...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?