BOCA RATON, Fla. – The first museum show dedicated to Hollywood’s painted backdrops, the grandest illusions ever created for the movies, makes its world premiere in South Florida at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Titled Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy, it opens on April 20 and continues through January 22, 2023.
The exhibit honors those who created these monumental canvases for the camera, going back almost 100 years. The show was originated by the Boca Raton Museum of Art and is co-curated by Thomas A. Walsh and Karen L. Maness, who played pivotal roles among a group of Hollywood insiders to salvage these American treasures.
This exhibition of 22 scenic backdrops, made for the movies between 1938 and 1968, celebrates an art form that has been nearly forgotten. This is a well-deserved moment in the spotlight for the dozens of unidentified studio artists. Their uncredited craftsmanship made scenes of Mount Rushmore, Ben Hur’s Rome, the Von Trapp Family’s Austrian Alps, and Gene Kelly’s Paris street dance possible.
The show’s immersive components include interactive video reels created in Hollywood specifically for this exhibition, telling the stories behind each backdrop. Soundscapes have been engineered to surround visitors in the museum, including atmospheric sound effects related to the original movies, and to the scenic vistas.
A total of 20 backdrops, including the famous Mount Rushmore, are being loaned by the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection at the University of Texas. In addition, a 1952 backdrop for Singin’ in the Rain and the tapestry backdrop for Marie Antoinette (1938) are on loan from the Motion Picture Academy in Los Angeles. Donald O’Connor danced his brilliant comic performance of Make’ Em Laugh in front of the backdrop from Singin’ in the Rain. Interestingly, the 1938 tapestry backdrop was reused in the North by Northwest (1959) auction house scene, a relatively common practice in the film and television industry of the time.
“This is the grandaddy, the Babe Ruth of all Hollywood backdrops, especially because it was such a key player in the telling of this story,” said Karen L. Maness, referring to the scenic backdrop of Mount Rushmore from North By Northwest. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the film starred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Maness recently worked on the backdrop to prepare it for the upcoming exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. This involved cleaning, sealing, touching up paint and repairing tears. The backdrop is part of Texas Performing Arts’ permanent backdrop collection, the most extensive educational collection of Hollywood Motion Picture backdrops in the world.
Maness also conducted extensive oral history interviews with the surviving artists, their family members and their acolytes to record and preserve their histories. “It was essential to capture these artist’s stories before they disappeared,” said Maness.
Some of these artists came from a family tradition of the craft, with lineages spanning three generations of painters. Most were trained as professional artists, yet they remained uncredited, sometimes because of union agreements, but mainly because the studios wanted to keep a firm grip on the secret techniques that were handed down from master to apprentice on the backlots.
“This has become my passion project, to tell their stories. I will be their champion in this lifetime,” said Karen L. Maness, adding, “Historically, as a woman I would have never been allowed to work alongside them in that era. As a teacher, they have now become my masters. When you choose your mentors as ghosts, they can’t say no.”
These creations were painted for the camera lens itself, not for the human eye. Film backdrop painting is a very impressionistic style of painting ― not really photo-realism, but it snaps together as photo-realistic when viewed from a distance. Up close, they look totally different. When visitors to the museum take selfies with their phone cameras, the resulting image will look very different from what they see in person in the gallery.
This unique concept of “photo-realism for the camera” was spearheaded by George Gibson, who took scenic art to an entirely new level. In the heyday of MGM, the studio employed three shifts of scenic artists working day and night, non-stop. Museum visitors will be able to take selfies in front of this original backdrop from Singin’ in the Rain, including a recreation of the sofa and mannequin from the famous scene.
“This show is about the joy of re-living something you grew up with, that you always thought was real,” said Thomas A. Walsh. “It’s about getting as close to that magical moment in time as you can – being in the same space with that giant, familiar scene. It is difficult for people to get their minds around the awesome size of these magical spaces, until they see them in person. People are often shocked and surprised by the scale and visual impact of these massive creations. These are literally some of the largest paintings ever created in the world, similar to cyclorama paintings. Aside from the technicians working in the soundstages, no one else has set eyes upon this collection. This is the first time the public can see this collection in person.”
Visit the website of the Boca Raton Art Museum and see its dedicated page for Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy.