Silents are Golden: The Makeup of Silent Clowns
One of my 2019 articles for Classic Movie Hub concentrated on the distinct makeup that was used in silent films. Now let’s take a closer look at the era’s most distinct-looking makeup of all!
So if you ask me, one of the best things about the big, zany, timelessly entertaining world of silent comedy is also one of the most dated – that crazy makeup.
White faces, fake mustaches, painted-on eyebrows…it all has a weird, grotesque charm. And you might wonder – just why did comedians in the 1910s and 1920s have such cartoony looks? And why did the tradition stay mainly in the silent era (not counting Groucho Marx)?
Wearing exaggerated makeup was a centuries-long tradition in theatre. Candlelight or oil lamps were used to illuminate the stage, and thick makeup was necessary so audiences could make out the actors’ faces. The dimmer light usually hid the flaws of heavy makeup, although it could still look garish at times. Different types of characters had particular makeup looks, too, such as “youthful” characters having brightly rouged cheeks, or “elderly” characters having heavily lined faces.
Comedians adopted some of the most garish makeup of all, of course, and the tradition seems to have stuck even as theaters switched over to brighter gaslights in the 19th century. By the era of vaudeville in the U.S., comedians looked practically indistinguishable from actual clowns.
The foundation of this makeup was always pale greasepaint (a step up from the lard or butter concoctions from the candlelight days) spread evenly over the face and then set with plenty of powder, which was smoothed away with a brush. A few layers of powder and the comedian had his canvas for the rest of the look.
The next step was using a black or brown liner to carefully draw on the eyebrows and line the eyes. This liner tended to come in a tiny pan that had to be warmed up with a match before being applied. Putty could be used to create bulbous noses, warts, or rounder cheeks. And one of the most popular additions to any comedian’s makeup was a crepe mustache. The crepe was made of wool and came in a long braid. Pieces could be clipped off, combed out, and fashioned into a mustache or chin beard of any shape or size. Spirit gum was used to paste it to the face.
Men and women alike sported whitened faces and boldly lined eyes and eyebrows – it was all part of the fun. And in the early 20th century certain comic characters had specific looks that would’ve been easily recognizable to audiences back in the day. In a time of increased immigration in the big cities, ethnic humor was popular (although it tended to signal “low” slapstick comedy), and some actors specialized in particular ethnic personas. An “Irish” comic would often have a bald cap and side-whiskers, a “French dandy” usually had a goatee and mustache, and a German character (called “Dutch” back then) had a round chin beard and spectacles. Blackface was also common on the stage – as you’re doubtless aware – and some black performers like the famed Bert Williams wore it as well. It’s no secret that anything and everything was up for spoofing in vaudeville, and the unpretentious power of heavy makeup was essential.
By the time film became popular, comedians carried their exaggerated looks over to the big screen. The limits of the old, orthochromatic film made the contrast of white faces and black-lined eyes even stronger than before, adding to the clown effect. The simple touches of liner and crepe also kept goofy reactions from disappearing under the klieg lights. The 1910s was probably the height of the exaggerated makeup style, pairing perfectly with the frenetic slapstick that characterized countless one- and two-reel shorts made by Keystone, Joker, Essanay, and many other studios.
What was one key to becoming a successful screen comedian? Adopting a signature makeup look, of course. The most obvious example is Charlie Chaplin, whose small, neat “toothbrush” mustache, curving eyebrows and lined eyes were both expressive and instantly recognizable. More than one comedian literally copied Chaplin’s look, such as Billy West and the shameless Charlie Aplin (yes, Aplin).
Ford Sterling was another popular comedian who had a signature look, a “Dutch” getup complete with chin whiskers. Billy Bevan had a drooping, cartoony mustache and arching eyebrows. Louise Fazenda had big lined eyes and spit curls. Larry Semon always had bold black eyebrows, and the slapstick duo Ham and Bud always sported chunky mustaches.
Some comedians had more fearless styles than others, with varying results. Mack Swain had a wide mustache, heavily darkened eyes (the entire eye area, in fact), and a single lock of hair stuck to his forehead. Harold Lloyd initially tried to imitate Charlie Chaplin by adding two little dots of a mustache instead of just the toothbrush (it didn’t last long). Jimmy Aubrey had one of the most bizarre getups, with heavy eyebrows and a mustache that looked like two melting caterpillars.
By the 1920s, the old exaggerated makeup was going out of style, along with much of the ethnic humor (to the relief of some immigrant organizations). The crude, frenzied slapstick of the 1910s was replaced by subtler, toned-down comedy. And accordingly, comedy makeup got toned down too. Some comedians eventually stopped wearing crepe, while others kept their signature mustaches but made them more natural-looking and ditched the heavy liner. Some adopted clean-shaven “everyman” looks – even Larry Semon gave it a shot. And others, like Louise Fazenda, let go of their signature looks but found steady work in character parts.
And yes, there were a hardy few who continued on their merry greasepaint ways, particularly the iconic Charlie Chaplin. But by the talkies, the heyday of bold eyeliner and eyebrows and wacky mustaches was largely in the past.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the old silent comedy makeup style was nostalgic to many folks who remembered the silent clowns fondly. Nowadays the greasepaint and crepe mustaches seem old-timey to the point of being surreal. But I’d say that this very surrealism, combined with the joyous lack of pretension, will attract curious viewers – and new fans – for years to come.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.