Intent on studying architecture, he enrolled at Sydney Technical College where he met T. Eric Cooper, five years his senior. Over the next few years, the two aspiring architects formed a close association. In early 1926, they embarked on SS Manuka to Noumea, considered an exotic destination at the time. In June that year, watercolour and pencil drawings of buildings they encountered on the trip were included in the Institute of Architects’ Annual Sydney Exhibition.
Later that year, having returned to Sydney, both artists were represented in a show at Manufacturers House on Sydney’s O’Connell Street. According to a Sydney Morning Herald art critic:
"Mr Thompson’s pencil drawing of Fairholme at Parramatta is one of the outstanding exhibits: while his many pen and ink sketches of Noumean scenes are faithfully done, and testify to an excellent command of line."
The colonial home Fairholme — once owned by National Trust founder Annie Wyatt — had ignited Eric’s lifelong interest in Australia’s heritage buildings. Articled to leading architectural firm Morrow and Gordon, and later to Joseland and Gilling, Eric received the Howard Joseland Prize for an outstanding young architect. Today, architectural drawings by Eric Thompson held in the Mitchell Library include the National Mutual building in Pitt Street and the Grace building in York Street.
In February 1927, the young adventurer set sail for the US, visiting New York and later Philadelphia, where he joined a firm of architects and frequented the T-Square Club, which held exhibitions of architects’ work.
An exhibition of Eric’s drawings brought him to the attention of MGM’s Cedric Gibbons, who in 1927 invited him to take up a position as an art director at the company. As head of the art department at MGM from 1925 until 1956, Gibbons supervised a large staff, with his name appearing on more than 1500 movies as art director (his contract stipulated that his name was to appear on every release). His films had a lavish Art Deco style with his signature ‘Big White Set’ seen in such classics as Dinner at Eight (1933). A founding member of the Los Angeles Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Cedric Gibbons is credited with designing the Oscar statue itself.
It was the Golden Age of Hollywood and the young Australian art director would have crossed paths with some of the great stars of the day such as Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. He worked with many famous filmmakers including Irving Thalberg, Ben Hecht, and Walter Wanger.
During his 10 years at MGM, Eric worked on classics such as Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (an Academy Award winner), and MGM’s first sound film, The Last of Mrs Cheyney. Reflecting on his time at MGM, he told Film Monthly in 1949:
"I have often been asked the qualifications for an Art Director. Architectural knowledge of all periods and some engineering knowledge are essential. But to this you can add theatrical licence and lashings of imagination for you may be called upon to design anything from a hat shop to the interior of a submarine.|
When Walter Wanger left MGM to begin independent production, he asked Thompson to join his crew. With Wanger, he made six films including The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, now regarded as a screen classic.