Thursday, February 21, 2013

Black Lips and White Faces: Early Silent Film Makeup

Have you ever wondered why the makeup in movies of the 1910s looks so garish and pallid compared to those in the 20s?  

Note (after you stop laughing) how dark Buster's hands are compared to his face.

The secret lies in the type of film stock.  Not all black and white film was created equal!  Before 1922, almost all motion pictures were shot on orthochromatic, or blue-sensitive, film:

The film stock was sensitive to the blue-violet end of the visible spectrum but insensitive to the yellow-red end which meant that it registered reds and yellows as black and light blues as white. Some orthochromatic film may also have been used; it was very sensitive to violet light, considerably sensitive to blue and ultra-violet, much less sensitive to green and yellow light and insensitive to red.

This is one of the reasons actors with blue eyes were not commonly utilized; their eyes simply wouldn't register.  I don't have the book in front of me, but I do remember Colleen Moore mentioning in Silent Star that she feared her movie career might be ruined for this very reason.

Because even the slightest tinge of red would register as uneven and dark, "photoplayers" laid their pink and white greasepaint on with an extra-heavy hand.  It worked, but also gave them a masked, ghostly look.  This also forced them to heavily blacken (or sometimes redden) around their eyes in order for them to be visible.  Actresses' lip rogue would also register as black, completing the odd transformation.

(Granted, Musidora is supposed to look ghoulish here, but you get the idea.)

By 1926, the price of panchromatic film stock was finally affordable to everyone, and the look of actors became softer and more natural.  Advancements in cosmetics by Max Factor and the Westmores meant stars no longer had to rely on stage greasepaint.  These new products however were still harsh:

The lovely Dolores Costello was blessed with a very fair, perfect, and delicate complexion, and she developed severe reactions to the harsh makeup then used in her movies. The skin on her cheeks began to deteriorate, and artists found her condition impossible to hide. Her beauty ravaged, poor Dolores was forced into retirement after her final film...

The Goddess of the Silent Screen herself (image courtesy )

I love learning about the history of cosmetics and their application, particularly how it developed in leaps and bounds thanks to the film industry.   They truly were sister industries.  

Tell me, readers: would you like to hear more?  


Mythical Monkey said...

This is fascinating stuff -- I posted a picture of Francis X. Bushman who was in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur and always wondered why his eyes seem almost to glow they are so devoid of any tint. I suspect now his eyes were blue.

It also explains the makeup strategies that have struck me as odd when I watch silent movies. Now I know.

Great stuff. Thanks!

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Glad you liked it! I didn't even get into early artificial lighting, which sometimes necessitated green, blue, and yellow makeup. Yikes!

Artman2112 said...

also those huge lights would practically blind the actors after a while, not to mention they were HOT! i am not sure i remember this correctly but i do recall director George Stevens having a hand in the development of film that would "see" blue eyed actors better??? am i right/wrong/ hallucinating? in his case he used to be cameraman for L&H i think. Stan Laurel had really pale blue eyes, which i think worked to advantage with the old film stock because it made him appear even more brain dead, lol - great post Jennifer, yes more on this would be great!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to hear more about this - it's such a fascinating subject. When I started watching silent film I remember being really surprised at how high contrast people's faces were - I had no clue of the makeup involved.

Coffin Cutie said...

I'm a student at Southern Utah University and have a project that I'm researching for - The History of Makeup in Black and White Film. I found your site while doing research and it was very helpful. If you have any more information, or know where I can find it, could you please let me know? My email is

Thank you for your time

The Widow Evans said...

I watched The Sheik for the first Tim on TCM, and was surprised to see the white makeup on Valentino's face, but not his neck. Thought it was strange, but now I know why it was done. And poor Dolores Costello!

Jillian Elliott said...

Yes, I would like to know more! I always wondered why their makeup was so heavy and harsh and why did the men have just as much makeup on as the women. Now I know!!!!