The Problem with Film
It wasn’t just the unrefined theatrical greasepaint that made doing makeup for the movies difficult. A big part of the problem was the fact that early blue-sensitive orthochromatic film stock was insensitive to red, and made the actors’ skin appear twice as dark as it really was and blue eyes appear white and turned anything red to black. This meant that regular makeup just didn’t translate on-screen. Panchromatic film, which was sensitive to the entire color spectrum, was an improvement, but due to issues with expense and supply, it didn’t really come into use until after 1926. And while it may have registered a broader range of colors, it still required Max Factor to produce specially tested panchromatic makeup products. In fact, with the constant development of filmmaking techniques, there was an increasing need for an understanding of colors and innovation in products. Actors and makeup artists relied on Max Factor to develop new textures and colors that would deal with these challenges from the different lights that came with black-and-white talkies to the struggle with Technicolor. As veteran Hollywood makeup artist Howard Smit commented in an interview for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television, Max Factor himself didn’t have any secrets to share insofar as the doing of the makeup. His secrets were in his manufacturing; he was in the industry to make cosmetics. The connection makeup artists had with the Factor organization was just perfect because we worked with each other; they helped us to perfect the makeup we needed in those early days.
It was the US immigration authorities who changed his name to the one we recognize today. On reaching the United States, the Factors moved to St. Louis, Missouri, as this was where the 1904 World’s Fair was being held, and Max knew he could sell his products there. Sadly, tragedy struck when his wife died suddenly, and he moved to Los Angeles in October 1908 to start over again. In an entirely visionary move, he opened up a store where he stocked Leichner stage cosmetics alongside his own concoctions, and the following year he officially founded Max Factor & Company. Although he was making and selling his own makeup, the bulk of his trade at this time was wigs. They would lead to his first big break in the movies, when he rented his wares to Cecil B. DeMille for The Squaw Man in 1914. Famously, three of Max’s sons were extras in the movie so that they could more easily collect the wigs at the end of the day!4
At this early time in the evolution of Hollywood, most makeup artists were still using theatrical makeup, and this just didn’t cut it for film as the makeup would crack a disaster onscreen. Max’s makeup breakthrough came when, in 1914, he developed greasepaint in a cream rather than stick form a thinner and more flexible product that didn’t crack and which came in twelve shades. Word spread and the stars of the day came to visit him in his shop to not only buy their makeup but to have it applied, too.