Though artists including
John Chambers, Dick Smith, and Rick Baker brought inventive character
makeups to a new level, the craft known as “special makeup
effects,” goes back to
the inception of cinema. Silent film actors were often required
to design and apply their own makeups when playing bit parts of
Indians, old men, and historical figures. Significantly, three
men started in the earliest years of film as actors who created
their own characters with the use of personal makeup techniques.
Jack Pierce and Jack Dawn started as actors and eventually switched
to makeup full time in the 1920s. Each of them went on to run
studio makeup departments and create legendary characters. A third
man stayed true to his acting roots while furthering his makeup
talents in order to get jobs in Hollywood. His name was Lon Chaney.
Among his numerous creations, Chaney made cinema history with
his legendary “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Phantom
of the Opera” characters. Essentially, Chaney brought to
the moviegoing public how effectively makeup could transform an
actor into a different character.
Due to Chaney’s skills, audiences realized
that one actor could play an infinite amount of different roles.
The Hunchback (1923) and the Phantom (1925) were so stirring not
only because they were frightening and memorable in and of themselves,
but also because Chaney had so drastically transformed his face
in each role.
Chaney created another great horror character in 1927 with his
vampire in “London
After Midnight.” The ghastly image of the vampire, in long
hat and fangs, is one of the iconic horror images of the silent
However , Chaney used his makeup and acting talents
to create a host of nonhorror characters
at the time. With the secretive materials in his makeup case,
Chaney could become a crippled character, a woman, an old man,
a clown, or just about anything that a script called for.
With the advent of sound film in the late 1920s, there were dramatic
increases in the need for and development of special makeup, leading
to the introduction of “the makeup artist.” At Universal
Studios, Jack Pierce brought the most timeless of monsters to
life, including Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy.
In 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” presented
Jack Dawn’s iconic fantasy characters, a landmark in the
use of prosthetics for the alteration of actors’ faces.
Ironically or not, Chaney died in 1930 just as Universal was casting
“Dracula.” Whether or not Chaney would have been lured
back to his
first studio to create the Count is unknown, but Chaney’s
work in the 1920s surely stands the test of time. His work and
makeup methods are still vitally studied today.
About the Author
Scott Essman has been writing about makeup and movie craftsmanship
since 1995. As part of his company, Visionary Cinema, Essman has
also created memorable tributes to makeup history, including special
events to honor Dick Smith, John Chambers, and Jack Pierce. In
1998, his tribute to the makeup for “The Wizard of Oz”
was celebrated on Hollywood Boulevard at the historic Mann’s
Chinese Theater. In 2000, Essman published his first book, “Freelance
Writing for Hollywood,” and that same year, he published
a 48-page special magazine about the work of Universal Studios’
makeup legend, Jack Pierce. In 2001, he was joined with Universal
to nominate Pierce for a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk
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