Friday, March 17, 2017

The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop - Book Review

In November 2016, Regan Arts released "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" by Richard M. Isackes and Karen L. Maness. This beautiful 11 x 14" hardcover coffee table book is fully illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs of the impressive set backdrops that were created for the major Hollywood studios throughout the 1930s-1980s. 

Artists like George Gibson, Ben Carre, the Strang family, and J.C Backings finally receive their due recognition for the work they did on films such as The Wizard of Oz ( 1939 ), The Treasure of Sierra Madre ( 1948 ), Little Women ( 1949 ), Forbidden Planet ( 1956 ), The Sound of Music ( 1965 ), and Hello, Dolly ( 1969 ). 

A truly great scenic backdrop artist expects to have his work go unnoticed....for if his backdrop was recognized as being a backdrop than he would have failed in his task of creating a proper illusion. Many of the artists featured in this book created such wonderful backdrops that even while staring at the set photographs included you'll be wondering just what is painted and what is real. Take, for example, this image from MGM's Girl of the Golden West ( featured on pg.166 ), none of the buildings in this scene are real - all were painted by Ben Carre. Stunning. 

Girl of the Golden West ( 1938 ) backdrop

"The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" profiles some of the most talented scenic artists in the history of film and also gives an insightful look into the art of scenic design and how backdrops function in film. Isackes and Maness' essays are a breeze to read and the layout of the book is as beautiful as the images pictured. It is certainly a must-have for the library of any film fan interested in the history of art direction. 

Lost Horizon ( 1937 ) with painted mountains visible in the background

To learn more about "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" and Karen Maness click here


  1. Wow, that sounds like an amazing book! I am constantly amazed at what's real and not in classic films from the 1930s through 1960s. Long before digital special effects, these artists created incredible illusions. Some of my favorite backdrops are those from DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, BLACK NARCISSUS, and KING KONG (1933) that stunning scene from LOST HORIZON that you included.

    1. If you can find it at your local library, check there first ( it's pricey otherwise ), but yes, it's a great read. Most of the backdrops that you listed are actually not backdrops at all, but "matte shots" which were paintings on glass held up between the camera and the sets. Peter Ellenshaw, who worked on numerous Disney films, did excellent matte work.

  2. Ooooooooooooooh. I will have to try to convince my library system they need this book!

    1. Yes, do that! I actually discovered this book through our local library.

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