Riveting ‘The Max Factor’ Documentary Makes its Debut at The Hollywood Museum: The Self Same Building in Which the Make-Up Empire Arose

Photo by William Kidston, Courtesy of the Hollywood Museum (L-R) Leonard Maltin, Donelle Dadigan, Julia Kuperberg, Clara Kuperberg, Lee Purcell

Just as the sheen of the summer of 2019 was beginning to need one more touch up before its final close-up, throngs of actors, musicians, producers, and showbiz folk alike wheeled their previously pale faces into the old Max Factor building, not only to engage in the celluloid polish of eras past, but soak in a bit of  moisturizing, 3-dimensional history-turned-homage, all in honor of the Maestro of all Hollywood Makeup: Max Factor! The event in question?: The momentous screening of the latest documentary from Wichita Films’ Clara and Julia Kuperberg entitled none other than “The Max Factor” Centering around the life and times of the makeup trailblazer himself, the history of the man is just as captivating as the innovation behind his signature product!

Hosted by Hollywood Museum president and founder Donelle Dadigan, along with noted friend and actress Lee Purcell, the film’s screening was just as colorful and informative as the panel discussion that followed, featuring fascinating commentary by not only Dadigan and Purcell, but the Kuperberg sisters themselves, all Moderated by approving film historian and critic extraordinaire, Leonard Maltin.

The story of the man himself is as fascinating as his make-up was (and is) indispensable. From his not-so-humble inception as wig-maker to the Tsars of Lodz Polan to his formidable Hollywood Empire revolving around all things aesthetic, Factor was ahead of his time before the lines ever formed in front of the present-day Hollywood Museum in order that the stars may prevent any lines from parading prematurely across their faces (albeit sporting tiny little high heeled shoes no doubt—in a manner only befitting all idols).

Photo by William Kidston, Courtesy of the Hollywood Museum.

Born in Zdunska Wola Congress Poland in 1877 to Polish-Jewish parents, Factor began his formidable career at the age of 8 as an assistant to a dentist and a pharmacist. Making the transition from teeth and tablets to that of tresses and skin tinting at the ripe old age of nine, he would subsequently secure employment at Anton’s of Berlin, a top hairstylist and cosmetics creator.

From there, he would become known as “wigmaker to the Tsars” by way of the Russian Court, at least until Anti-Semitic tensions grew to a fever pitch.

At the dawn of the second wave of Slavic anti-Semitic pogroms, Factor was jailed briefly in 1904 but was able to sway his release by merit of his past, present, and future trade by tricking the guards into thinking he had jaundice with just a swift touch of foundation in tinted yellow.

From there he would escape and move to the theatrical capital of the world, New York City. He would then continue in theatrical wig making, all the while, catering unto a sea of sadly pockmarked faces weathered, in all too timely fashion, at the hands of nightly application of stage make-up sadly saturated all too liberally in mercury (which gave it its shine).

So necessitated an alternate formula, and in 1909, after trekking cross country to California to engage his talents in the film industry, Factor founded Max Factor & Company, thusly introducing his new grease paint based make-up in stick form: A much more homeopathic approach as it was termed. Simultaneously and under a stroke of genius, natural hair wigs would be the order of the day rather than those that looked like “the stuffing of a chair”, or “wigs worn as (virtual) hats”. The foremost film benefitting from Factor’s skills: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man (circa 1913). Among Factor’s additional innovations would be lip gloss, foundation, and wand applicator mascara! The further advent of Factor’s kissing machine would melt many a lipstick to test it further for smooch and colorstay-style luster.

Photo by William Kidston, Courtesy of the Hollywood Musem: A Young Bette Davis with Max Factor

Old School make-up formulas were a challenge under the harsh cinematic lights, and Factor was apparently just what the Doctor ordered–from Zhivago to Strangelove–in order to work his magic, a road (yellow brick or otherwise) that would ultimately entrust Factor to some of the world’s most famous faces and their follicles: Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo to name a few. Factor would also be the first known make-up artist to adopt celebrity endorsements for his products!

First in his long list of sought-after signature star looks was Mary Pickford. Though she was known to allegedly have “horrendous skin,” Factor was able to give her the “natural look” he deemed suitable despite her supposed imperfections.

In an age that most women in the work pool left the house totally naked from the neck up, Pickford’s appointed look was most perfect for the times.  But Factor would wax much less subtle in all cosmetic design as the decades progressed.

Clara Bow, for instance, had a “big” round face. Hence the Max Factor designation of ironically straight eyebrows and diminutive heart-shaped lips–natch.

And if you thought Rita Hayworth had a full head of hair, you should have seen how much lower it encroached her forehead before Factor finessed her most famous widow’s peak to higher browed appeal via the lengthening of the face—by default!

From there, Factor was on his way to creating some of the most signature Hollywood looks all in the marble-floored art deco building right on the corner of Hollywood and Highland which would eventually come to be world-renowned as The Max Factor Building, later the Hollywood museum!

Come the 1930s with the ever more prevalent advent of non-black and white film, color

Max Factor on Set with Actress. Photo by William Kidston, Courtesy of the Hollywood Museum.

itself could “no longer be an approximation.” And it was said that the green make-up used in “The Wizard of Oz” had to be positively luminescent! Gone were the days where Factor simply had to tint his foundation just a tad bit darker to accommodate Indian, and Chinese extras for some of the first silent films on which he worked, or render Rudolph Valentino merely a little bit swarthier to make up for the bright sweat-inducing lights. Skin tone/face paint had to be an exact or near-exact match!

Come 1935, and in order to facilitate, nay actualize, his trial and error color assessments, he would commission architect S. Charles Lee to construct the beautiful Art Deco building which stands on the corner of Hollywood and Highland to this day! The newly fashioned Max Factor Building would, in turn, serve as his showroom, manufacturing plant, and color lab–all in one bold “blush” stroke!

One of the byproducts of perfect-color-credo yielded certain shades never before seen growing from the adult human follicle as Factor would exercise his talent in nearly inventing the color platinum blonde (i.e. blonde with no hint of brown whatsoever) and designating which actresses would sport this look most effectually pending their skin tone: Jean Harlowe and Marilyn Monroe would come to be known as some of the most notable candidates! From there, the makeup contouring would continue with the narrowing of the noses of both Harlow and Monroe and a generally updated look for both!

The innovation wouldn’t stop at platinum however, as one of Factor’s most cultivated signature looks would encompass that of Lucille Ball. A noted blonde herself upon her career’s commencement in the 1920s, the starlet who would come to be known as “Technicolor Tessie” would find fame and fortune in all manner of ways both televised and otherwise once adopting those crimson curls!

The above assessments were all courtesy of Max Factor’s innovative “Color Harmony” concept: a method by which Factor was able to gauge the most optimal hair color for a woman by the shades surrounding her. The rooms by which Factor made his calibrations are still intact today on the ground floor of the Hollywood Museum, i.e. The Blondes Only room, The Redheads Only Room, The Brunettes, and The Brownettes. All featuring walls of differing palettes as the litmus test used against natural hair hues vs. close-up-ready colors, the wall’s tints are as varied and unexpected as one might imagine: The Brunettes Only Room relying on baby pink, and The Redheads Only Room garnished completely in green – near mint to be precise.

But nothing could be more painstaking than Factor’s Beauty Calibration Machine, a metallic head-shaped torture rack-looking-thing used to measure the dimensions of a woman’s face, (nay entire noggin) in order to gauge just how beautiful she actually was.  Almost no one got the perfect score!!!—Well no one actually…EVER!

Not all was lost, however, because, as we well know, there is no beauty without at least a little bit of pain, and sometimes even a trial and tribulation or two. And the panel discussion following the film’s premiere not only illustrated some challenges from Factor’s enterprising assemblage but was also just as riveting and Easter Egg clad as the film was informative and anecdotal.

From beauty to bowling to barkeeping, Factor facilitated more than initially meets, or met, the eye at the time. According to Dadigan, “It was Max Factor who…[created] this opportunity because during the depression they had to find different ways of marketing their product and making sales. And the bowling alley and speakeasy that were in the lower levels of the Max Factor Building…did help, but [they] didn’t pay all the bills.”

Photo by William Kidston, Courtesy of the Hollywood Musem

And the mechanics behind Factor’s empire were just as innovative as his ambient side gigs.

“The [freight] elevator you came up [to the fourth floor in] today holds 12,000 Lbs.,” Dadigan continued. “But more important, it was the elevator Max Factor used for his delivery trucks. Those delivery trucks would, first of all, deliver the raw product to each of these floors. And when the product was finished and assembled, and ready to be delivered, Max Factor would then have the delivery truck brought back up on the elevator, and the product was immediately put on the truck, and was taken back down to the ground level and was driven out to…department stores…to the train station and to the movie studios.”

Of the film’s creators, actress Purcell could sing nothing but their praises, along with providing a few more Easter Eggs, if not stocking stuffers, for the audience’s amusement.

“[Clara and Julia Kuperberg and I] met when I was doing a documentary for them… They got their education at the Sorbonne University,” said Purcell. “But they really learned their filmmaking skills on the ground, from the ground up, by working in the Television Industry, in Paris and then in 2006, they joined forces to create their own company called Wichita Films, and Wichita Films specializes in documentaries about American History, Society, and Culture. All of the films are done in English with subtitles and distributed all over the world.”

“…As you know, [they] are sisters, and they haven’t killed each other yet,” continued Purcell. “They equally co-create all of their projects. They co-write, co-edit, they co-produce, and they co-direct… Since they began Wichita Films, they have created over 40 documentaries in that period of time, and they have been recognized in their field. Their films have been selected twice to the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 and 16… They shared the best director award at the Beverly Hills Film Festival all in 2018. I was there for that, and have twice won Best Documentary at that festival. They won Best Documentary at the Vancouver Festival last year, and have been recognized at many other prestigious film festivals around the world. Just last year, our very own Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored them with a special screening of the sisters’ groundbreaking documentary ‘The Women Who Run Hollywood,’ about the early pioneer films. ‘Cause y’know they were all women… But that was in 2018. This year, ten of their most popular documentaries have been released as a luxury DVD Box Set coincidentally entitled ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!’”

Photo by William Kidston, Courtesy of the Hollywood Musem

The star-studded commentary was just as superlative as Purcell’s as the film screening was spellbinding.

According to Kate Linder of “The Young and the Restless,” “I always enjoy going to the Hollywood Museum and this afternoon was no exception. The film about Max Factor was incredibly produced. Not only was I entertained, but I learned a great deal more about this pioneer and father of cosmetics, as well as a little more about the magic of classic Hollywood.”

Sondra Currie of “The Hangover,” said “The Kuperberg sisters along with Donelle Dadigan, and Lee Purcell have created an extremely entertaining, and informative documentary on make-up wizard Max Factor. My Mom actress, Marie Harmon, was a huge Factor fan and I remember going there with her, when I was a small child.  It was his son who helped create my mother’s look and she, too, went from brownette to blonde!! Really an excellent film and deserves to be seen!”

Emmy Award-nominated writer, producer and actor Darrell Fetty had this to say.

“The Max Factor” is a must-see for anyone interested in Hollywood Legends, the history of movies, and the evolution of Beauty & Style in our culture. I had no idea of the impact Max Factor had on fashion in general as an early creator of Hollywood glamour…which ultimately influenced the world, via his stylistic vision and innovations in make-up. My favorite moment in the documentary was a personal reflection by award-winning, two-time Emmy nominee Lee Purcell, who recalled her early days in Hollywood, walking past the impressive, deco-styled Max Factor building.  Like Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s.’ The young actress would look longingly into the cosmetic-display windows, gazing at products she couldn’t afford….but hoped that someday she’d be able to go inside and buy.”

Martin Cove of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Karate Kid” could only declare, “As an actor, I time travel … makeup and props are my favorites … today, I saw “The Max Factor” documentary. This Icon of early Hollywood transformed me with his creative genius, to a page of yesterday’s golden cinema, (that as a time traveler ) will be unequaled for decades to come … The only tribute that supersedes this documentary is Max Factor himself.”

For more information about “The Max Factor” and Witchita Films, visit WitchitaFilms.com.

For more information on The Hollywood Museum, please visit The Hollywood Museum.

Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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