I always love learning about the behind-the-scenes artists who played a big role in creating the magic of Hollywood but whose names are not that well known today. One of those unsung heroes from the golden age of the movies was make-up artist extraordinaire Dottie Ponedel.
Earlier this week, BearManor Media published the book I’ve been working on for the past few years with Meredith Ponedel about her incredible Aunt Dottie. About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars uses the stories Dottie left behind before her death many years ago to tell about her amazing life in her own words. Meredith, who lived with her aunt as a little girl, didn’t know much about Dottie’s past until she found a big box of photos and clippings one day in the house and begged her aunt to tell her the story of the beautiful ladies in the photos. Though illness had prevented Dottie from working by then, the women she once worked with remained lifelong friends and Meredith shares stories of her own adventures with some of her aunt’s close friends, most notably Judy Garland and Joan Blondell.
Dottie’s story is its own version of the American Dream. As a young woman in the early 1920s, she made the trek from Chicago to Los Angeles, unexpectedly finding her way into the burgeoning silent movie industry, first as an extra, and eventually as an actress and dance double for many of the early movies’ biggest stars, from Mabel Normand to Greta Garbo, and finally, through luck and chance, becoming one of the most renowned and sought after make-up artists of her day.
About half of the book is focused on Dottie’s friendship with the legendary Judy Garland. Ponedel first worked with Judy on Meet Me in St. Louis, in which she transformed the young star into the stunningly beautiful Esther Smith, helping Judy make the transition from adolescent parts to true adult roles once and for all. The two women became instant best friends and Dottie worked on all ten of Judy’s MGM films that followed—movies that are still revered today such as The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, Easter Parade, In the Good Old Summertime, and Summer Stock. Dottie and Judy had countless adventures together, on and off the set, and Dottie saw her friend through all sorts of triumphs and challenges, relayed in detail in the book.
But today I wanted to share an excerpt from earlier in Dottie’s story. Following her accidental career change when she saved the day at Paramount by fixing actress Nancy Caroll’s make-up on the set of 1930’s Follow Thru, all of the big stars at the studio wanted the Ponedel touch. But despite her growing acclaim, Ponedel didn’t get any support from the all-male make-up departments at the different studios. The condescending boys’ club fought her at every turn, and it was the stars she worked with who continually came to Dottie’s defense. One of the first of these was the incomparable Marlene Dietrich. Dottie was on the Paramount lot when Joseph Von Sternberg returned from Berlin with his new protégée. Let’s hear Dottie tell it in her own words.
In the early 1930s, I worked with so many great artists at Paramount. One of the best and most glamorous was Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich looked like any other person in The Blue Angel, but when Joe Von Sternberg brought her back with him from a trip to Germany, the word glamour was introduced into our dictionary. Von Sternberg went to the front office and asked who had made up Nancy Carroll for Follow Thru. He wanted the same make-up artist to do a test for Dietrich the following day.
I think I had a hand in putting the most beautiful face on the screen and that was Dietrich. Every make-up artist in our industry wanted to know what I had done. Von Sternberg said, “Dottie, give her the works—give everybody something to talk about,” and believe me, I did. I stole from the works of all the great artists—the Louvre had nothing on me. When our stars at Paramount saw Dietrich on the screen, they all wanted to get that young, wide-eyed look.
Believe me, Dietrich was really something to look at. I did things around the eye, changed her hairline, and made a full, lush mouth. I added a subtle white line down the center of the nose which brought the nose up in case it had any inkling of being flat. I shaded the face when I wanted to get that hollow look. In order to do that, you had to get a lighter make-up in the center of the face and get a darker make-up toward the temples. Then, you’d take a light make-up over the lid of the eye and a darker grease toward the eyebrow which gives your eye a long full lid like Garbo. You know that would take you a good hour’s work but the thing that scared the pants off of the stars was after they were done and powdered real well, I would take the pillows of my fingers, dip them in my rouge, and go over the skin of the face just where I wanted the pink color to come out. If you didn’t know the touch of your fingers, you would spoil an hour or two’s work but I knew just how far to go the minute my fingers hit the face. Now this was a wet rouge which would cake the whole make-up you had just worked on. Boy oh boy, when I got through they looked like a hand-painted picture and that was my secret of bringing luster to the camera. The stars would go to the front office crying they wanted Dottie on their picture. They wouldn’t care how early they had to come in.
I remember the first time I went with Marlene to the still department to do some portraits. Travis Banton, head costume designer at Paramount, had just sewn Marlene into a black satin dress which fit skin tight. Marlene fell over a step she didn’t see, right onto her belly. The dress split up the back and a full moon came into sight. I became hysterical because I had a perfect view, being about two feet behind her. Everyone burst out laughing, even Marlene, but when she saw that I was hysterical, Marlene got up and slapped me on both sides of my face. I then went into hiccups. They stopped but when I looked and saw her rear end sticking out, I started laughing all over again. Von Sternberg came in the studio to see how the portraits were going. The sight of Marlene’s fanny sticking out didn’t shock him a bit!
Marlene would always sit in her dressing room at Paramount in the nude, chewing on tuberoses, but whenever anyone came through the door, I would throw a little colored pillow on her lap to cover up her thingamajig. Whoever it was, she’d say to them, “Look at Dottie, she’s blushing for me!” Dietrich loved her figure and to her it meant nothing to be in the nude.
I remember one afternoon, Marlene said to me, “Dottie, I’m going to pull a fake faint in front of Gary Cooper to see what it feels like to be in his arms without that goddamn camera ticking.” Gary was about two feet behind us and as we opened the door to the set, Marlene fell to her feet. Gary grabbed her and held her. Nobody saw this but she winked at me as if to say, “Oh brother, this isn’t half bad.”
That Christmas, Von Sternberg bought her seven diamond bracelets, each one half an inch thick. She almost dropped dead when she saw them because she had had a tough time in Germany during the war, having to eat beets about a hundred different ways. Even a cigarette was a luxury to her back then. When she landed at Paramount, Marlene was the highest paid star in the industry. I remember one day Dietrich got into my Ford and there was a spring loose which jammed her good and she looked at me and said, “Dottie, we’ve got to do something about this.”
The following week there was a brand new Ford in my parking spot. It had everything in it but the kitchen sink. Frank Borzage and Gary Cooper walked me off the set and dangled the key in front of me as we got outside and Dietrich said, “I told you I’d do something about it.” I was so shocked I started to cry and Dietrich said if she thought I was going to cry she wouldn’t have bought it. But the presents didn’t stop there. Marlene bought me a star ruby and many other presents and was also responsible for my getting a contract at Paramount. From the contract, I bought myself a pretty home in Beverly Hills.
Though Dottie moved on to MGM, becoming Judy Garland’s primary make-up artist and dear friend, her friendship with Marlene Dietrich lasted until the end of her life. In addition to Marlene and Judy, Dottie’s other close friends included Carole Lombard, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Frances Dee, and Gail Patrick, but all the stars who worked with her adored her and fought the male make-up honchos who never really wanted Dottie at the studio. “No stranger is going to pat this puss,” Mae West declared, and she and Marlene played a big role in finally getting Dottie admitted to the all-male makeup union.
For more on Dottie’s fascinating life and friendships, see About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars.
This post is part of Theresa Brown’s Free for All Classic Film Blogathon at CineMaven’s ESSAYS from the COUCH.