Thursday, September 05, 2019

Time for Nice Girls to Be Bad

Mae Murray, the Girl with the Bee Stung Lips

Donis here. After spending more than a decade writing about a family in Oklahoma in the 1910s, I've started a new series set in Hollywood in the 1920s, featuring a glamorous, young, up-to-date woman named Bianca LaBelle. I'm in a whole new world, and in trying to portray a realistic picture of what Bianca's life is like, I find myself doing research on the strangest and most interesting things.

Bianca is a silent movie actress, so I had to learn about movie makeup as well as the daily makeup routine of a modern young twenties-era woman. In the age of the Flapper, even nice girls wore makeup on the street, and young women were very much influenced by the glamorous ladies in the movies – pale complexions, dark red “bee stung” lips, and a ton of kohl eyeshadow.

There was a reason that movie queens sported that particular look, and it had more to do with lighting and film quality in the early silents than any particular idea of female pulchritude. In the 1910s and early part of the 1920s, film was orthochromatic, or blue-sensitive. Red appeared to be black and light blue filmed as white. In fact, blue-eyed actors had trouble finding work because their eyes basically disappeared. Imagine a movie full of characters as blank-eyed as Little Orphan Annie. Actors’ skin would appear dark gray, and their facial features tended to disappear and look fuzzy. Flaws were magnified tenfold. Studio lighting was harsh. Special makeup was necessary to make actors look like real people with eyes and mouths.

In the 1920s, makeup artists like Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor began creating different tones of greasepaint and powders especially designed for film, making it easier for actors to look natural. White chalk was sometimes added to hands to match the whitened faces. Eyes were nearly always lined with kohl and darkened with grey or purple eyeshadow to help them stand out.

By 1923, the movie industry started using better studio lighting and panchromatic film, which registered colors more naturally. Actors could cultivate a much more natural look on film. But by that time, all the smart young things were sporting mascara and bow lips.
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The Wrong Girl: The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode 1, now available for pre-order on Amazon

2 comments:

Sybil Johnson said...

What interesting tidbits you're finding out. I find the 20s very interesting. We have a theater near us that periodically shows silent films with live accompaniment on a silent film era Wurlitzer organ. I've watched some really great films there.

Your new series sounds very interesting.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Sybil!