Silents are Golden: What Was The Deal With Silent Film Makeup?

Silents are Golden: What Was The Deal With Silent Film Makeup?

If you’re a new fan of silent films, you’re probably getting used to the slightly quicker speed, the old-fashioned acting styles, and the occasional scratchy film print. But maybe there’s one thing that still stands out, and keeps piquing your curiosity–what was the deal with silent film makeup?

Pola Negri Headshot
As Pola Negri glamorously demonstrates.

Whitened faces, darkened eyes, rosebud lips, painted-on eyebrows–makeup in silent films was definitely distinct. And while the fashions of the day help explain some of these looks, there were technical reasons for them, too. Film technology was more primitive, types of lighting were more limited, and there was a whole background of theater traditions that actors still followed. Not to mention the limitations of old theater lighting…! Allow me to explain.

By the time cinema was invented, there was already a long-running tradition of thick, exaggerated stage makeup. This was mainly so it would be visible from anywhere in a theater. Unlike today, when we have endless types of lights our disposal, old theaters had to make do with candles and oil lamps. If actors’ makeup was a little too thick it was no big deal since the softer lighting hid a lot of imperfections.

17th Century stage lighting
Chandeliers light a 17th-century stage.

By the 19th century, gaslights were being introduced, which lit up stages more brightly than ever before, and actors had to start applying makeup with more care. There was a lot of experimentation with different types of makeup–made of everything from lard to beeswax–until sticks of greasepaint were introduced in the 1870s. This greasepaint, layered with powder and paired with eyeliner, became the standard for theater actors.

And once cinema became all the rage, actors kept using that same type of makeup for the screen. Only this time there were even more complications. The earliest type of film was orthochromatic, meaning it was sensitive to blue light and didn’t register some colors normally. Light blue would appear white (many an old silent featured white skies), and red and certain shades of green and dark blue would appear black. Bare skin might look coarse or dirty, and rouge on the cheeks would make an actor look alarmingly gaunt. Plus, some film sets were open air, while others used harsh klieg lights, further complicating matters. And if all that weren’t enough, actors were usually in charge of their own makeup.

Still from The Sewer (1912), from The Motion Picture Story Magazine.
Still from The Sewer (1912), from The Motion Picture Story Magazine.

So once again, it was time to experiment and see which colors would register as “normal” on screen. Makeup for the face was yellowish, with the eyes rimmed with brown or black. Lipstick might be a soft red that was applied sparingly (since it looked darker on film) or brown. Eyeshadow might be used too, and actors often penciled in their eyebrows. One 1916 book on film acting admonished: “The first and last caution on making up for the movies is ‘DO NOT OVERDO IT’…A knowledge of stage makeup is of little value except as it aids one in the manner of application.”

Theda Bara Makeup
Not everyone could pull off Theda Bara’s look.

The method for applying this makeup was usually pretty straightforward: after cleaning the skin with cold cream, greasepaint was applied in streaks and then blended, making sure it coated the face right up to the hairline (even covering the ears, fronts, and backs). The powder would be dabbed on with a puff, then brushed off, then applied one or two more times so the skin would appear even. Eyebrows and eyes would be lined, and rouge applied to the lips (although men often skipped the latter). An actor with Lon Chaney-esque makeup skills might also play around with highlighting or contouring the face or might add age makeup or prosthetics depending on the role. It was also recommended to paint any darkened teeth white with enamel. At the end of a day’s shooting, the makeup was wiped away with cold cream. As you might imagine, all of this could be pretty hard on skin!

Early movie makeup diagram for color and black & white
Early movie makeup diagram for color and black & white

Some actors succeeded in looking more or less natural on film, while others were, shall we say, more obviously painted up. Some early film studios embraced the difference by having extras and bit players go makeup-free, helping the main stars stand out. And, of course, early comedians reveled in clown-like heavy makeup. No eyeliner was too thick, no painted-on eyebrows too luxurious–and bushy fake mustaches were popular, too. (These looks fell under the banner of “grotesque” character makeup.)

Getting Acquainted (1914),  Phyllis Allen, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Charlie Chaplin
Nowhere was grotesque makeup more magnificent than at Keystone.

In 1914, the legendary makeup artist Max Factor decided to release a line of makeup, especially for film use. Twelve shades of his “Superior Greasepaint” were available, as well as powders formulated to look best onscreen. For actors, having these products available must’ve been something of a relief. Factor would expand his brand as time went on, offering a full thirty-one shades of greasepaint by the 1920s.

As film makeup was growing more sophisticated, so was film technology. Panchromatic film, which registered colors more normally, replaced the old orthochromatic film in the 1920s, and klieg lights were replaced by incandescent lamps. Thus, makeup could finally afford to be more subtle. “Makeup specialists,” or makeup artists as we call them today, became more common until they were an essential part of the Hollywood landscape.

Clara Bow makeup
Clara shows off a subtler look.

Silent film makeup can seem odd to us today, helping an already underappreciated era seem even more remote. Yet it can also charm us, making us feel we’re truly experiencing a time gone by. Personally, whenever I watch old dramas where the hero has painted-on eyebrows or comedies where the leads have whitened faces and fake mustaches, I’m reminded how close these old films were to the centuries of theater traditions…and I’m reminded all over again how lucky we are that silent movies survive.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

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 Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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4 Responses to Silents are Golden: What Was The Deal With Silent Film Makeup?

  1. Cher bibler says:

    Awesome article! Thanks!

  2. Sara Stewart says:

    Thank you for this incredible article. I love photography and learning the history of how and why things were done the way they were.

  3. Kellee says:

    What a fascinating topic to address! It seems like something few silent film writers discuss but it’s always been something I’ve wondered about. Let’s face it, Theda was hardly subtle in her approach. Thanks so much for this, Lea!

  4. Pingback: Silents are Golden: The Makeup of Silent Clowns | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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