Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How A Russian Immigrant Revolutionized The Beauty and Movie Business

The benefits immigration has historically provided to the America economy and lifestyle has been thoroughly documented. The waves of Irish, Italian, and eastern European's that swamped Ellis Island during the 19th century brought little more than hope and the drive to discover an opportunity to pursue a better life in the New World. They were ravaged by the historic poverty in their homelands, hungry, illiterate in many cases and did not speak English. And yet, despite these daunting obstacles, these immigrant masses were the forerunner of the diaspora that continues to this day and from which the United States has enjoyed immeasurable benefits.

Many contemporary Americans have knowledge of family histories that detail the struggles of their first generation American forefathers. There are so many famous stories of immigrant successes from the period: Sam Goldwyn (movies), Guglielmo Marconi (radio), Eugene Strauss (department stores, Macy's), Levi Strauss and Isaac Singer (sewing machines) are only a few examples.

Max Factor was an amazing example of immigrant success and the entrepreneurial cocktail that only America has ever fully perfected. Factor was born into poverty and a large family in Russia. He came to the United States at an early age speaking no English. The name Factor was most surely an assigned "Ellis Island" name. Eventually he moved to St. Louis and took a job in a theatre.

At this time, in the late 19th and early 20th century, theatrical plays and actors were very limited by the poor gaslights of the time. Nuance, subtlety and emotion were very difficult to convey to an audience in the stage environment of the time. Mr. Factor, standing in the rear of the theatre each night, waiting for the performance to end, began to notice that the actors were limited by the lack of definition that could be seen in their faces. To be sure, they wore a type of cornstarch makeup, but they appeared as mannequins, over painted and stiff as dead mackerel. He set about finding an answer, a way to project real emotion.

His efforts were rewarded by the introduction of two seemingly obvious creations (at least obvious today): the false eyelash and pan cake makeup. Ask any actor working today what tool they use most crucially to portray emotion and they will answer, the eyes. The false eyelash Mr. Factor created was a rough, stiff, heavily glued shock of trimmed horsehair. Difficult to apply and painful to remove though they were, actors adored them. Within months Mr. Factor was creating false eyelashes for actors everywhere. They unanimously were willing to put up with the pain in return for the opportunity to project emotion to an audience with their eyes.

Pancake makeup was created to give the face a more natural glow while highlighting each actor's unique physical features. The old starchy pastes made every actor, even male and female, look alike. Finally, there was a light, blended powder base that could be buffed to highlight features. Actors are vain. They love to display themselves, physically, emotionally and vocally. Max Factor's pancake makeup was the breakthrough that modernized acting as a more subtle, visual art.

Mr. Factor quickly moved to Hollywood. He recognized that the future would be in moving pictures and the movies would require a completely different lineup of cosmetic products. Cameras require light. Light offered new opportunity and Max Factor was always keen to seize opportunity. He adapted pancake makeup to the new demands of movie cameras. Almost immediately, Max Factor became recognized as Hollywood's leading, must-have makeup designer for the movie studios. His entrepreneurial instincts not sated, he began to package products for sale to the public.The most prominent retailers of the day such as F.W. Woolworth and Kresge dime stores in the United States and Boots in England carried his products. This was the beginning of a worldwide cosmetic empire that continues to prosper to this day. During most of the 20th century Max Factor enjoyed worldwide popularity with the Company's cutting edge beauty advances. The Max Factor name and brand became world famous.

Max Factor always praised America and revered the freedom, opportunity and economic system that he discovered here. He came with no money, spoke no English and had no formal skill. During the course of his remarkable life he was instrumental in the maturation of two major industries: cosmetics and movies. This could never have happened had he stayed in Russia.

The opportunity to fail, or succeed, is just as possible today. The opportunity to try is not available in much of the world. Men like Max Factor are inspirational. They confirm that our system, while not perfect, is better than anything else yet invented. When you hear a citizen of this country whine about, well, about everything people whine about today, remember that millions of immigrants want to still come here for a reason. There is no place on earth so open and offering so much possibility.