Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mary Astor Invented Your Makeup


...or helped to invent it, anyway. This one is for the Siren's beauty blogger pals at Bois de Jasmin, Beauty Addict, Koneko's (Mostly) Beauty Diary, MonkeyPosh and Now Smell This, but most especially Cavewoman and Annie of Blogdorf Goodman.




The year is 1925, and Astor is filming Don Q, Son of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks Sr.


Perc and Ern Westmore were handling makeup and hairdressing on Don Q: As I remember, it was the first time these departments had been created. Greasepaint came in a stick--somewhat like a big lipstick. Stein's Pink #2, I remember, was what I used. And it was pink, whitish pink. It was applied in streaks all over the face, then smoothed until it filled every pore. With a towel wrapped turbanlike around the head, you leaned over and using a powder puff loaded with a pinkish powder slapped it all over until the grease had absorbed it. [Sounds sexy, yes? -C.] Really very similar to the method clowns use. Eyebrows disappeared, eyelashes were coated, lips covered. Then it was brushed off nice and smooth.

Lipstick was a dark red. Reds went black on film, but if the tone was too light one's mouth would look white. The men used a lighter lipstick and less base makeup. There was eyebrow shadow, brown, and mascara, black, and then something that was called "cosmetique," a black cake of guck that was melted over a spirit lamp and then applied to the ends of the eyelashes with a match or a toothpick. This was "beading": It accomplished what false eyelashes do today.

As technical improvements made the film faster, the makeup began to look even more masklike and white on the scren. It was no good using darker tones of pink because they tended to "go black" if you moved into a shadow.

One day in the makeup room Perc Westmore and I played around with mixing the Stein's Pink with a just a touch of the brown eyeshadow. We melted it together, and stirred it up and put it on, and there was an ivory cast to the color that had never been used. On the screen it was miraculous. Bones began to show, skin looked natural and the tiny muscles of facial expression that had blanked out before were more evident. It was the beginning of panchromatic makeup. I wish I had held a patent on it!



The above is from Mary Astor's memoirs of her career, A Life on Film, which the Siren has been happily re-reading this week. What a good book it is, full of details other stars leave out. She gives you the nitty-gritty of casting, costumes, what the lighting was like and how it changed, the drudgery of on-set life, the weirdness of seeing yourself on screen and the split most stars make between their real selves and the "product." Astor even emphasized that split by writing her autobiography in two stages--the first, My Story, going into her many personal travails but pretty much leaving the movies untouched, and the second, A Life on Film, covering her professional experiences.

She was quite beautiful, with ethereal looks that never read as blatantly sexual on film, although she was a convincing (and hilarious) nymphomaniac in The Palm Beach Story. As with many actresses before and since, looks were deceiving. Of the two heroines of Red Dust there seems little question that it was Astor, not Jean Harlow, who was steaming up the sheets when the cameras stopped rolling.

That became clear during Astor's custody battle for her daughter, which occurred during the making of Dodsworth, the Siren's favorite Astor performance. Her ex-husband got hold of her diary and introduced it into evidence. Astor found her red-hot affair with George S. Kaufman splashed over the newspapers. If you believe Kenneth Anger the diary was practically pornographic; if you believe Mary the diary was mostly romantic doodlings, no more steamy than a Book-of-the-Month club selection. In any event, the diary was eventually destroyed by the court so we'll never know for sure. Samuel Goldwyn, who was producing Dodsworth, was asked at the time if he would use the morals clause in her contract to fire Astor. To his everlasting credit, he thought about it and said, "A mother fighting for her child? This is good!" Astor stayed in the picture.

Without question her role for the ages was the scheming Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Astor says that to get the breathless quality she wanted when Brigid was about to spin another pathological whopper, she would hyperventilate before takes. The result was that with lines such as "I--I don't know what you mean," Astor's throbbing contralto voice gave lying a uniquely sexual quality. You relish hearing it as much as Bogart does, until he finally kisses her, no doubt to see if there's another way to get her to hyperventilate. Later film noir femmes would try similar tricks, but Astor provided the template.



She was pressed into a film career by her parents, who energetically sponged off her for years until Astor went to court to pull the plug. Perhaps the fact that she didn't choose her own career is part of why Astor often underrates herself in A Life on Film, dismissing something like Beau Brummel, which the Siren thought quite fine. She brought discipline and high standards to her work at all times, but acting evidently never engaged her full intelligence.

She turned to writing novels in later years, and the Siren actually read one of them. As a teenager in Alabama the Siren was the sometime babysitter for a toddler with a quadruple-barreled polysyllabic Southern name that everbody shortened to P.D. His parents were movie buffs and on their shelves were, as the Siren remembers, an early version of David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, some David Shipman and a few books of stills. After P.D. was coaxed into bed the Siren would curl up with the books, and one night she discovered A Place Called Saturday. The book, published in 1968, concerns a married woman who is raped, conceives a child and decides to keep and raise it anyway. The Siren doesn't remember much about the quality or the plot of the book, although she did read it all the way through, but she does remember that it opens with a very squirm-inducing scene of the wife in the aftermath of the rape. The book was the last one Astor wrote, and she died in 1987, aged 81, at the Motion Picture and Television Country House.

The first picture shows Mary Astor in the 1920s, the next as she appeared in Don Q. Her hair was auburn and naturally curly, and A Life on Film describes how novelist Elinor Glyn came up with a way to make it look "Spanish" on film. At a dinner party, Glyn pulled Mary over and proceeded to slick her hair back, piece by piece, with the butter from the dining room table. This was before hair gel as well as panchromatic makeup. Astor assures us that they found something less off-putting to use under the blazing hot lights of the time.

The middle picture shows Astor in the 1930s, and the bottom one is from The Maltese Falcon. While looking up Astor the Siren came across this vituperative essay about how she's the worst thing in The Maltese Falcon. Poppycock, says the Siren. But, to echo one of the Siren's favorite blogs, what do you think--allure?

40 comments:

Annieytown said...

Love this post F!
))))F((((

Campaspe said...

The second I read this passage I knew I had to share. Doesn't that Stein's Pink sound GHASTLY?

and mind you, they were wearing it all under carbon-arc lights that were so strong and nasty they gave people a condition called "klieg eyes", which Astor says was similar to snow-blindness. I'm sure it had permanent effects on their eyesight. Not to mention that goop on their lashes.

Dan Leo said...

As Sam said to Brigid:

"You're good..."

Campaspe said...

Dan, that's one of the best lines in a picture full of them. Bogart's delivery is perfect, it's sexually charged, genuinely admiring yet still sarcastic, like a flirtatious golf clap.

Jessica NST said...

What a wonderful post! I'm printing it out, to re-read on the subway tonight. I'm just old-fashioned enough to prefer paper for things that I really enjoy reading!

Hazel said...

Wow, that blog post you linked to seemed to miss the point about Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon - I love her in that film. She reminds me of Christina Hendricks' character in Firefly (without the violence, obviously).

In fact, I love her Red Dust, Dodsworth and The Palm Beach Story and I love the fact that her "racy" diaries didn't destroy her career.

Campaspe said...

aw, thanks J.!

Hazel, that is such a polite way of putting it. The blogger is a good writer with her own excellent blog. However, with Astor I would not so much say that she missed the point, as that the point was in New York while she was attempting to locate it with a small jeweler's loup in Beijing.

NowSmellThis said...

F, thank you for this lovely post!

Can I ask an unrelated question (well, related to the post you linked to though)? What is the best movie Myrna Loy ever made?

Campaspe said...

R, I am always tickled to death when people click through on my links. Gosh, best Myrna Loy ... like picking your favorite at La Maison du Chocolat. I think her most touching dramatic performance was in The Best Years of Our Lives, but basically you can pick anything she ever made with William Powell and not go wrong. (Yes, even Song of the Thin Man.) I particularly like Libelled Lady but Myrna's screen time in that one isn't huge.

operator_99 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
operator_99 said...

Great and interesting post (as always) and I just want to add for those who may not be aware, Mary won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Great Lie (1941), the same year she starred in The Maltese Falcon. The lead in the Great Lie was Betty Davis, but Mary really shines and was rightly awarded the Oscar.

Karen said...

Gosh, Siren, are you even capable of putting up a bad post?

Mary Astor--you know, for years I didn't think I'd really seen her in much, despite "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Palm Beach Story," and then one day I realized she was EVERYWHERE: "Midnight," and "The Prisoner of Zenda," and "The Great Lie" and "Page Miss Glory," and then growing gracefully into roles in films like "Meet Me in St Louis" and the 1949 "Little Women."

And then I just recently saw the 1924 "Beau Brummel," and saw what a sweet innocent thing she started out as--only 17! And it wasn't even her first film! She'd been acting in films for three years already!

What a woman. Starting in films with George Arliss and John Barrymore and lasting clear through the Golden Age of TV in "Playhouse 90" and the "GE Theater" and ending up FORTY-THREE years later in "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte." What a career. What stories you can accumulate in a life like that.

I really need to go read these autobiographies of hers.

goatdog said...

I recently saw one of my favorite Astor performances, the thankless role of Julia Seaton, the cold fish who rejects Johnny Case, in the 1930 version of Holiday. She's really phenomenal, and she brings a lot more to the role than Doris Nolan does in the 1938 remake. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Ann Harding is at least as good in that version as Kate Hepburn is in the 1938 version, and Robert Ames, while no Cary Grant, would have been a hell of an actor had he not died the following year.

Campaspe said...

Operator_99, The Great Lie falls into my "saw it but remember little" category. She and Davis got along famously, she says. They had a great time coming up with different ways to be bitchy to one another on screen.

Karen, you saw Beau Brummel too, on TCM I bet! I was really impressed. She was lovely and touching and Barrymore was excellent for the most part, only seriously brushing the edge of hamminess with the mad scenes, I thought. I was also *extremely* impressed with the score, written by the Young Composers winner. I thought it was just perfect, with that exquisite theme for Astor's character. I am sure it added a great deal to viewing the movie.

Goatdog, I was reading about that version and thinking it would be well worth seeing. Operator_99 had a very good post on Ann Harding who's all but forgotten by the non-film-buff public. I'm not as fond of Harding as he is but perhaps that's because I haven't seen much of her, just Double Harness and Eyes in the Night. People who HAVE seen a lot of her seem to love her.

Karen said...

"Beau Brummel" on TCM--you bet! I was happy to see another early Barrymore silent, having seen "Don Juan" a few months earlier. I thought he was marvelously natural in "Don Juan," not to mention cutting a fine figure in his tights (though not as startling as the striped bell-bottoms he sports in the terrific Lubitsch silent "Eternal Love"). And yes--the music was terrific. I think that TCM has chosen its Young Film Composer awardees very well, and it's been a joy to get the chance to see these long-neglected films.

Ann Harding--my friend Chris likes her more than I do, but she's terrific in the remarkable "The Animal Kingdom" (run, don't walk, to Netfix if you haven't seen it), "Biography of a Bachelor Girl," and "When Ladies Meet." Speaking of those last two, she was well-matched in these drawing-room comedies with Robert Montgomery, who gives me such joy in his early films--he always looks like he's having such a great time. Have you ever seen "The Man in Possession"? Dee-LISH.

Peter said...

Well I checked out that link and have to wonder for whom that Belle tolls, certainly not moi. Zoot allures! You already know about me and Dodsworth. I rechecked Ms. Astor's filmography to discover she is also in Youngblood Hawke, a film I saw theatrically because I needed the comic relief after seeing Fail-Safe. I hope Warner Brothers releases this film I have great affection for on DVD. (Explanation for the kids: this was back in the day when double features were the norm.)

Patrick said...

Since you asked - I agree more or less with the essay at Crooked Timber, she wasn’t the right person for that part. She just isn’t a hot babe. I saw the Maltese Falcon probably 20 years ago, so my memory on it is a bit hazy, but I believe I kind of wondered if Bogart was really interested in her, or was just acting like he was so she’d feel better, given that she was so plain, because I really didn’t buy that he would fall for that woman. I did like her in Dodsworth, which I watched a few months ago as a result of your post on that movie (nice job) and was surprised to find I liked her, in that role she was ok (sometimes I think good casting is half the battle for a movie). I think women’s judgement (you, that is) on whether or not another woman is a hottie is not very good, so trust me on this one, Mary Astor is not a hottie.

This brings up a another point, screen chemistry, which everyone like to talk about but is rarely defined. To me it’s simply do you believer that the two people on the screen would really go for each other, are they physically and emotionally matched types you could say. A few examples – in Casablanca, Bogart and Bergman, yes, Bergman and Henried, no. The Way We Were – no way does a jock type like Redford fall for the likes of Barbara Streisand. Bogart and Astor, as I said, no.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

What a great post! Astor's nuts and bolts description of film work is terrific, and I wish more film star biographies and autobiographies centered on the details of their work.

Patti said...

Wonderful stuff!!

Campaspe said...

Karen, I loved Barrymore in Don Juan too--again with Astor, although she says sadly that his passion for her had died at that point and he treated her badly. She also didn't think much of Don Juan--maybe the blighted affair affected her judgment even after all those years.

Peter, I think no movie could pick me up after Fail-Safe, I would have to turn to strong liquor, and plenty of it.

Campaspe said...

Patrick, until I came across that Crooked Timber post I had no idea this school of thought even existed! But I am glad you're speaking up for the anti-Astor cause, even though I still say you're wrong. Astor was choice no. 2 after Geraldine Fitzgerald, another actress whose looks suggested "soulful" rather than "smokin' hot." Brigid isn't supposed to make wisps of smoke come out of Sam's ears, her come-on and appeal is more genteel (as some of the commenters at Crooked Timber pointed out). I honestly think Astor was still beautiful at 35, just not a bombshell -- it is fair to say she never was a sexpot. (I think a big part of why Astor's allure may seem elusive is that her then-fashionable hair and dress seem matronly to a modern audience.) But the point of Brigid is the mind games she's playing with Sam, and his realization that she's a deep operator is a big part of why he is attracted to her from the beginning.

And, I should add, Bogart was no oil painting himself at this point in his career ...

as for Henreid, he always did appeal more to women, as in Now, Voyager. But to digress on The Way We Were -- you've never known a strikingly handsome man to pair off with a jolie-laide woman? because I sure have. In fact (and I have no, absolutely zero theories as to why this should be the case) the strikingly handsome men of my acquaintance ALL paired off with someone like that.

Flickhead said...

I'm inclined to agree with Patrick about Mary...and this is a purely personal reaction, mind you...but I always found her...well, to be perfectly honest...slightly revolting to look at, at least in Maltese Falcon. Her features never quite came together for me...her hair's a train wreck...and the eyes look like she's carrying some quietly insideous form of VD...

Richard Schickel, on the other hand, did find her "hot" as he reveals in a featurette included on the DVD for Zinneman's Act of Violence. Made seven years after Maltese Falcon, Mary's barely recognizable at first, made up to resemble a five-dollar whore who takes Van Heflin in off the street.

You can tell Van's hit rock bottom, because he just left his wife, played by Janet Leigh, who was all of twenty-one and, uh, in full blossom.

I disagree with Patrick on his point about Casablanca -- "Bogart and Bergman, yes, Bergman and Henried, no." The Bogey-Bergman thing seems, to my eyes at least, a stretch (he seemed more natural with looser women); whereas she looks far more relaxed with Paul.

surlyh said...

I love Astor in Falcon and have never imagined anyone else in the part. As Dave Kehr wrote in his Chicago Reader review (my ellipsis): "The Maltese Falcon is really a triumph of casting and wonderfully suggestive character detail..who can argue with Bogart's glower or Mary Astor in her ratty fur?" I don't think that she wasn't cast for any superficial glamour appeal. It's a crime picture, and she is a member of a group of rogues and con men. A fashion plate beauty would have thrown the film off balance. Bogart and Astor's characters relate as believable human beings, far preferable to typical marqee casting.

Goatdog, you've got me curious about the 1930 Holiday.

surlyh said...

Uh, of course I meant to say that "I don't think she WAS cast for any superficial glamour appeal."

Oscar said...

favorite films this year?
mine:
the savages
diving bell and the butterfly
there will be blood

i really enjoy your blog, i save it for the times where i get comfortable, have a cup of coffee by my side and relax, as opposed to my instant blog hopping
thank you

Campaspe said...

"I don't think that she was cast for any superficial glamour appeal. It's a crime picture, and she is a member of a group of rogues and con men. A fashion plate beauty would have thrown the film off balance." Yes! wish I had said that. The Siren would never dream of telling a man who he's supposed to find hot (least of all Flickhead, whose good taste in feminine pulchritude is amply documented over at his place), so that isn't the argument. I just run through the list of actresses around in 1941 and can't come up with anyone I would rather see in the part, ass, haircut, dress, mouth and all. No one else could have given Brigid that faux high-tone for lines like "I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know." Give that line to a conventional, breathy glamourpuss and what you get is Jessica Rabbit.

Karen said...

I, too, agree with surlyh. Audiences rarely saw Bogart fall for sexpots anyway--even Bacall had a slightly exotic cerebral appeal. But I never got the feeling in "Falcon" that Spade's attraction to Brigid had to do with anything so superficial as her external appearance. She's a trickster, and that grabs him like a fishhook and reels him in.

And let no one dis Paul Henreid to me! His performance in "Now, Voyager" manages to make me forget, each time I watch it, that his character is not inherently sympathetic. I mean, what he's doing is kind of shitty and selfish, isn't it? And then he brings his daughter into it? But all logic flies out the window when the film comes on. Love him in that, in "Casablanca," in "Night Train to Munich," in "Joan of Paris," and so many more. As with Dana Andrews, I think his acting got stiffer as he got older, but in his films in the '30s and '40s I will brook no criticism...

camorrista said...

Since I've always found Astor so delicately beautiful--and so insidiously sexy--I confess I want to shut my eyes and ears to the possibility of an anti-Astor cause. Ah, well....

As to heat, much as I enjoy Harlow, I always found Astor a better--and hotter--choice for Gable in "Red Dust;" and since I was a kid, I've never figured out why Astor married Leon Ames in "Meet Me In St. Louis." (And I have to admit the diaries of her affair with Kauffman only re-inforced my view.)

Sexual chemistry on screen is, indeed, mysterious, but judging it is pretty subjective, and I'm wary of easy pronouncements about which couples have it and which don't.

What makes the chemistry in "The Maltese Falcon" fascinating is that two characters are resisting their feelings, but one (Bogart) almost gives in to them. Astor never comes close to that, and watching her manipulate his passions while controlling hers is a lesson in what might be labeled corrupt chemistry. (There's something similar--though nowhere near as intricate--in the "Thomas Crown Affair.")

In any event, great post, and great thanks for putting Mary back under the lights.

jrclio said...

Mary was also good in a supporting role in the original "Prisoner of Zenda". You really wonder why the hell Raymond Massey didn't take her instead of some dumb Ruritanian crown.

Exiled in NJ said...

"Falcon" is much more about an ensemble than a star vehicle, and like the proverbial Swiss watch, if you remove one of the parts it won't run. Then, too, would Studio A release actress x to Studio B.

Barbara Stanwyck comes to mind for Brigid, but good Lord, she'd be too smart for Gutman, Cairo and probably Spade too.

And look at who Spade was playing around with, the middle age Ivy Archer, Gladys George. Can you really see Bogart with someone like the Kathleen Turner from Body Heat?

onlyanirishboy said...

IIRC, when Sam Spade's secretary tells him there's someone outside to see him, her words and tone imply that the woman waiting is a hottie. Mary Astor's entrance thus disappoints. It's not just her matronly hairdo, her whole manner -- which is right for the part -- is of a respectable woman with a legitimate need for a detective's help. If she'd come across like the sex-oozing seductress of the type parodied by Rachel Ward in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", Spade wouldn't have fallen for her, because what makes him a successful detective is that he's both perceptive and wised-up. A man who gets taken in by an seductress comes across as a stupid -- as one such obvious seductress says to her dupe in "Body Heat," "you're not very smart, are you?" Nevertheless, Astor's appearance, while fashionable at the time, is now very off-putting. That's no reason to be smug about Astor's Brigid, though -- check out some films of the 70's and 80's, for example anything with Olivia Newton-John, for a reminder of how looks we not long ago thought "hot" are no less off-putting than Brigid's. That Mary Astor was, in fact, an extremely beautiful woman cannot be doubted from the many other films were she appeared in less unflattering attire and hair. Nor could anyone who has seen her silents and pre-Code films doubt that she's perfectly capable of playing a convincing hottie. (One more reason to hope that someone turns up a print of "Convention City" is that Astor's in it.)

Campaspe said...

Patti, Jacqueline & Oscar, I really appreciate the kind words. Oscar, I just posted my confession above that I didn't see much in the way of new movies last year. My idea of a hot night out was the re-release of The Woman in the Window.

Karen, I always loved Henreid too, except for his rather ridiculous turn as Schumann.

Camorrista, I do love Harlow in Red Dust--"whaddya been eating, cement?" to that last bedtime story--but yeah, Astor was quite genuinely hot in that movie, I think.

Exiled, thanks for the reminder--how could I forget Miles's wife? Yes, George has already established Spade as a man who likes his roses a little overblown.

Campaspe said...

Jrclio and Onlyanirishboy, welcome! I think Astor's a fabulous Antoinette in Prisoner of Zenda and the later Granger version really suffers without her (without her, and without Fairbanks Jr. in his best role).

"A man who gets taken in by an seductress comes across as stupid" -- ain't that the truth. I'm thinking about Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet. And Dick Powell, fed up with the mooning Moose, snapping back, "Yeah, she's as cute as a cap pistol!"

mndean said...

I could never understand the comments denigrating Astor in The Maltese Falcon (and I've read a lot of them over the past year). Much of the defense has already been offered, but there is Wolcott's criticism which you alluded to and which I agree with, reservedly. Her hairstyle IS awful, but after watching many forties movies, there were a LOT of terrible hairstyles worn by female stars of the era. Strangely, most are not criticized for their look, but Astor is.

Look at Bogart/Spade and think a minute. He's a fortyish man who likes his women with a few miles on them - he's gonna fall for a tootsie like Veronica Lake? Hah. He'd tell her to go back to high school if she tried vamping him a la Astor.

mndean said...

Oh, and about Ann Harding - I have the same problem as you. I haven't seen her in much so I'm no ardent fan. The only two films I saw her in were The Conquerors (in her big speech where she and Dix decide to go West, she sounded like the winner of Miss Manifest Destiny, although in extenuation no actress could have done much with those lines), and When Ladies Meet, where she was much more attractive as a soon to be discarded wife. The movie is a soaper and pretty awful, but she was good in it.

Campaspe said...

Mndean, it's true, a lot of hairstyles of the time look godawful to us now. Eight years later, in Whirlpool, what they did to Gene Tierney's hair just beggars description. And Tierney was a face for the ages.

I realized after I typed my comment that I have seen When Ladies Meet and liked it a lot, and Harding in it.

mndean said...

I guess we'll have to disagree on that film. I thought it was utterly unbelievable how polite Myrna Loy and Ann Harding were when fighting over Frank Morgan (!). As I recounted in a post elsewhere, it was as though the screenwriters had never read a newspaper recounting how down and dirty society women can get when actually fighting over a man. Also, Loy's attraction to Morgan seemed more like a thesis to be defended than actual passion. Robert Montgomery's rather juvenile machinations to force the issue made him look like a jerk, though the film doesn't appear to notice. Ann Harding was the only character I could warm to, and other than her politeness towards Loy, she was believable.

Parisjasmal said...

Hello Lovely!
I am just now seeing this --as I have been traveling and hanging out with 5th graders and having no time to read anything.
It is a wonderful post and you have such a perfect sense of what is well...perfect.
The method and effect of Stein's Pink #2 reminds me more of Geisha and less of clown. Sounds fab.

Hope you and the family are doing wonderful. Thanks for the shout out!

xo

panavia999 said...

Came here from your most recent Astor post. Another lovely read. I read and enjoyed Astor's auto bio when I was in high school and researching everything Barrymore. I'll have to revisit the books now that I "get" things more. I don't understand these people with dulled modern sensibilities who don't get how beautiful and alluring Astor was. And I prefer the Astor/Harding version of HOLIDAY over Hepburn's. Unfortunately, my old public domain copy is very poor quality so I look forward to seeing a nice copy someday.

Calvin Brock said...

I watched a few months ago as a result of your post on that movie (nice job) and was surprised to find I liked her, in that role she was ok (sometimes I think good casting is half the battle Watch Shop Uk