One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley was alarmed by a new trend: some actors weren’t satisfied with what Mother Nature gave them–
judging from the experience of our best little picture stars who get their features changed while you wait. Noses are “chiseled” over night, the lady with the beak comes out with a feature that makes Clytie [a water nymph from Greek mythology] look like a prize-fight Amazon; the vinegar queen we were afraid to speak to returns to the studio with an expression so sweet we at once begin to feel we could borrow money from her…When you kiss your favorite motion picture star good-bye, and she says she’s going to the mountains for her health, at once the heart-broken inquiry presents itself—“Shall I ever see her again?” What we mean is—will she come back to us bearing that unvarying similarity to herself?
She was very concerned about the terrible day when Douglas Fairbanks decided to turn his impressive nose into a turned-up trifle or if Bill Hart were to have a dimple installed in his chin. It was all very distressing. She summed up the whole problem with elective cosmetic surgery: “it looks as if the whole world were soon to become monotonously beautiful, and there just won’t be anybody we can look at and say ‘Well, thank God, I don’t look like that.’”
I had no idea that this sort of cosmetic surgery was even available in 1919, however, the first recorded nose reconstruction was done in India in 800 B.C.! Many new plastic surgery techniques were developed during the First World War, for soldiers with facial injuries.
Nevertheless, Kingsley was one of the earliest to write about stars and surgery. Articles in the media history database Lantern mention it as a plot element in films, for instance the villain of a serial The Hidden Hand (1917) is a master plastic surgeon and he rearranges his henchman’s features so he looks just like the hero. The first magazine article in the database about Hollywood stars’ surgical experiences appeared in the August 1930 issue of Photoplay. Called “Would You Like a New Nose?’ writer Harry Lang claimed that “over 2000 of our stars and near stars have had their faces shuffled and reassembled for the screen.” However, he could name only a few names of mostly not very well-know actors, because both the stars and their doctors wanted to keep it secret. Now it’s surprising if an actor hasn’t had work done and you can find online articles that list the exceptions.
Grace Kingsley interviewed Charlie Chaplin this week, and reported that for his first feature film, he was planning to leave aside slapstick and play:
a character role of an appealing as well as of a humorous nature, so that those gifts for portraying wistful pathos which the world’s most famous comedian has evinced often in the midst of his jazz comedies will have full play. In short, it looks as if the comedian were about to come into his own.
That’s exactly what he did. He told her he’d already written the story and he couldn’t wait to get started on it, but he needed to finish up making shorts for his current contract with First National.
She also asked his about the birth of his son on Monday. He was delighted to be a father, and the boy was named Norman after Mabel Normand, because she was the one who told Mack Sennett to hire him. He didn’t work on Tuesday and he celebrated “by dismissing, with paychecks, the same as if they had worked, a big crowd of extras who had assembled.”
Sadly, Norman Spencer Chaplin died on Wednesday, July 10th. According to the doctors, while he seemed healthy at birth, he was missing a “vital organ.” Now the most shocking part of the story was that they kept the news of his inevitable death from his mother, because they thought she was too delicate to hear it. They didn’t tell Mildred Harris Chaplin anything until after he died.
Styles of writing about such a sad story have changed a lot. Here’s how it was reported on the front page of the second section of the LA Times:
Sorrow sits enthroned in the Hollywood home of Charlie Chaplin and the bubbles of happiness have floated through the windows of the little white nursery and vanished. Dreams of the spinner of laughs have been shattered and his air castles have crumbled—for Charlie Chaplin’s baby boy is dead.
It wasn’t just the Times—the Los Angeles Herald had several paragraphs about the dust-laden toys in the nursery that would never be played with.
The official Chaplin site says his loss helped inspire the feature he told Kingsley about, The Kid. He decided not to wait until after he finished the shorts and started working on it ten days after Norman died. It took nine months to complete (he quickly make A Day’s Pleasure in the middle, because First National wanted something to release) and it came out in February 1921 to universal and continuing acclaim.