Contemporary Dentistry

Did America’s Quest for the Perfect Smile Begin over the Rainbow?

These days dentistry and even cosmetic dentistry is so readily available that many people forget it wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time when most Americans didn’t have access to a dentist, and most expected to lose their teeth at a relatively young age. (How young? In WWI, the US Army rejected about 24 out of every 1000 recruits aged 18-34 because they didn’t have the 12 teeth required for service–and dentures could count toward those 12!)

But at some point in the past that changed. Americans not only realized the value of healthy teeth, they began to dream of the perfect smile. And like so many American Dreams, this one was crafted in Hollywood, where many point to the work that Charles Pincus did to give Judy Garland a smile that outshone her ruby slippers.

Judy Garland Walk of Fame

How Talkies Got Pincus into the Movies

It might seem like Pincus had chosen just the wrong time to get started as a dentist. He graduated from dental school and opened his office on Hollywood and Vine just before the 1929 stock market crash.

But if there was anywhere in the US that proved to be recession-resistant (though not recession-proof) it was Hollywood. And Hollywood had suddenly realized it had a huge need for dentistry. With the advent of talking pictures in 1927, the industry scrambled to find stars that could both talk and look good. In particular, a set of beautiful teeth was suddenly more important than it had been: you couldn’t talk on camera without showing your teeth.

Few big stars made the transition from silent films to talkies, but one of them was Joan Crawford, on of Dr. Pincus’ patients. He’d already made her a set of porcelain veneers in 1928, and it helped her keep her career in pictures.

Makeup pioneer Max Factor had already solved many of the problems of making stars look good on camera, but the dental issues were beyond his skill. When he saw the quality of Pincus’ work, he hired Pincus to create veneers and even dentures for some of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Did Judy Garland Ignite the Smile Craze?

Pincus did a lot of work in Hollywood, and many stars relied on his expertise to get a closeup-ready smile, including Fanny Brice, Montgomery Clift, Mae West, and Bob Hope. It wasn’t just older stars who needed a little help from Pincus. Shirley Temple relied on his temporary veneers to conceal the fact that she was losing her baby teeth. This helped her have a beautiful smile in every picture.

It’s hard to say which of his clients had the biggest impact, but in her new book Teeth, writer Mary Otto claims that it was Judy Garland that made people really embrace the ideals of straight, white, beautiful teeth.

She makes a good case. The Wizard of Oz was an early color movie. It was one of the first and one of the most popular. Plus Pincus’ work looks amazing in the movie. Judy Garland didn’t have terrible teeth, but she had had gaps between her front teeth. Pincus concealed these with slip-on Hollywood veneers, giving her a bright, beautiful smile. And, of course, the plot gives Garland plenty of opportunities to smile for the camera. The cinematography really focuses on her face, and she opens wide for the camera to belt out those stirring tunes.

It also helps that the story is written to appeal to people’s notions of transforming their lives. Written nearly 40 years before, L. Frank Baum’s novel is often seen as an allegory of people from the country being dazzled by the amazing sights of technology, progress, and commerce in big cities like Chicago. But where the novel evokes material changes like broad shop windows packed with amazing new gadgets and comforts, the movie encourages a more personal transformation, one manifested not insignificantly in a set of beautiful white teeth.

Are You Unhappy with Your Smile?

Otto may not be right that Garland was the primary inspiration for our modern sense of a healthy and beautiful smile. There’s some evidence that Americans truly began to realize the importance of a smile around the turn of the 20th century, thanks in no small part to Rochester’s own Eastman Kodak Company. But she is right that Hollywood played a huge role in showing people what a beautiful smile looked like and encouraging them to compare Pincus’ manufactured smiles to their own, damaged natural smiles.

And although modern veneers are no longer fragile like Pincus’ veneers, we cannot overstate the role he played in creating modern cosmetic dentistry. One key difference is that, unlike in the 1930s, today virtually everyone can achieve a new, beautiful smile if they want.

If you are currently unhappy with your smile, we can help you achieve a smile that can feel like moving from a grey, drab Kansas landscape to somewhere over the rainbow.

Please call (585) 244-3337 today for an appointment with a Rochester cosmetic dentist at Contemporary Dentistry.