The look of Hollywood has always been one of the alluring aspects of what makes up the legend of the Golden Age. Although the exact start of the Golden Age is debatable, many agree that style influences in American film making were between the years 1927 to 1963. In broad terms, the look was defined by individual studio styles, stories and monetary resources available for people, materials and designers. This larger than life edict was a money machine involving the physical appearance of its participants; hence, the rise of “glamourous women” and “handsome men.” It also gave rise to the entire industry of cosmetics for women, started by one person who is forgotten by today’s consumers because products are not readily available. Max Factor who coined the term “make up.”
In searching out material for this post, I came to the not-hard conclusion that the men of Hollywood at that time did not have to be concerned with the glamour look. Yes, they had to appear larger than life, with smoldering eyes, impeccably groomed with crisp shirts, and well matched ties with a press so sharp you could cut through a well standing forest as you walked. Men also had to be confident in dealing with life and its troubles- be it a gangster out to get them or an enemy from outer space. Men’s fashion were suits, sweaters, shirts, and long pants even when playing tennis. This all changed as my father once told me when Clark Gable took his shirt off briefly in Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), which foreshadowed the advent of the t-shirt, due to James Dean and later Marlon Brando yelling at “Stella” in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). Men had to look masculine; ready for action whatever it was with the ever present, gently cupped cigarette in one hand. Men advertised cars and cigarettes while women endorsed shampoos and beauty products.
The lot of the glamour woman in Hollywood was quite different as it is today in which it is the female who feels pressure to employ cosmetics, wardrobe and constantly diet. The studios created their own aura of beauty and style for women pushing a new ideal onto the Depression weary public. That elusive idea of looking always together- no matter what – was a major component of the Hollywood dream that brought countless people seeking fame and fortune. If you had the look, success would follow and life would be assured. Not much has changed with the advent of social media creating ‘stars,’ literally within a few hours of posting something for us all to see only to have it disappear as fast as it appeared to be replaced by the next one. The creation of glamour started with Polish born Max Factor. He introduced a line of cosmetics to the public in the 1920s. The advertising campaign claimed that every girl could look like a movie star by using Max Factor makeup.
Max Factor created a makeup specifically for movie-actors that, unlike theatrical makeup, would not crack or cake. In the early years of movie-making, greasepaint in stick form, although the accepted make-up for use on the stage, could not be applied thinly enough, or where did colors worked satisfactorily on the screen. Factor began experimenting with various compounds in an effort to develop a suitable make-up for the new film medium. Soon, movie stars were eager to sample his “flexible greasepaint.”
(Enjoy this silent footage of Max Factor creating his glamour look on three women.)
Max Factor personally applied his products to actors and actresses. He developed a reputation for being able to customize makeup to present actors and actresses in the best possible light on screen. As a result virtually all of the major movie actresses were regular customers of the Max Factor beauty salon, located near Hollywood Boulevard. He created many appearances for these actresses, such as Clara Bow’s heart-shaped/pierrot lips. Years later, he exaggerated Joan Crawford’s naturally full lips to distinguish her from the many would-be stars copying the Clara Bow look he created. He also created shades specifically for them: Platinum (for Jean Harlow), Special Medium (for Joan Crawford), Dark (for Claudette Colbert) and Light Egyptian (for Lena Horne). For Rudolph Valentino, he created makeup which complemented his complexion, and masked the darkness of his skin on screen.
In 1920 Max Factor gave in to his son Frank’s suggestion and officially began referring to his products as “make-up,” based on the verb phrase “to make up” (one’s face). Until then the term “cosmetics” had been used; the term “make-up” was considered vulgar, to be used only by people in the theater or of dubious reputation and not something to be used in polite society. The development of Technicolor film required the company to develop a new line of products, the “Pan-Cake” series. It was sold in a solid cake form and applied with a damp sponge which offered the advantage of concealing skin imperfections under a transparent matte finish. It was an immediate hit and its advantages led to women stealing it from film sets and using it privately. This make-up was commercially released to the public, backed by a color-based national advertising campaign. It immediately became the fastest and largest selling single make-up item to date, as well as the standard make-up used in all Technicolor films. In the 1930s, Factor helped to develop a mask-like device to measure the contours of subjects’ faces. He called it the “Beauty Micrometer.” Its purpose was to detect even barely-visible structural flaws that might be magnified and more noticeable on camera.
My experience in theatre as an actor plus a university level course has given me practical experience in makeup and its application. The makeup material that I used comes from another pioneer, American Ben Nye, who after Max Factor created makeup material for non- white people when they previously had none. Ben Nye did this out of necessity as he was assigned to GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) which employed many non -white people on screen for great lengths of time most notably Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel, who went on to win an Academy award for her role as Mammy.
This briefly touched Max Factor’s lost contribution to Hollywood, plus we touched on Ben Nye as well. We have not mentioned special effects makeup’s modest beginning with Lon Chaney and, later the still underrated Jack Pierce who created all of the Classic Universal Monsters. Classic Hollywood had the style of not having the camera call attention to itself making it invisible to some; yet weaving a series of images in the same style put together in the same way. Frankly, it worked, as we read out this age of film, attend conventions, collect examples, and often find ourselves wondering why it cannot be the same again. It was a different time and that is what makes it special to us all. (Thanks to Wikipedia for inspiration and sections of this article as they said it much better than I ever could.)