Celebrating the artwork of Hollywood’s film backdrops

Casual movie-goers and cinema obsessives alike have always had a healthy curiosity as to what goes into making movie magic. Look no further than the blockbuster exhibitions dedicated to the likes of Stanley Kubrick or Wes Anderson, which illustrate the public’s appetite for seeing sets, costumes and other paraphernalia in the flesh.

A new exhibition in South Florida is zeroing in on a niche yet vital element of filmmaking history: the backdrop. Those large-scale backdrops transported viewers into eras and locations far from the confines of the LA studio lot, whether the Austrian Alps in the Sound of Music or Ancient Rome – created for Ben-Hur and reused for the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! – which both feature in the show.

Top: Ancient Rome backdrop for Ben-Hur, MGM (1959). Photo: Sandy Carson; Above: backdrop reused in the Coen Brothers’ 2016 film Hail, Caesar!

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy has been co-curated by Thomas A Walsh and Karen L Maness, who were part of a team of people involved in preserving and restoring the backdrops, most of which had been stowed away in the basement of MGM’s Studios.

“It is miraculous that these historic monumental paintings were not lost forever, as so many Hollywood treasures have disappeared,” says Irvin Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art in South Florida, where the exhibition is being held.

Photograph of people unravelling a backdrop of Mount Rushmore used in the movie North by NorthwestUT Austin students with the Mount Rushmore backdrop for North by Northwest, MGM (1959). Photo: Sandy Carson

The exhibition features 22 scenic backdrops that were created for films made between 1938 and 1968. Among them is a staggering 90-foot-wide banner of Mount Rushmore seen in Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest, appearing in a climactic scene which, says Lippman, was only possible thanks to the scenic artists who recreated the iconic monument as a backdrop.

“These monumental paintings were essential to moviemaking for almost a century, and were never meant to be seen by the public with the naked eye,” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. The show promises to be the first dedicated to Hollywood’s painted backdrops, and is brought to life by accompanying soundscapes.

Photo of the lake backdrop in the movie the Sound of MusicThe Sound of Music, 20th Century Fox (1965). View from the von Trapps’ back terrace, with backdrop. Photo: Sandy Carson
Still from the Sound of Music showing the Von Trapp family by the lakeThe Sound of Music, showing the actual location which was recreated as a backdrop, 20th Century Fox (1965). Image courtesy the Margaret Herrick Library

It’s an homage to the craft and staging that went into those old Hollywood productions, which by the time the 1960s rolled around had been met with resistance from New Wave auteurs taking their filmmaking out of the studio and into the street.

As such, careful attention is paid to the teams of scenic artists who have been largely overlooked in terms of their contribution to the cinematic canon. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue also features stories and biographies of many of those artists, thanks to interviews by Maness with surviving artists and their families. “It was essential to capture these artists’ stories before they disappeared,” said Maness.

Aerial black and white photograph of the paint mixing area at MGM StudiosMGM Studios scenic paint shop, paint mixing area. Courtesy the Margaret Herrick Library
Black and white photograph of artists working on a coastal backdropBackdrop artists

The ease with which studios can conjure all kinds of locations and effects in post can leave some viewers longing for the good old days of these older productions. Yes, those backdrops are visibly static by today’s standards, and the artificiality of the studio location is there for all to see, but there is a joy about the simple tactility of these backdrops, compared to the sometimes overwrought VFX seen in many movies today.

For co-curator Walsh, who as a mentor to young designers recognises the reality of filmmaking in the digital age, the two approaches aren’t necessarily in conflict with one another. “After the digital/synthetic revolution took over filmmaking, the young designers today who are most successful in the computerised realm are those who continue to hone their real-life painting and drawing skills. They know about perspective and really understand art, nature, light, and architecture,” he says. “They can still be tactile. The idea that you can still get personal and dirty with your art is a revelation to many of the current generation. Those who do, are better at their computer arts.”

Photograph of the exhibition space featuring large backdropsTexas Performing Arts, University of Texas at Austin. Photo: Robert Silver
Photograph of the hallway backdrop seen in the movie Singin' in the RainThe Beginning of the End, MGM (1947). Backdrop: Pentagon hallway, which was repurposed for 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain. Photo: Courtesy J C Backings, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Gift of J C Backings
Photograph of a backdrop representing Wesmintser Abbey in the 1550sWestminster Abbey in the 1550s created for Young Bess, MGM Studios (1953). Photo: Sandy Carson

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy is on display at Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida until January 22, 2023; bocamuseum.org