When Joseph Urban signed a contract on February 19, 1920, with William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions to serve as art designer, he was arguably the only designer working in United States films in that era whose name was a household word. Hearst had come to know Urban's work as designer for almost all of Florenz Ziegfeld's productions, starting in 1915, and as artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, starting in 1917. And it was most likely on Joseph Urban's sets that Hearst first saw Marion Davies in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916.
The contract specified that Urban's salary would be $1,242.81 per week (in today's money about $18,000.) Urban stipulated that he would still be able to design for the Metropolitan Opera and for Ziegfeld. But his ability to work non-stop was taxed by Hearst's ambition to produce some 24 pictures a year.
As Hearst biographer David Nasaw writes in The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, "Hearst hired Urban to provide his films with a distinctive look, one that radiated expense, sophistication, and "class." His purview was to include not only set design, but costuming, makeup, and lighting."
Nasaw continues: "Because Hearst had been unable to sign directors and screenwriters to long-term contracts, the only permanent presence at the Cosmopoitan studios in New York City was Urban. Even Marion Davies appeared in only half of Hearst's films. Urban designed almost all of them. As Hearst later admonished Joseph Moore [head of his magazine division], "Don't lose Urban under any circumstances. He makes the high spots in our pictures. There are lots of directors but only one Urban.""
Joseph Urban's stage designs have been celebrated in physical and online exhibitions here in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library where his archive is housed. But his film career has not been given its proper due and this online exhibition is created for that purpose. The black and white photographs, selected for this web presentation, that Urban kept in large scrapbooks to document this aspect of his career, are listed in the finding aid of his archive:
For selected images of his stage designs located in the RBML Joseph Urban archive, please see:
Jennifer B. Lee, Curator, Performing Arts Collections, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University