A “Hollywood Smile” is often shorthand for a really attractive smile. Straight, long, proportionate teeth that are bright white. It’s common in advertising and well-understood in casual conversation. And it’s not an accident, because Hollywood invented cosmetic dentistry at a time when Americans were yearning to smile, but still suffered greatly from the effects of dental decay.
The demands for Hollywood stars changed dramatically with the advent of talking pictures in 1928. For silent movies, all-stars needed was a pretty face, and it was easy to find people who had dashing faces and bright, beautiful smiles. But when actors had to talk on film, many of the old stars couldn’t pass muster. Although a few made the transition–such as smoldering Swedish beauty Greta Garbo–Hollywood needed a new crop of stars, and the ones that were imported from New York and around the country to deliver the lines didn’t always have the beautiful smile directors wanted.
In fact, the country as a whole was kind of at a low point when it came to oral health. In the second half of the 19th century, refined sugar became an everyday food for Americans, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that widespread toothbrushing began (and it didn’t really take hold until after World War II). This meant those entire generations passed with people suffering major oral health problems. Two or three times as many people lost their teeth during this time as do today.
Hollywood would either have to settle for a less-than-perfect smile or settle for actors who couldn’t deliver their lines well enough.
But when has Hollywood ever settled for anything? It’s one of the reasons why Americans have a reputation for always striving for the best. So it engineered a solution.
Max Factor, who had invented Hollywood glamour with his makeup, invited cosmetic dentist Charles L. Pincus to correct what his makeup couldn’t. Pincus invented temporary prosthetics that could be stuck temporarily to the teeth using denture powder. These first porcelain veneers were fragile and were put on, like stage makeup (and, for some aging stars, tape to smooth out wrinkles) just before filming. They had to be removed for eating and sleeping. By 1938, Pincus had moved from actual porcelain, which at the time was too fragile, to acrylic, but the veneers were still temporary. That same year, Pincus described his innovation to the California Dental Association, and the rest of the nation’s dentists began to aspire to create their own “Hollywood” smiles.
From Pincus’ fragile porcelain veneers that were lucky to last more than a single movie shoot to the veneers of today that typically last more than 10 years, it’s been a long, complicated journey. But now anyone who wants can have a beautiful Beverly Hills smile–today it’s as much ours as theirs!