In Boca Raton Museum’s Fascinating Exhibition of Massive Film Backgrounds, Take Yourself to a Classic Hitchcock Thriller – Sun Sentinel

When Alfred Hitchcock’s seductive spy whim “North by Northwest” debuted in the summer of 1959, audiences and critics alike marveled at its risque ride by stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint through the massive stone faces of Mount Rushmore.

New York Times film critic A. H. Weiler called the film “the year’s most scenic, intriguing, and joyful chase” through “some of the most photogenic places in this United States.” .

But Hitchcock’s still iconic chase scene wasn’t filmed at the presidential memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills, but rather on a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer soundstage in front of a massive painting of Mount Rushmore painstakingly recreated by the artists. from the MGM studio.

“Everyone thought it was real,” says award-winning Hollywood production designer and art director Thomas A. Walsh.

This painting — on canvas, 90 feet long and 30 feet tall — is now on display just off the lobby of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, a bold introductory statement to “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop,” a mesmerizing world premiere. scene exhibit -paintings used in some of cinema’s most beloved titles.

Among the show’s 20 backdrops are scenes from “The Sound of Music”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “National Velvet”, “Marie Antoinette” and “Ben Hur”, as well as some contemporary films, including the The Coen Brothers’ 2016 offbeat comedy “Hail Caesar!”

Spanning several high-ceilinged rooms on the museum’s first floor, “Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” is a celebration of the pre-digital achievement represented by these paintings, their warmth and depth, scale and detail. But he is particularly interested in honoring unsung, usually uncredited artists who have brought such mastery of color, light and shadow to their work.

Among the canvases are video monitors showing scenes from the films that display the paintings in front of you, as well as exhibits dedicated to the artists, including video interviews and photographs showing how they worked.

There’s plenty of room to Instagram yourself on Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest,” though the scale of the painting might be too large to put you exactly in Cary Grant’s shoes (hint: go on the second floor for another angle on the painting). But there are other opportunities for this sort of thing.

A depiction of a Pentagon hallway originally used in a 1947 atomic bomb docudrama, “The Beginning of the End,” was repurposed five years later for a classic scene by the man in the song and of the Donald O’Connor dance in “Singin’ in the Rain.” If you want to recreate O’Connor’s gymnastic dance with a hat, mannequin, and sofa, the museum has set up a very similar sofa, mannequin, and hat in front of the backdrop.

If you’re more of a posing person, a large second-floor painting used in scenes from the von Trapp family terrace overlooking the Danube is the perfect scale to insert yourself into “The Sound of Music.”

“It’s a show for anyone who loves movies,” says museum general manager Irvin Lippman.

The exhibit also recalls the dramatic history of these backdrops, drawn from more than 2,000 paintings that folded in storage at MGM for decades, before being rescued in the 1970s by JC Backings Corp. The company is run by Lynne Coakley, part of a family of backdrop artists that stretches back four generations.

“Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” was co-curated by Walsh, who founded the Backdrop Recovery Project ten years ago in partnership with JC Backings, and Karen L. Maness, artist and professor of art at the University of Texas.

The university owns dozens of JC Backings paintings in the Texas Performing Arts Hollywood Backdrop Collection, which provided the paintings seen in the Boca Raton exhibit.

Maness is also co-author of “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop”, an appreciation of the history of Hollywood stage art and the artists who created these paintings.

The idea of ​​bringing the backdrops together in an official museum exhibit and having that exhibit make its world premiere in Boca Raton began when Lippman saw a 2020 broadcast of “CBS Sunday Morning,” featuring the host Jane Pauley interviewing Coakley, Walsh and Maness.

Lippman is an alumnus of the University of Texas and contacted Maness about the school’s collection.

Backdrops acquired by JC Backings Corp. were the lucky ones – tens of thousands of paints were reused, the canvases painted, while others were simply thrown away. Walsh points out that no “The Wizard of Oz” backdrop exists.

“Everything has been used several times. We started out as a green industry, then we went brown,” says Walsh, citing the decline of movie studios in the 1970s and their indiscriminate divestment of assets. Backdrops often come first.

“They got rid of them at auction or just threw them away. We don’t know how many were lost. Thousands,” he says.

“The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” opens Wednesday, April 20 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real. Opening hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday-Sunday; 11am-8pm Thursday; closed Monday to Tuesday. Admission: $12, seniors $10, students free. To visit BocaMuseum.org.

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at [email protected].