cairbre was born in Dublin Zoo in 1919 and was named after Cuchulainn’s charioteer, or a High King of Ireland, or a rebellious pretender to the High Kingship, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Cairbre had, apparently, been introduced to Sam Goldwyn, and the silver screen, by fellow Dub, Cedric Gibbons, the designer and art director. This means that Gibbons is personally responsible for two enduring Hollywood icons, neither of them human. He also designed the statuette to be presented to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at their annual award ceremony, we know them more familiarly today as, the Oscars. Gibbons apparently modelled the statuette on his wife, the statuesque film star Dolores del Rio.

But back to Cairbre. There is a famous photograph of two men filming him for the MGM logo. Health and Safety considerations don’t seem to have been paramount (no pun intended – though, ironically, that’s where the shoot took place – Paramount studios). Camera crew and big cat are separated, not by a hefty iron grille, but by a few feet of clear air. Were Cairbre of malevolent disposition he could have had a snack of cinematographer sushi any time he wanted.

Cairbre’s image continued to be used on all the old black and white, silent MGM movies until 1928. As no one had recorded his heavily Dublin-accented roar, when the talkies began he was replaced by the more garrulous Jackie. He died at the age of 17 and although his hide is on display in a museum in Kansas he should not be confused with the cowardly lion of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.

When the comedian Mary Tyler Moore formed her own production company MTM in the 1960s – she mimicked the MGM logo, but replaced Cairbre with a little pussycat – it’s highly unlikely the kitty is also Irish.

Cairbre, the big cat who tossed his mane from side to side for MGM, was born 96 years ago, on this day.