December 22nd, 2019

carole lombard 07
  • vp19

For Hollywood backdrops, a happy ending

It's hard not to focus on dazzling Carole Lombard or the atypically undashing William Powell in this still from "My Man Godfrey"...but instead of focusing on them, look at what's behind them. Their characters are at Manhattan's fictional "Waldorf-Ritz" hotel, where a scavenger hunt is concluding. And the background represents the lavish world Lombard's Irene Bullock inhabits, something alien to the hobo Godfrey.

It's a backdrop, among several used in the film. Think of its iconic opening credits, which quickly dissolve into a scene of the river's edge shantytown Godfrey inhabits and that Irene and snooty sister Cornelia soon would patronizingly visit:

Backdrops have been integral to moviemaking since the silent era, replicating real backgrounds or creating unreal ones (Oz, for example).

The artistry used to create them is stunning, and has been celebrated in books such as this:

But the rise of CGI has rendered creating backdrops largely into an art of the past. What to do with those already made? Many have been relegated to the trash bin, lost forever. Thankfully, many others have been preserved for posterity.

That's Lynne Coakley, president of JC Backings, standing in front of a backdrop used for the 1959 "Ben-Hur." This was taken at the Scenic Arts building at Sony Pictures in Culver City (the former MGM studio), but about 90 of them are rolled up and stored in a warehouse in Valencia, north of Los Angeles.

The Art Directors Guild has instituted a Backdrop Recovery Project; more than 200 of these have been found. The guild has worked with Coakley -- her great-grandfather John Coakley, who worked at the MGM art department, died in 1936 when he fell off a scaffold -- on this project for several years.

Many backdrops her firm no longer could store now are property of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (might some find a home at its forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures?), the Autry Museum of the American West and at universities. This backdrop from "The Shoes Of The Fisherman" (1968), designed to replicate Michelangelo's work at the Sistine Chapel, was donated to the University of Texas, which has a huge collection of classic Hollywood memorabilia.

Some backdrops Coakley owns still get use; a Netflix series recently employed one constructed for Mitzi Gaynor's 1958 version of "South Pacific."

For more on these backdrops, visit It includes this video:

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