In the Golden Age of American movies, MGM sent out the most prestigious product—not just its stars (“more than there are in heaven!”) but its total, overall, look was famous.People going to an MGM feature knew they would see no expense spared, especially in the famed musicals: An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon—even Jailhouse Rock with that new screen star, Elvis Presley.
In those glory days, one of the Oscar-winners who made the MGM “look” happen—especially in those musicals—was Francis Keogh Gleason, MCAD class of 1927. What was Gleason’s part in MGM‘s total picture? He was one of MGM’s set decorator, placing 'meaningful things' where the story happens—furniture, objects, textures, even the distance from one object to another, all can support the story. Gleason was an expert at this selection and placement—he won praise from peers, and he worked with some of the best (Vincente Minnelli, especially). And in a seven-year stretch in the 1950s, he was nominated for seven Oscars, winning four.
Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1952) opens with starving artist Gene Kelly in his wonderfully cluttered, scenic yet cheap Paris garret apartment. It’s a cramped place, crammed with stuff. The closeness and the stuff are perfect for Kelly’s energetic and inventive motions—he deftly kicks cabinets shut and hoists up his bed and spins around to make breakfast appear like a dancing partner, out of nowhere. Gleason put that flimsy furniture there, and provided Kelly with clever things to dance against, in the right places.
Television nearly killed the movies in the 1950s, but Keogh Gleason worked there as well, on memorably staged series like The Thin Man (36 episodes), The Twilight Zone (20 episodes), and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (7 episodes). Props, places, décor, and handy things that told the story were his “day job.”