Early Movie Make-up

The growth of motion pictures saw changes in make-up practices in the twentieth century that were on the same scale as those that resulted from the introduction of electric lighting into theatres in the nineteeth century. The American motion picture industry would eventually develop make-up specifically for film but early screen players had to work with what was on hand, which for most part meant stage greasepaint and powder.

See also: Greasepaint

From stage to screen

Stage performers who came to work in films often assumed they knew all there was to know about make-up but soon realised that, when it came to using it for the screen, they were mistaken.

No stage artiste, no matter what his or her reputation or experience, can enter the silent drama for the first time with an all-comprehensive knowledge of the art. They must learn the limitations of the moving picture stage; they must learn to depend solely upon artistic action and not on artistic lines; they must cultivate a change in the art of make-up; and there are many other little details essential for success that must be absorbed by the stage artiste who starts to work in the silent drama.

(Dangerfield & Howard, 1921, pp. 91-92)

The first of many screen make-up issues that motion picture actors had to come to grips with was the film stock itself.

Blue-sensitive film

Until the 1920s, most American black and white motion pictures were made with 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 in use. It was very sensitive to violet light, markedly sensitive to blue and ultra-violet, much less sensitive to green and yellow light, and insensitive to red.

Some of the problems created by blue-sensitive film included blonde hair photographing too dark, light-blue eyes photographing nearly white, and cloudy skies filming flat white. Moreover, as the full spectrum was not captured, gray-scale tonal differences were limited, resulting in pictures with a higher contrast than was visible with the naked eye. This meant that noticeable demarcations (lines) would sometimes appear on film where the naked eye only saw a gradual blend.

A skilled cameramen could ameliorate some of these problems by using filters, controlling lighting, and being careful when selecting the locations and colours to be filmed. Early cinematographers got very good at estimating what tone of gray a particular colour would look like when filmed, a task made easier when they realised that viewing a scene through a blue lens gave them a good tonal approximation (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson, 1985, p. 283).

Skin tones

As blue-sensitive film renders red as black, unmade-up faces looked darker on the screen than they were in reality and any unevenness in the complexion made faces look dirty. Many early film actors, particularly those that came from the stage, responded to these problems by covering their face with heavy make-up, giving them a look that belonged more on a mortician’s slab than a movie set. The practice was so common that it became almost a convention in early silent films to make the faces of heroes and heroines white, while the rest of the cast, who were less made-up, looked darker.

As motion pictures became more sophisticated through the 1910s directors began to insist on more natural make-up and the mask-like faces of earlier films disappeared. This had a downside. As the use of greasepaint liners and crêpe hair – used to create character or age on the stage – looked less realistic in close-ups, directors began to select individuals for parts on the basis of their natural appearance, leading to more type casting. The greasepaint liners and crêpe hair were still essential for special effects – such as when scars or wrinkles were required or when actors had to age – but they had to be used more discretely.

Lining should not be resorted to except in cases where the character of the part absolutely requires it. Lines should be made with dark red or brown and very carefully blended. Directors should take pains to select their characters according to type whenever possible and not require people to make-up out of their type unless in cases of increasing age, or effects of disease, etc., called for by the scenario.

(Gregory, 1920, p. 316)


To get sufficient light and keep costs down, early silent films were filmed in daylight, either on open stages or on location. As the movie industry developed and became more prosperous, artificial lights were introduced – first to supplement the natural light and then to replace it altogether. This freed-up filming from the vagaries of the weather and, in the long run, gave cinematographers greater control over how their movies looked on screen.

Early film studios did not use incandescent lights of the sort used on theatre stages as they had a low actinicity (the proportion of the light which is captured on the film stock) on blue-sensitive film. Instead they relied on mercury-vapour and/or carbon-arc lights. The Cooper-Hewitt mercury-vapour lamps they used produced a soft, blueish-green light that was ideal for blue-sensitive film but made everything looked unnatural on the set. Carbon-arc lamps produced a brighter, whiter light but the light was harder and the lamps were noisy and spluttery. Early open arcs also produced arc-light dust which irritated the actor’s eyes if it got into them. Later closed arc lamps – often called ‘Klieglights’ after the Kliegl company, a major supplier – did not have this problem. However, they still caused eye problems due to the unshielded ultra-violet light they produced – the so called ‘Klieg eye’ (actinic conjunctivitis).

Every profession has its disagreeable duties, and one of ours is to work under the studio lights. Every actress dreads them, for they are simply cruel to the eyes, and to work within a few feet of eight or ten ghastly, hissing, flaming arcs will unnerve the strongest of us. The red rays are entirely absent in these awful things, the consequence being that when they are used, everything in the scene is bathed in a sickly, bluish green. Faces appear ashen gray and the red of one’s lips looks purple. The actors appear like uncanny corpses suddenly come to life. The light is so dreadful to the eyes that the least result is a splitting headache, and the worst, the necessity of seeking the solace of an oculist or of wearing amber glasses for several days.

(Wagner, 1918, pp. 93-94)

Although artificial lighting created problems for early screen actors, as techniques got more sophisticated it become apparent that lighting was at least as, if not more important than make-up in determining the way actors looked on the screen.

Other issues

In addition to the challenges created by lighting and film stocks, screen stars had to contend with two other developments particular to photography: the ‘close-up’ which revealed more detail of their face than could ever be seen from the stage; and that intangible quality, the ‘camera face’ which could determine whether they got into movies in the first place.

A camera face, or the gift of photographing pleasingly, is a great asset to a person seeking an opening in photoplay acting. Many a well-known “star” of today entered in the industry without previous experience because he or she possessed a camera face. As often as not such persons were singled out from among a crowd of “extras,” granted a tryout before the camera, and then taken in hand after proving good photographic types.

(Lescarboura, 1921, p. 44)

Unlike stage make-up – which was primarily used to strengthen facial features washed out under strong lighting – the main objective of early film make-up was to hide skin imperfections, either those that were clearly visible or the ones only apparent through the camera. Unless an actor had an absolutely flawless complexion, make-up was needed to even out their skin tone. However, close-ups meant this would need to be achieved without using heavy make-up.

Either heavy make-up or the close-up must go, and as I believe the close-up is due to remain an essential feature in effective motion picture photography, the players must use their make-up with an unusual degree of care. One really should be a portrait painter to obtain the correct effect.

(Dangerfield & Howard, 1921, p. 48)

A second but equally important function of early film make-up was to make the best of an actor’s facial features. Although an interesting ‘camera face’ was not essential for becoming a screen actor – acting ability was also important – it was highly desirable. As make-up specialists, like Max Factor and the Westmores, began to get heavily involved with the film studios in the 1920s, they transformed many famous faces to make them more pleasing when filmed.

Greasepaint and powder

In the early days of film, some screen stars, particularly men, refused to use any form of make-up but most were eventually convinced to do so. Individuals with a good complexion could get away with using a little cold cream covered with powder but otherwise traditional greasepaint was needed. As the demands of the screen became better understood the greasepaint was applied more thinly and worked well into the skin so that it looked as natural as possible before powder was applied.

The basis of every make-up is a grease paint, a thin coat of which is rubbed well into the skin. … The grease paint, if put on properly, will give the skin a perfectly smooth surface of a shade slightly lighter than the grease appears in the jar. If your skin does not appear normal, except in matter of color, your grease has not been rubbed in sufficiently. Your pores should show as clearly as they normally do before you are ready to go beyond the grease paint.

(Hatton, 1922, p. 22)

It was very important that actors blend the greasepaint and powder very well, not only to ensure that it covered the area behind the ears and the neck, but also to avoid the demarcation lines and blotchiness that resulted from the greater contrast and limited spectrum sensitivity of blue-sensitive film.

Blending powders they are called, and blending powders they should be. The powder covers the entire face and is blended smoothly with the base by the slow and rather tedious process of patting it on gently but firmly with a large powder puff. Choice of color in blending powder and care in applying it is quite as important as any other part of the make-up.

(Hatton, 1922, p. 23)

The tonal shades of the greasepaint and powder used by movie actors would depend on the filming conditions, the character they were playing and individual preferences. Women generally selected a lighter skin tone than men, which reflected the social norm for light skin in the days before the suntanning craze got started in the 1920s. Many actresses felt light tones also made them look younger; needless to say some overdid it.

Some actresses think that the lighter they can make themselves the more youthful they appear whereas they only succeed in making themselves look like billiard balls. A good natural flesh tint with a powdering over of flesh tinted powder to kill the gloss of grease paint cannot be improved upon.

(Gregory, 1920, p. 318)

Many screen stars believed that greasepaint restricted their facial expressions and this seems to have been one reason why some only used powder or switched to Max Factor’s ‘Supreme Greasepaint’ or some other form of cream greasepaint. Released in 1914 as a cream in twelve shades, Supreme Greasepaint could be applied very thinly and felt very flexible on the skin.

Colour and tone

Early screen actors and actresses usually did their own make-up, so they had to know how they looked when photographed and how to apply it for the best effect. They also had to be able to judge the tonality of their make-up colours – to know how colour would look when converted to the black, whites and grays of blue-sensitive film.

Colors play an important part in screen make-up and costuming. It is true that on the film we have only black, white and varying shades of gray. The mere statement of this fact seems simple and to the novice would appear to offer no problem, but illimitable shades of gray tones and the striking effects of each are an endless study to every one interested in producing photodramas.

(Hatton, 1922, p. 21)

Selecting make-up on its gray-scale tone, not its colour, was an art not everyone was good at it. However, with the assistance of the cameraman/cinematographer, some photographic tests and a lot of practice, most players could develop a suitable routine. Given the importance of the way they looked on screen, for some it became an obsession.

Pink, more or less flesh-coloured make-up was commonly used but there was also a widespread belief that a suitable complexion could be only be produced by using yellows.

In nearly all cases the face is first thoroughly whitened and then tinted with yellow so that any subsequent color that may be applied will stand out in bold relief, and also for the reason that the face will appear white instead of grey, as would be the case with the natural color of the complexion.

(Rathbun, 1914, p. 64)

The powders used for film makeup are specially mixed for the purpose. They are yellow in color. Do not accept others. Theatrical powders are not permissible. The powders are known as Special Film No. 1 and No. 2, and are used for all grease numbers except cork for negro makeup, when a powder is not necessary.

(Bernique, 1916, p. 176)

If you have never had a “try-out” use a light yellow grease paint, such as Stein’s No. 27, or the Leichner Light Yellow that comes in a porcelain box, as a foundation. It is very hard to tell how a skin will look in a photograph; when I say “photograph” I mean pictures made in the glare of Klieg lights. Some skins reflect light more than others and therefore take lighter. Practical experience only will determine what is best for you. A light shade of yellow will photograph lighter than a grease paint containing pink, unless the latter has been applied to an extremely fair skin. Some skins reflect so much light that a heavier shade of grease paint is used in order that the face may be toned down to match others in the scene.

(Chalmers, 1925, p. 127)

Green or blue make-up was also used due to its high actinicity with blue-sensitive film. It may also have been easier to reconcile it under the blueish-green light of the mercury-vapour lamps.

The player with a fair complexion seldom uses grease-paint at all. He finds that cold-cream with a dash of light-brown powder screens effectively.
The player, however, possessing what I might term a medium complexion, uses either a yellow or dark-blue grease-paint after first applying cold-cream to the face, but, in order to prevent his face screening like a ball of grease, he covers it with a light-brown powder.

(Dench, 1917, p. 278)

The use of these ‘unnatural’ colours had its critics.

Another myth that numerous actors entertain is the yellow grease-paint theory. Nobody can explain why a performer should make-up in Chinese yellow. There is absolutely no photographic theory to account for it or its use. Let the actor make-up with grease-paint if he has a rough skin but let it be flesh-colored paint, not yellow. The objections to yellow are that it is non-actinic and if the actor happens to step out of the rays of the arcs for a moment or if he is shaded from the direct force of the light by another actor his face photographs BLACK instantly.

(Gregory, 1920, p. 318)

Facial features

Although make-up enabled actors to adjust their skin tone, it could flatten out their facial features if applied indiscriminately. Rouge could not be used as a highlight as, being red, it would be rendered black by the camera making the cheeks look hollow and the actor gaunt. However, as long as actors remembered which colours highlighted and which shadowed, that close-ups required a subtle hand, and to blend their make-up well, many of the tricks of facial contouring normally used on the stage could be used on the screen. For example, yellow or red could be used under the chin to make a double chin less pronounced.

It is really wonderful what can be accomplished by the painless surgery of the screen in the matter of facial beauty. A crooked nose, for instance, need not come in contact with the knife or be puffed up with paraffin in order to be straightened. If one side of the nose is too heavy a little pink grease paint will tone it down. A bent ridge may be straightened by running a straight highlight with grease paint. A flat nose can be made beautiful by shading the sides with pink grease paint and highlighting the ridge. A long nose can be cut down a quarter of an inch or half an inch with the aid of a pink tip.
Round faces and long faces can be altered to suit requirements by the shifting of pink grease areas.

(Lescarboura, 1921, p. 46)

Consider the shape of the face. If very large, a darker shade of yellow grease paint will make it appear smaller. Regular features go a long way toward screen beauty. Bring out the oval. If your face is too broad, perhaps a narrower effect may be obtained by delicately, suggesting high light on the cheek bones a bit nearer the nose than is natural; but this must be carefully blended into the foundation. A careful blending of of all lights and shades is absolutely necessary. Always feel the formation of the bone, that is, the high light is a ridge of light on the most prominent part of the bone. Make it of some of your foundation mixed with a still lighter yellow. Have it strong enough to show through the powder. After bringing the cheek bones slightly nearer the nose, lip rouge so delicately applied that it resembles a faint pink flush can be blended down the sides of the face from temple to chin, thus shading the cheek and jawbones so that they reflect no light. Prominent jawbones so treated appear much narrower.

(Chalmers, 1925, p. 129)

Given the importance of facial expression in silent movies, eye make-up was essential. However, in early motion pictures it was often overdone. There was little an actor could do about the colour of their pupils if they photographed badly, but the area around the eye could be darkened with red or black to make the whites of the eyes more prominent, the eyelashes made darker with brown or black mascara and eyeliner, and the eyebrows touched up with eyebrow pencil.

The eyes are the most important and expressive features. The make-up which relates to them is all important. First you must ascertain by actual test the correct color with which to line your eyes. Almost every color is used, for the effect seems to vary with different faces. Black, blue, green, brown and red are all used in varying proportions and mixtures by different actors. Naturally, you should try to find the color which makes your eyes look deepest and most luminous.
The edge of the upper eyelid is clearly lined. Then the shade is worked back toward the eyebrow, getting constantly lighter, until it finally blends with the grease paint of the face. The process is reversed for the lower lid, which is darkest at the edge and grows lighter as you work down.
Your eyelids should be lined with black cosmetic. Do not bead them. This shows clearly in close-ups and looks rather ridiculous. The slapstick comedy people sometimes use beaded eyelids to burlesque the “baby-doll” expression.
The corners of the eyes are shadowed with brown or red. It is this shadowing that gives most of the character to the eyes; but at the same time it is apt to age the whole face. For this reason it must be done in conjunction with actual tests.

(Emerson & Loos, 1921, pp. 18-19)

The space between the eyelid and the eyebrow is variously colored, the object being to bring out the white of the eye and make the latter more brilliant. Color must be considered for its utility, that is, according to the way it photographs—dark, light or medium—and not for becoming reasons; the question always uppermost in the mind should be “How can I look my best in the picture? How does this color photograph? Do I want to be dark here or light?”
A very blond person with light blue eyes should fill in this space with a grease paint that photographs dark. Brown is often chosen by blondes, sometimes red. Blur and blend it with a finger until you have a shaded portion darkest at the edge of the eyelid and fading off towards the eyebrow. Carry this blur of color out under the eyebrow beyond the corner of the eye, letting it fade into the foundation. This will immediately create contrast and prevent the white of the eyeball and the white skin of the blond appearing of the same color.
In the case of a dark-haired person with eyes of deeper blue or green or hazel, green is often used in this space. It does not photograph as dark as brown, being a mixture of yellow and blue, but it will photograph darker than blue alone. A decided brunette can use blue. Should the space be large, purple is possible for the reason that, being made of blue and red mixed, it becomes positive and prints a darker gray than pure blue. A very light blue washes out entirely just as the photograph of a girl in a light blue dress will reproduce the color as white.
If the eye is very large and black with a heavy dark eyebrow hanging close over it, no coloring is needed in this space.

(Chalmers, 1925, pp. 130-131)

Like rouge, lipstick is red and therefore photographs black on blue-sensitive film, so it should have been avoided or used sparingly. Some actresses painted their lips very dark but a light colour was more generally used and/or the lipstick was applied very lightly. Men would use a greasepaint on their lips that was similar to what they were using on the rest of their skin and try to make sure that the outline of their mouth was visible.

Be very sparing in the use of lip rouge. Remember that red photographs black and that a heavy application of rouge shows an unnaturally black mouth on the screen. Except in very rare cases do not attempt to alter the shape of the lips by the application of lip rouge. It almost invariably shows.

(Gregory, 1920, p. 316)

We’ve all noticed and some of us wonder why it has to be, that nearly all movie heroines have black lips. Just so long as the women of the films persist in coating their lips with rouge, just so much longer must we wait for the perfect film. If you must paint your lips (because to you they look so alluring in the mirror), choose a very light shade of red, shape your lips perfectly, then with a towel press gently until their centers hold scarcely any paint. Glycerine applied over the lip rouge makes the lips appear not only shiny, but more prominent.

(Chalmers, 1925, p. 131)

Make-up specialists

By the 1920s, although there was still a lot of personal preference, most actors understood the limitations of working with blue-sensitive film. In case they did not, film studios began to put out pamphlets and leaflets on the subject to ensure that the worst mistakes were not repeated.

Leads still largely did their own make-up but studios increasingly began to refer new-comers to a make-up specialist for advice. Specialists also began to be employed to make-up extras and others who could not be trusted to go it alone. Some of these make-up artists would go on to work in the permanent make-up departments later established by the studios, the first of which was formed in 1917 at the Selig Polyscope studios with George Westmore [1879-1931] at its helm.

When the industry converted to panchromatic film in the 1920s – and many of the rules established for blue-sensitive film had to be abandoned – the industry would call on this specialist expertise to help solve the new make-up problems that arose. The widescale use of panchromatic film led to the development of make-up specific for the new film stock, increased the standardisation of make-up and took make-up largely out of the actor’s hands and into those of the studio.

See also: Panchromatic Make-up

Updated: 19th July 2017


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