Silent Film Makeup: What Was It Really Like?

The silent era was rich in many ways, its finest films offering beautiful cinematography and exquisite lighting as well as talented actors and poetic storytelling. It was also supremely unique, preserving an era of history that can never repeat itself. Truly, no art form today can possibly boast an equal wealth of…painted-on eyebrows?

Among other details.

White makeup, darkened lips, heavy black eyeliner–these are some of the more blatantly old-fashioned elements of silent films that can throw modern viewers for a loop. So what was the goal behind early movie stars looking a little more mime than man?

The origins stretch back to the stage era, as you could’ve guessed (and probably did!). But more specifically, it stretches back to the humble gas light.

Image result for gas light 19th century

In the 18th century and earlier, theaters were lit with candles and oil lamps. These softer, glowing lights had charm, but made it necessary for actors to apply heavy makeup to make their features more distinct. (Some of the looks evolved out of stage traditions too–e.g., during the Renaissance era in France farce comedians would sport white faces.) If the makeup happened to be a little thick or slightly crude, no big deal–flattering candlelight hid it beautifully.

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Chandeliers lighting a stage in 1670.

At least, it did until the advent of the cutting-edge gas light in the early 19th century. Soon gas lights were lighting up that glorious stage as never before–and turning actors’ faces into spotlights. One writer in 1892 described:

Our modern stage system…is opposed to the exhibition of facial expression. There is such a flood of light, and the face is so bathed in effulgence, from above and below, that there is little relief. There are no shadows. The eye is distracted by the general garishness. As it is said, “you cannot see the wood for the trees,” so here you cannot see the face for the light. (Cosmetics and Skin.)

Not only was makeup still essential, but it had to be applied with skill to minimize any flaws that the gas lights could pick out. Actors experimented with powders mixed with different types of grease: lard, suet, tallow, beeswax, lanolin, you name it. Greasy makeup had been around at least since the 18th century (and was sometimes removed with butter!), but now theater folk worked to develop the perfect products for the new era of brightly-lit stages. In 1873 Ludwig Leichner became one of the first to market greasepaint, which came in sticks. Other marketers soon followed suit, making flat sticks, pots, and cardboard tubes of the popular paint.

Related image

An 1898 ad for Baton’s Grime makeup.

Greasepaint stick and rouge from the 1920s.

By the time the cinema came on the scene in the 1890s and 1900s, actors had been perfecting the use of greasepaint and other liners and powders for decades. But once they started working in “pictures,” they were back to square one.

Early film was orthochromatic, or blue-sensitive. Reds appeared black, light blue appeared white, and so on. Actors’ skin would appear dark gray or dirty, and facial features were less distinct. Flaws were magnified tenfold. On top of that, early studio lighting wasn’t always ideal. Sometimes the sets were open-air, lit by sunlight. Sometimes they used the dreaded klieg lights, which irritated eyes. In all cases, special makeup was needed to “normalize” appearances on screen. (Most actors were expected to apply it themselves.)

Makeup eyeliner thelastnotch mot pic news '11

White greasepaint, eye liner and painted eyebrows in this still from The Last Notch (Motion Picture News, 1911).

Many actors reasoned that since they knew how to apply stage makeup, good “screen make-up” would be a breeze. Not so! One expert advised :

Your charming personality; the sweet things you say to the member of the regular company, or the directors; your perseverance and “pull” avail nothing when the director, his assistants, the cameraman and the laboratory technicians assemble in the dark recesses of the projecting room to view a run of the negative…It might be well to advise the stage professional that his or her pet scheme of makeup for the footlights must be forgotten. Usually a great reluctance is shown. Many stage stars believe in their superior knowledge of what is most suitable for their particular type. Theirs is a sad mistake. (Bernique, 1916, pp. 172-3.)

Thus, early movies display a bit of trial-and-error–some actors plastered on the greasepaint, while others wore just a touch of powder (to the occasional relief of directors). Skin was often lily-white–it not only “normalized” faces but was considered attractive and youthful (at least until Doug Fairbanks Sr. popularized tanning). White chalk was sometimes added to hands, to help them match the faces. Eyes were nearly always lined with kohl to help them stand out. For sensuous temptresses like Theda Bara, heavily lined eyes became a trademark.

By the 1910s makeup was adapting itself to the screen, especially once closeups were involved. It was unique in some ways too–in many Edwardian films it wasn’t unusual to have the main actors heavily made up while extras wore little greasepaint to none, helping the actors stand out.

The Compact pathe mov pic world '12 makeup

Some extreme contrast between the two leads and the extra at the right in this still from The Compact (Moving Picture World, 1912)

1912 Griffith makeup

Bobby Harron is clearly the main character in this 1912 Griffith film. (Behind the scenes still. Source: Cosmetics and Skin).

makeup ForaWomansHonor kalem the film index Oct '10

A whole range of makeup in this still from For a Woman’s Honor (The Film Index, 1910)

What colors were used back in the days of blue-sensitive film? Again, there was quite a bit of trial and error. The face tended to be yellowish, while eyes and eyebrows were black or brown. Rouged cheeks were taboo since they made people look alarmingly gaunt onscreen. Men usually left lips bare, but women applied a bit of red–or brown–lipstick. Theda Bara vividly recalled what it was like to work in such getups: “I shall never forget the terrible experience of my first scene. I had to wear a makeup in the public street and I felt like a lost soul…The whole world seemed to have turned into human eyes.”

Theda’s latter sentence was certainly true. Audiences picked up on the varying qualities of film makeup, and sometimes comments made their way to film magazines. Here’s one sarcastic observation from Moving Picture News, 1911:

Makeup white hands comment mov pic news '11

Soon there were different tones of greasepaint for men and women, making it easier to appear natural. There was also a range of colors for playing “ethnic” roles, as was common back then. Special powders were designed just for film use. In 1914 Max Factor kindly took a lot of the guesswork out of makeup by releasing his “Supreme Greasepaint,” which came in twelve shades. By the ’20s it would increase to thirty-one.

Factor’s product from the early ’30s.

Now, if there were exceptions to the rule of trying to look “natural” onscreen, they were certainly snapped up by the silent comedians. All the crepe mustaches and floppy costumes of the vaudeville stage were carried over to film. Faces glared white, eyes were often heavily-lined, and the painted-on eyebrows were nothing short of luxurious.

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Ford Sterling, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand in their respective screen getups.

Chester Conklin, Gloria Swanson and the obviously fearless Mack Swain in The Pullman Bride (1917).

The makeup not only screamed “CLOWN,” but went hand-in-hand with “comedy” to early audiences. (I also wonder if any of it was supposed to be lampooning the makeup of serious dramas–satire and exaggeration were comedic staples, after all. Just a thought!) The tradition began to fade by the late ’20s, when it became fashionable for comedians to adopt slick “everyman” appearances. Chaplin was one of the few holdouts, wearing his signature mustache and eyebrows up through the ’30s.

To say nothing of Groucho Marx.

One question might’ve occurred to you: exactly how did your average film actor/actress put on all that grease? Here’s a handy walk-through, courtesy of the methods used around 1916:

How To Apply Silent Film Makeup

A Handy Walk-Through By Silent-ology

Step 1. After first making sure you have plenty of time to apply all this makeup, clean your skin thoroughly with cold cream. Don’t forget your neck and ears! (No skimping.)

Step 2. Apply greasepaint in streaks to your entire face and blend carefully with your fingers so it’s as even as possible (the camera picks up on all imperfections). It needs to coat your skin all the way up to the hairline. Be sure to apply it to the backs of those ears!

Step 3. Add a light layer of yellow powder with a puff. Dust off the excess powder with a brush so that the skin appears smooth and matte. It’s recommended that you repeat this two or three times.

Step 4. Whoa, you look like a ghost! Time to line your eyebrows with black or brown liner–brown is preferred, since it looks more natural.

Step 5. Keep your eyes from looking like creepy white holes (especially if they’re light blue) by applying black, blue, or green eye liner–darkest at your lash line, and lightening as you blend it outward.

Step 6. Your eyes still look kind of creepy–use a lit match to heat up black eyeliner in the tiny pan it came in, then line your eyes.

Step 7. DO NOT BEAD YOUR EYELASHES. I repeat, DO. NOT. BEAD. (As the 1916 instructions yell.)

Step 8. If you’re a woman, add some carmine to your lips (a type of rouge). If you’re a man, leave them bare.

Step 9. Time to fine tune! If you have a dark tooth, paint it with white enamel. Facial imperfections can be minimized with putty or contoured using rouge and white liners–but proceed with caution, as this is expert territory.

Step 10. Go strut your stuff before the camera!

Jimmy Aubrey yikes


Final Step: When the days’ work is over, apply cold cream and wipe skin clean with a cloth. Get ready to do it all over again tomorrow!

By the 1920s orthochromatic film switched over to panchromatic film, which wasn’t blue-sensitive and registered colors more naturally. Makeup “specialists,” many of whom had started assisting actors with makeup in the late 1910s, were called in to figure out how to adapt the greasepaint to the new film. Studio lighting was improved with incandescent lamps. All in all, makeup started to become more subtle.

Makeup trends before after

In 1937 Max Factor introduced his Pan-Cake makeup, which eliminated the need to add powder. And thus the era of the old, greasepaint-and-powder makeup came to an end.

In these days of expert makeup departments transforming people into everything from Mad Men-era bombshells to Middle Earth orcs, there’s something enduring about an era when actors painstakingly applied their own paints and powders in ramshackle dressing rooms. While the looks they created became dated very quickly, personally, I can’t ever get enough of those painted-on eyebrows.


61 thoughts on “Silent Film Makeup: What Was It Really Like?

  1. Fascinating. I grew up in a theater where my mom accompanied shows, and for me rehearsals and the process of making a show (or movie or book etc etc) is as interesting as the final product. Boy, I can’t imagine how anyone’s skin was ever clear with all that pore-clogging cold cream. Actors sure worked hard for the money…

  2. Nicely done Lea, I know there is a chapter in Carl Gregory’s “Motion Picture Photography” that deals with makeup, and even in many of the “Amateur Film Magazines and journals it was a subject covered from time to time. It is interesting to see how the application of makeup, and things like lighting techniques evolved over time with to take advantage of changes in film and technique as he industry matured.

    • It varied so much, too–one studio might have the latest lighting technology, while another made do with ramshackle sets and filming in public parks. Silent comedian makeup probably fascinates me the most, being so deliberately over the top!

  3. Wonderful, Lea. You’ve outdone yourself. I love the way you get into depth on things that I never would have thought to investigate but are so fascinating when examined closely and put in context. One of my favorite Silentology posts ever!

    • I was also a bit frustrated at one point at how few details seemed to be available on early film makeup. Biographies don’t usually mention much about makeup. Even The Parade’s Gone By barely talks about it beyond an anecdote or two. Fortunately both Lantern and the Cosmetics and Skin websites turned out to be fabulous resources!

  4. You always go into such great detail in all your work. I wish I had the vitality to be just as thorough on my own blog!

    Gosh though, reading all this does make one’s face itch. Film historian Michael Blake said several former silent film actors he interviewed admitted that the make-up could be a pain, especially when the make-up artist tended to handle the face roughly!

    • That’s the practice of adding tiny clumps of a type of mascara to the ends of the eyelashes, to make them seem longer and thicker. It was done by heating the mascara up in a teensy pan, dipping a matchstick or orange stick into it, then holding it downward so a tiny “bead” would form on the end. Then you applied the bead to your lashes. It could look very nice if done well! 🙂

  5. What a fun read! I had always wondered about the relationship of film tonality and makeup during those days. Honestly, the way you present your (very thorough!) research is like a breath of fresh air.

  6. Wonderfully written article! I learned a lot. Those stills with the contrast between makeups of the stars and the extras were particularly interesting. Now that’s something I’ll be looking for. In the comedy department, I always got a kick out of Mack Swain. I think he was definitely the most extreme!

    • Agreed, talk about a lot of eye makeup!! I wonder if Mack used so much to balance out the mustache or something like that…but that lock of hair on his forehead is a puzzler too, lol!

      • An example of a makeup misfire that I recently noticed—in the opening scene of Alice Guy Blaché’s Falling Leaves, the little boy’s cheeks have been over-colored, apparently to indicate the robustness of his health after the cure. Those are some industrial-strength rosy cheeks!

        That short is one of my favorites, by the way. I noticed the marvelous Ben Model has posted it on YouTube with his excellent score. Do you like it?

        • I have! That’s a good one; after reading some O. Henry stories recently I realized the plot is very similar to his “The Last Leaf”!

  7. What an excellent and informative article! It makes me wish that some Autochrome photos could have been taken on the film set to see how our favorites looked–“in real life.” 😉 I think that Chaplin was photographed in color from a distance circa 1919, but I haven’t seen any others.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article! 🙂 There must be a few Autochromes out there, although I’m not sure where. Early color film sequences are interesting to see too, although for whatever reason I really prefer the sepia/black and white originals!

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  11. Just wonderful, perfect, light-hearted and exact! But let’s not forget the lipstick on some of sheiks
    of the 1920’s!

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  16. What about sinister, monstrous characters such as Lon Chaney’s false vampire in “London After Midnight” ? What colors might have been used for these makeups?

    • These were likely the same shades as normal makeup, they just involved more contouring, careful application of liners, and–in the case of Chaney’s ghouls–special materials like spirit gum, cotton and collodion, and even wire. Makeup alone applied just right could create striking effects. Chaney for instance drew white lines right underneath his lower eyelids so his Phantom of the Opera would appear to have large, bulging eyes.

    • Thanks, Tony! This is meant to be a detailed–but also generalized–look at silent film makeup as a whole. I do have separate articles on Chaney’s life and THE MIRACLE MAN and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA that you might find interesting.

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  19. this is thorough and fantastic, and the only resource i could find online on men’s stage makeup in the silent film era. great work!

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  23. My grandmother was in the silent movies in america. I have a few of her still shots with make up like you showed.
    She went under the name of Dorothy Hope, and her partner Archiebald Foote payrolled the films. Unfortunately I have never seen any of them. One was called Reality. I have newspaper clippings about her time in America.

      • Over the years when encountering the life trajectories of silent stars, I often see mention that the early film makeup ruined their skin and brought their careers to a premature end, or prevented them from working again later in life. I can’t seem to find details as to what exactly would happen to their skin. I am sure there was lead in the makeup but not certain what other ingredients would have also caused harm, beyond it being so heavy and suffocating to the pores.

      • Through the years, I’ve often encountered anecdotes of silent film stars’ skin being damaged from the makeup, preventing a return to film or prompting early retirement. Beyond the makeup having lead and being suffocating to pores, what exactly did the early makeup do to their skin? I wonder how much of it was really the makeup vs hard living.

        • From what I’ve heard of, and from looking at photos of silent stars in their senior years, I’m skeptical that it really caused lasting damage to people’s skin as much as making it extra dry, or something like that. Plus, there were different types of makeup, so actors could always experiment with what worked best for them.

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