Mainstream silent film stars had a very definite “look” … unless they didn’t. Was there a common formula for success in the movies? Photoplay asked some of the best cameramen what they thought and… their answers were pretty nuanced for such a trivial topic.
In fact, reading between the lines of the article, it is clear that author Jameson Sewell wanted a definitive response but there were actually more caveats and exceptions than hard and fast rules. Personality and brains were the key.
Donald Biddle Keyes, a prominent Los Angeles photographer, describes the phenomena of Miss (Gloria) Swanson in saying: “Miss Swanson is the big present instance of the triumph of careful thinking and personality over the mere physical exterior. Miss Swanson has serious — and apparently insurmountable — handicaps. She had — and has — a bad nose. Her mouth is bad, her chin is bad, her general build is bad. And yet she has gone on to triumph.”
Okay, this is kind of a backhanded compliment but Swanson was indeed an unusual beauty. Nobody looked like her then, nobody looks like her now. Not many silent stars can claim that without the help of glasses, hats and crepe mustaches.
There are dozens of instances where certain difficult handicaps have given way to personality. There is Pola Negri’s difficult-to-photograph square jaw. Anna Q. Nilsson (the GIF above) has a bad nose. So, too, has Bebe Daniels. Rudolph Valentino has immense ears.
But notice the list of allegedly “camera-proof” faces below:
John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Rudolph Valentino, May McAvoy, Nita Naldi and Norma Shearer received the most votes. Clara Kimball Young was named as having had camera-proof features.
Valentino has “enormous ears” but a camera-proof face, it seems. But just when all hope is lost, Karl Brown shows up to lay down some facts and a bit of sarcasm.
Karl Brown, cameraman for Director James Cruze, declares that there never can be a formula of physical screen qualifications. “There is no such thing as a camera-proof face,” he says. “It cannot exist. I can light a perfect sphere so that it will appear flat.”
“Beauty in any form cannot be permanently standardized. No really successful screen type resembles any other equal of the same type. Each is peculiar in some way and that peculiarity, which is probably not basically physical, is largely responsible for the success of the individual. To make a mathematical average offers no solution: Baby Peggy and Jackie Coogan pull down the average of height, and Ben Turpin has a bad, effect upon the average of eyes.”
“Beauty is effectiveness. That goes for everything in which beauty is concerned. If a woman has light eyes, an ungainly mouth, is too this, or too that, or has every physical disadvantage imaginable, and yet can make those eyes melt in pity, or flash fire, make the misshapen lips round into a delicious kiss, or curl in freezing scorn, that’s beauty.”
Gloria Swanson fans, lovers of Pola Negri (square jaw and all) and those of us who never thought about Valentino’s ears can certainly agree.
George Webber, Allan Dwan’s cameraman, echoes this in saying: “It is my belief that there can be no single ideal of moving picture beauty. All facial characteristics are subordinate to the fountain head and vital source of any artistic endeavor: the intelligence of the artist and the message he or she has to convey. The color of the eyes, the shape of the nose or the contour of the mouth are but supplemental to this quintessential factor.”
YOU GUYS ARE RUINING THE CONCEPT OF THIS ARTICLE. STOP BEING SO DARN REASONABLE.
Undeterred, our intrepid author pressed on with a list of ideal beauty traits in both men and women:
And details a few camera tricks to make performers more attractive, per the standards of 1925.
There was a time when pale blue eyes were thought to be fatal to film success. The strong lights of the studio always drowned out the delicate blue, particularly in close-ups. Harry A. Fischbeck, expert cameraman with Paramount, has one way of overcoming this. He uses a spotlight with a reddish pink slide and places it so that this light reflects from the iris of the player’s eyes directly into the camera. This reflected light replaces the lost color.
(Germans didn’t really care, as Conrad Veidt’s baby blues in The Indian Tomb show.)
Nasal defects are handled expertly. A player with a bulbous nose holds his head down. Miss Nilsson’s crooked nose, for instance, is lighted from one side only, which gives it a straight effect.
Careful make-up can help a large mouth. The expert cameraman tries to catch this sort of mouth for a close-up only from the side. The Negri chin and mouth, for instance, are lighted from above, cutting down the squareness.
The complexion is of no consequence. Makeup can cover all sorts of facial blemishes, from freckles to scars.
The average person has unpleasant lines running from the nose to the sides of the mouth. To overcome this in close-ups. The lights are placed close to the camera and the face is flooded with illumination. Result: the lights fill the creases and smooth them out on the film.
Projecting ears are filmed at an angle and never full face. Note this the next tune you watch Valentino on the screen.
So, there we have it. Some sensible fellas and a very silly article that accidentally turned out to contain more wisdom than, perhaps, the author wished.
You can look up lots of swell clippings like these at the Media History Digital Library.
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