“If you truly observe the background, it’s a failing backdrop,” says production designer Thomas Walsh, who is well-known among scenic artists and designers.
Mammoth paintings depicting everything from Mount Rushmore to an office corridor or an Austrian mountain range may have been made to deceive the eye and fade into the background in a movie, but they now take center stage in a new museum show in South Florida. The Boca Raton Museum of Art’s exhibition Art of the Hollywood Backdrop: Cinema’s Creative Legacy opened on April 20 and includes 22 hand-painted backdrops from classic films such as North by Northwest, singing’ in the Rain, and The Sound of Music, as well as a few that have yet to be assigned to specific films.
The exhibition is the idea of museum executive director Irvin Lippman, who saw an article about a revived respect for the once-forgotten backdrops from many of Hollywood’s golden-era films while watching CBS Sunday Morning in February 2020. The episode featured interviews with Walsh and Karen Maness, an assistant professor of scenic design and figurative painting at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, a fundamental book on the subject published in 2016. “It was obvious [that] enough were available to establish an exhibition after I spoke with Karen,” Lippman says.
From a trompe l’oeil painted tapestry prominently featured in 1938’s Marie Antoinette to a New York City skyline seen in both 1949’s The Fountainhead and TV’s The Jeffersons, and a vast cityscape of ancient Rome originally painted for 1959’s Ben-Hur and later rented for re-use in the 2016 Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! walking through the Boca Raton Museum’s galleries feels like walking through Hollywood soundstage.
In the end, what does Lippman hope visitors will take away from the show? “Many of us grew up with these films,” he adds, “and those memories may be very powerful.” “You see people recognizing those moments in their favorite movies, and it has a unique impact.” I’m also hopeful that future generations will find something that speaks to them, and that it will motivate an audience that hasn’t seen these films to appreciate them.”