Depending on how you measure it and whom you believe, July 2015 may mark the centennial anniversary of that aesthetic troupe of nymphets known as the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, a gaggle of swim-suited sirens whom Sennett employed in his films and in his promotional materials and live events.
The date comes from a couple of places. An essay called “Splashes of Fun and Beauty: Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties” by Hilda Haeyere, in Rob King and Tom Paulus’s 1970 book Slapstick Comedy gives that date. And Simon Louvish’s Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett has a quote from director Eddie Cline saying they were featured in a Louise Fazenda from around that time. But Louvish is quick to adjust that, saying that the formation of Keystone-Triangle (one of the many corporation iterations of Sennett’s production company) in 1917 would be the more proper time frame. And Brent Walker, author of Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory says, “Bathing girls (mostly LA Athletic Club swimmers and divers such as Ivy Crosthwaite and Aileen Allen) started showing up in 1915 Mutual films. But it was the series of Woodley Specials that Eddie Cline made in 1917 that seemed to cement the Sennett bathing girls as a “thing,” who were then featured in postcards during the Paramount era circa 1918-19.”
Further, a swim-suited Mabel Normand’s first film for Sennett in 1911 was The Diving Girl. In 1912 would follow The Water Nymph. And the idea seems to have kept evolving, developing, picking up steam. Thus, July 1915 doesn’t feel particularly special or significant, although it is the date you will find on Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the internet, and we don’t want to appear to have been caught napping.
The idea for a cinematic troupe of “Bathing Girls” or “Bathing Beauties” was really just a refinement of stuff that was in the air. One strong influence in Sennett’s 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.
And then there was the example of professional swimmer Annette Kellerman, popularizer of the the lady’s one piece swimsuit, who’d become a vaudeville and film star starting around 1907. And let us not forget Broadway’s most famous chorus line, the Ziegfeld Girls, a staple of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies since its formation in 1908 (later much imitated by a whole slate of other Broadway revues).
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. (Gloria Swanson, though she worked for Sennett, was never one of the Bathing Girls, and she was distressed to ever hear anyone say she was, although people continue to, right down to the present day).
By the late 20s, the Bathing Girls 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. (Sam Goldwyn’s “Goldwyn Girls”, such a staple of Eddie Cantor pictures, seem to vanish around that time). At any rate, in the ensuing decades it eventually became the case that nearly EVERY woman was wearing what previously would have been considered a scandalous bathing suit — no need for “Bathing Beauties” to be a thing. America was now a Universal Bathing Girl Nation.
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.