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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Mack Sennett and the Birth of the Bathing Beauty

It's mighty hot. Let's go to the beach and sample some of the titillations from 1912-1928 or thereabouts. Legend has it that early film pioneer and Canadian Mack Sennett was reading the newspaper in the bathtub. Evidently, with his body partially submerged in cool water where his brain was most relaxed, his best ideas would pop into his skull, like the Keystone Cops and the Little Rascals. On one early summer's day, he was struck by a lightning bolt of an idea in the tub reading the paper. 

A car accident was on the front page. The story involved three things fresh to America's culture in 1912, a woman driving a car and a woman wearing a bathing suit. Oh, the other thing that was fresh? As Sennet would recount, "The picture made the front page for two obvious and attractive reasons. The young lady's knees were showing!" Yes, a crumpled car, a radiator leak, and a woman's legs changed the world.

That's right, folks, Knees! I wolf whistle at this point and say, "Hubba, Hubba!” If you care to join me, and I hope you do, wolf whistle, and say, "Hubba, Hubba!" At that moment, the earth rumbled, and the motion picture industry shifted direction, giving birth to the exploitation film. Of course, these were innocent times, knees, for crying out loud. These comedies provided a gander at some pretty girls frolicking at the beach and getting into some wholesome shenanigans with total knee exposure! 

Mack Sennet illuminated his directions to his staff at Keystone Studios (according to his autobiography, King of Comedy.) 

"Go hire some girls, any girls, so long as they're pretty. Especially around the knees ... Get those kids on the screen!" (To use an old-fashioned term, Mack Sennet was a leg man.) The staff stood gawking at their naked boss holding the newspaper, "Sure, I know they can't act, but they don't have to act. Put them in bathing suits and just have them around to be looked at while the comics are making with the funny." 

Hundreds of people were overrunning Hollywood. All with the hope of breaking into the new and exciting moving picture industry. Hundreds might be an exaggeration, but many folks were doing their best to do it, and each year it would multiply by ten. The little farming village of Hollywood was growing faster than the industry could handle. But the lack of snow, rain, and Thomas Edison (don't get me started on him!) made Los Angeles very attractive. 

This incredible migration, especially of young women, to the west coast, was a virtual tsunami. Let's say the studios didn't offer chivalry, and the ladies didn't expect it. These were early days. Many would-be actresses hadn't grown up in a house with electric lights or indoor plumbing. Most states allowed girls to marry at twelve, which today sounds crazy. These teens and young women would do whatever it took to get to Hollywood to fulfill their celluloid dreams. Some were from the theater or vaudeville, but most were just kids with flickering stars in their eyes. It was probably this power dynamic that led 100 years later to Me Too. 

Sennett's idea solved one problem and created another potentially worse situation. Hiring a photographer was easy. The local actors used practically the only photographer of "Show People" in Hollywood, Nelson Evans, to take their headshots. Sennett dispatched several scouts and Evans to the beach to find some talent. As it turned out, getting pretty girls in bathing suits also turned out to be surprisingly easy. The fact that the girls didn't require any talent beyond being attractive (and having nice knees) made the scouts work simple, and likely candidates were everywhere. 

The first thing the Sennett team at Keystone did was take pictures of the pretty girls. They printed thousands of postcards and had them distributed all across the country. In those early days, cinema was relatively disreputable. Films would travel the country with carnivals and set up at amusement parks and empty lots. It was the time of the "French" postcard, a naughty photograph of a (possibly) French girl of undoubted poise, low moral standing, and a general lack of clothes. You could purchase a postcard at a carnival, bar, or other adult entertainment venue. Be warned that you could be in trouble for sending illicit materials through the mail if you choose to send them. 

Nelson Evans, the photographer, was a lucky man. Remembered chiefly as the father of "Cheesecake." Not the kind of cheesecake that Brooklyn restaurant Junior's is famous for - they ship to all fifty states and Canada! Evans created the "pin-up." During his service in World War One, Evans became an aerial photographer with the newly launched (ha!) Navy Airforce. Upon his return, and after a brief sojourn as a Broadway photographer, he left the land of his youth, Ohio, forever and headed west. He married one of his very first bathing beauty discoveries. An actress, remembered chiefly by a handful of photographs and her professional name, Mrs. Nelson Evans. 

A note: This wasn't Cecile Evans, the girl with the million-dollar legs who will be mentioned later and was briefly a Sennett star. 

Evans was also an early proponent of chemical painting and retouching the actual negative. This work is usually done on a print, with a new negative created from the retouched image. He wasn't working in 35mm. He probably shot 8X10” plate negatives for portraits and half plates - 4X5" for the postcards. Still, it must have been close and meticulous work. He left his posh childhood home in Columbus, Ohio, to be an artist, and by gum, he was going to be an artist! I cannot believe those chemicals were good for him. Like many people associated with the Silent Era, he died tragically young at thirty-three of a stroke. His wife converted his studio into an art gallery, but tragedy struck, it is California, and it burnt down. Barely remembered today, luckily, his postcards for Sennett Studios were printed in such quantity and duplicated in cheap offset versions and cigarette cards that they are not hard to find.

These postcards were the clarion call of Keystone Studios. The internet in the early nineteen hundreds. The bathing beauties were as crucial to their early success as signing Chaplin. The cards are tame to a contemporary eye, but these were hot stuff in 1915 and skirted the federal laws concerning obscenity. (Some counties could still throw you in the hoosegow for them, but you wouldn't get five to ten in Leavenworth)) These were risqué and could be distributed nationally through the exact mechanism, and it brought in a small return as distributors would pay a fee for bundles of hundreds of cards. Eventually, stamps would be applied, and Sennett Keystone went global!

To place this in some context, New York City's Claremont Theater Building was built in 1915 as a movie theater, making it the first building constructed in that great metropolis specifically to show movies. So unique and new, Thomas Edison featured it in his 1915 film, On the Stroke of Twelve. The Claremont opened the door to and was the beginning of the movie palace and the competition by exhibitors to build bigger and better places to see a film. Today its grand neo-classical entranceway houses a combination pediatrician-street art gallery, only in New York. 

Mack Sennett may have had odd ideas about knees, but the cat knew funny. He met Staten Island's own, Mabel Normand, at Biograph in Brooklyn and convinced her to come to California, where he made her his muse. In California, Sennet had to share her with DW Griffith, but the sharing was over after he put her in a bathing suit and made her his co-star for 1912s The Water Nymph. Mabel would go on to quite a career, sharing the screen multiple times with Both Chaplin and Arbuckle. In a rare occurrence - even today, Mabel was able to make films that she both wrote and directed! 

Back to the bathing suits, The Water Nymph, also released as The Beach Flirt, set the stage for the Bathing Beauties to arrive in 1915. Mabel Normand claimed she was never a Bathing Beauty. On that point, we agree. We could argue that she was the first person to catch a pie in the kisser but that not once in the Water Nymph's total eight-minute running time do we get to ogle her knees! Mabel wears the complete bathing kit, a sleeveless dress, wool leggings, wool socks, and rubber bathing booties. The Water Nymph is a fluffy piece of candy with Mabel's girlish Joie de Vivre, the chewy center. 

Sennett appears to have had a hand in the design of the early women's bathing suit. He encouraged his designers to loosen up the structure and lose the leggings and rubber booties that were part of Mabel's suit. These modern (for 1915) girls didn't want to stand around in the water and float in their suits. These girls wanted to have fun. They want to swim, dance, play, and get into monkeyshines. To do that, they needed a new kind of bathing suit. These gals, in a few short years, would be called flappers. They want to wear a freer outfit designed for frolicking, and Mack Sennett gave it to them. 

Sennett started with just three girls, Evelyn Lynn, Cecile Evans, and Marie Provost. (That Evans is the one with the supposedly insured legs of the million-dollar value- I have no actual proof, but it's show biz!) Hundreds would follow, most of whose names are lost or completely forgotten. The talent scouts probably looked shady, offering random girls some money to pose for photographs in a revealing bathing suit. Those three took the bait. A handful of the bathing beauties had successful careers, and some married well because of their momentary notoriety. I say married well because it was a century ago, and as stated earlier, talent was not on the list of qualifications, and it was a different time. I also didn't want you to worry that they all met sad ends. 

Being a Bathing Beauty was both a curse and a boon. When Marie Provost signed to Universal, her boss, Irving Thalberg, sent her to Coney Island to burn her bathing suit to show the world that her knee-bearing days were over! Poor Marie, a gifted comedienne and a good-looker whose life and tragic death became a Hollywood cautionary tale and a song by Nick Lowe. 

Soon, every studio had its version of the Sennett Bathing Beauty. Christie Beauties, Sunshine Girls, Water Babies, etc. Bathing Beauty contests were popping up across the country, with Venice Beach hosting one of the most popular. Several stars of those heady, golden-age days came from the various bathing beauties, from Carol Lombard, Janet Gaynor, and Raquel Torres. Though she denied it to her dying day, that scamp Gloria Swanson spent time in a bathing suit working for Mack Sennett but was never an "official" bathing beauty.

Thanks to Mack Sennett, we got The Miss America competition that started as a "bathing beauty revue" in 1921. Though times change, the bathing suit element is no longer part of the competition. However, a scroll through Instagram to see the bathing suits on display would probably give poor Mr. Sennett a heart attack!

"Where are the knees!?!"

Now, let's talk about the unintended legacy. (The one that doesn't involve Harvey Weinstein) Or should I mention Megan Fox, Elisha Cuthbert, and Stacey Dash and leave it at that? Feast your eyes on the Beauties and enjoy!

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