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.
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.