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TELEVISION REVIEW

Two rivals in the business of beauty

Cosmetics industry pioneers Elizabeth Arden (left) and Helena Rubinstein are profiled in PBS's ''The Powder and the Glory.'' Cosmetics industry pioneers Elizabeth Arden (left) and Helena Rubinstein are profiled in PBS's ''The Powder and the Glory.'' (Elizabeth arden archives (left); helena rubinstein foundation)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 23, 2009
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There's a comic irony underlying "The Powder and the Glory," a smart new PBS documentary about two pioneers of the cosmetics industry. During their lives, entrepreneurial giants Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein chose never to meet, even while they lived and worked in the same neighborhood. They were rivals of the first order. But here they are, stuck side by side in the same film, twin symbols of the dramatic changes in the beauty business in the 20th century.

"The Powder and the Glory," which airs tonight at 10 on Channel 2, portrays two women who came from radically different backgrounds, but who shared an acute understanding of a woman's right to wear what she pleased. They took a type of product that, until the early 20th century, was identified with prostitution and impropriety, and they fused it with female self-esteem. While the film is a dual biography of Arden and Rubinstein, it is also a portrait of a century of changing mores.

In 1872, Rubinstein was born into a poor family in Poland, and by the time she got to America she was mixing skin creams. A Jew, she faced anti-Semitism on her ascent in the business world, but she persisted, and expanded her product line into an entire lifestyle. Arden, too, understood the importance of turning makeup into something more than simply face paint. She linked buying face products with the total woman, from posture to exercise.

Arden was also born into a poor family, in Canada in 1881, and moved to New York City. The branding she went on to develop was all about femininity, pink colors, and a life of leisure. Rubinstein's branding had more to do with bold colors and an urban milieu.

Narrated by Jane Alexander, "The Powder and the Glory" follows these two larger-than-life women through the Depression, when cosmetic sales actually rose. The movie also makes interesting points about the role of movies in the growing popularity of makeup during the 1900s, as the camera got close up to actresses' faces. Alas, while Rubinstein and Arden were savvy in business for decades, they failed to get on board the TV-advertising wagon and lost the chance to appeal to younger women.

"The Powder and the Glory" was written, produced, and directed by local filmmakers Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. Using lots of old film footage, interspersed with commentary by professors, authors, the late Kitty Carlisle Hart, and Twiggy, they portray not only a pair of icons but a powerful shift in the definition of beauty.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE POWDER AND THE GLORY On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 10-11:30

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