Tonight is the crowning of this year’s Miss America , a fitting time to look into a fascinating detail I came across in Brent Walker’s indispensable reference work Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, which says, “In 1921, Mack Sennett would have a hand in the creation of the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City”, and it also tells us that Sennett, along with Flo Ziegfeld, were judges of the 1924 contest.
Now, the “how” and the “to what extent” remain murky to me, but the answer as to “why?”, i.e. “Why Sennett?” is clear as day. Chiefly remembered today for the violence of his slapstick comedy, people are less apt to note Sennett’s historic role in bringing sex, too, into the equation. I wrote at length in Chain of Fools about Sennett’s transplantation of racy French farce into American film comedy. But another strong influence in his work was burlesque. Sennett had worked at least a couple of seasons in burlesque in New York between the years 1902 and 1908. Burlesque at this time was closer to what we think of as a “revue”, the girl element consisting of a chorus line of cuties performing cheeky song and dance numbers; stripping wouldn’t commonly be part of the equation for decades.
Girls in bathing suits is an idea Sennett took with him from the stage into films. Mabel Normand’s first film for Sennett in 1911 was The Diving Girl. In 1912 would follow The Water Nymph. Gratuitous cavorting in swimgear became such a staple of Keystone and Sennett comedies that by A Bedroom Blunder (1917), there was an entire chorus of them, and they were branded the Sennett Bathing Girls (sometimes known by other names). Their insertion into any comedy was always hilariously gratuitous: a busload of the girls might spill out onto the beach where they would liven up a Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon or Billy Bevan short by stretching, jiggling and preening while playing with an inflatable beach ball.
Much like the Keystone Kops, the membership in this troupe was fluid and constantly shifting. Members in this elite sorority at various times included Carole Lombard, Marie Prevost, Phyllis Haver, Madeline Hurlock, Anita Garvin, Kathryn McGuire, Sybil Seely, and Virginia Fox. By the late 20s, they were becoming the main attraction in many Sennett comedies. Sennett’s studio didn’t last very long into the sound era, but even if it had, the advent of stronger enforcement of the Production Code after 1934 would have made a continuation of the Bathing Girls unlikely. But…I do note that the Miss America pageant continues to have a little thing called a SWIMSUIT COMPETITION.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.