Cedric Gibbons, the Irish American who designed the Oscar

Did you know that an Irish American designed the original Oscar statuette? One of the most lauded set designers in US film history, Cedric Gibbons went on to win 11 Academy Awards of his own for art direction – a category record that remains unsurpassed to this day.

Ahead of the 2023 Academy Awards, a new display at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum casts a look back on his career.

Born to an Irish father and American mother in New York in 1890, Gibbons trained at the Art Students League before going to work as a junior architectural draughtsman. He began his film career as an assistant at the Edison Studios, where he is said to have persuaded colleagues to use three-dimensional sets rather than painted backdrops.

After a stint in the US Navy, Gibbons joined Goldwyn Pictures and moved to Los Angeles. The film production company merged with two other studios to form MGM, where he served as art director from 1924 to 1956. It was a stipulation of his contract that his name be listed on every MGM film released in the United States. He amassed almost 1,500 credits during his tenure, but likely only had a hands-on role in a fraction of those titles.

Gibbons oversaw the development of a strongly distinctive visual identity for the Hollywood studio’s pictures, with a focus on glossy luxury and art deco interiors. He once described the role of art director as someone who “makes everyone’s dreams come true”. Inspired by the designs of Le Corbusier and the German Bauhaus architects, he crafted fantasy landscapes that set a new standard in cinema production.

However, he also had a reputation for perfectionism, sometimes clashing with filmmakers who wanted to assume control of set design. The director Vincente Minnelli called his art department “a medieval fiefdom, its overlord accustomed to doing things in a certain way”.

He received his first Oscar for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929), a part-talkie based on the life of Peruvian entertainer Micaela Villegas. Other films that won him awards include Pride and Prejudice (1940), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). The Academy also gave him an honorary Oscar for “consistent excellence” in production design in 1950.

IMAGE: 1934: American actors Johnny Weissmuller (1904 – 1984) as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan (1911 – 1998) as Jane hold hands with ‘Cheetah’ the chimpanzee, in a still from director Cedric Gibbons’s film, ‘Tarzan and His Mate’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

His sole directing credit was Tarzan and His Mate (1934), starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. The film was widely commended for its aesthetic qualities, with Variety magazine calling it “an extraordinarily beautiful photographic specimen”.

One of 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Gibbons made Oscar history for his design of a trophy in the form of a sword-carrying knight. American sculptor George Stanley was commissioned to make the statuette, which was reputedly modelled on Emilio Fernández, a young Mexican actor. The first batch of awards were handed out at the inaugural Oscar ceremony in 1929.

IMAGE: Film Notables at Academy Award Dinner. Gene Raymond, Leslie Howard, Dolores Del Rio (Gibbons’s then wife), and Cedric Gibbons, (left to right), pictured as they attended the dinner given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Hotel Ambassador, Los Angeles, March 16th. Photo by Bettmann Collection/Getty Images).

Gibbons had a highly-publicised first marriage to Hollywood star Dolores del Río, who he met at a party held by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. He designed a state-of-the-art new home for them in Santa Monica, which some have compared to MGM’s opulent white sets. His second wife was actor Hazel Brooks, with whom he stayed until his death in 1960.

The Cedric Gibbons story will be added to our ‘Creating and Designing’ Gallery in May 2023.