Archive for Harry Langdon

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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With the National Hobo Convention in play this weekend, it seemed a good time to revisit the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: the two men meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York.

Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver, and several silent comedy hands and vaudevillians in smaller roles and walk-ons. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend (Madge Evans). She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformational experience that would have made it a better-known classic. It seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to.k The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hobos and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step.

Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

For more on many of the stars in this film see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War One. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:

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The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

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As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

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Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 

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A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!

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The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.

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Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.

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A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.

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Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy’s second feature for Hal Roach, is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

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Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.

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The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Elsie Ames: Trying

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Elsie Ames (1902-1983).

Comedy is a matter of taste, of course. I’ve never encountered any comedian (no matter how popular or great) that I didn’t know someone who didn’t like them. By contrast, I’ve never met anyone who liked Elsie Ames or didn’t think she was terrible. People throw that word around “bad” so often and it’s often unjust. But, no, onscreen at least Elsie Ames was at a Cherry Sisters level of bad.

She began in a vaudeville act with her husband Nicholas “Arno” Casa called Ames and Arno. The act’s first appearance on film was a dance specialty in the 1937 Paramount short Double or Nothing. 

In 1940 Jules White began casting her in comedy shorts at Columbia, appearing opposite Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and El Brendel. And this is what she is known for. She had an unfortunate habit of upstaging whatever comedian she appeared with, which might be forgivable if she brought anything to the table. If she had actually been funny and talented, we might not have minded, for Keaton and Langdon in particular are in steep decline in these years, not just off their game but painful, and El Brendel himself was bad, so we would go so far as to say that we would have been grateful for a funny scene stolen by Ames. (Think of Virginia O’Brien, whom I think is the best thing about the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store). But, no, although she’s trying mighty hard. She’s loud, screechy, unpleasant, clumsy, ungraceful, and she can’t act. Did I leave anything out? Yet for some reason for a brief moment Jules White seemed to be nourishing her at the expense of comedians we have some investment in and actually care about. In What Makes Lizzy Dizzy? she’s actually the star.

Audiences of the time must have agreed with me. By 1942, just two years into the experiment, White had dropped her. She went back to live appearances with Arno, and the two did their dance specialty in two more films, Fun Time (1944), and Rhythm Inn (1951), and they also appeared in Houdini (1953). 20 years later, John Cassavetes gave her the best screen roles of her career in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Alice Day: Graduated Bathing Girl

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Alice Day (Jaquiline Alice Newman, 1905-1995).

While not as well known as her younger sister Marceline Day, Alice Day did make a mark of her own. She began her career as a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in 1924, and appeared in several comedies with the likes of  Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Ralph Graves, Eddie Quillan, and others. She has a pretty good role in Langdon’s His New Mamma as The Heiress:

By 1927, she had moved up to features and in 1928 she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. She was still a star in the earliest days of talkies, appearing in musicals like Is Everybody Happy? with Ted Lewis, George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones, and The Show of Shows (all 1929). By 1932 she was down to B movie westerns and she got out of the business.

Here’s one of her last: Two Fisted Law, with John Wayne and Tim McCoy:

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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Harry Langdon in “Heart Trouble”

Posted in Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2014 by travsd

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Harry Langdon comedy feature Heart Trouble (1928) was released on this date.

Heart Trouble is one of the great lost silent films — no surviving copy of it is known to exist. This is particularly a shame because contemporary reviews indicate that with Heart Trouble Langdon was rebounding after a two-movie slump at the box office, and might have continued to do so had not the advent of talkies further discouraged First National from renewing his contract. The film revolved around his rejection from service in WWI and subsequent heroism in foiling a ring of spies.

To learn more about comedy film history, including Harry Langdon’s Heart Trouble please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Harry Langdon in “The Strong Man”

Posted in Circus, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 19, 2014 by travsd

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Harry Langdon‘s comedy The Strong Man (1926), the very first feature film directed by Frank Capra, was released on this date.

In The Strong Man, baby man Langdon plays a returning World War I vet who is now touring with a medicine show as an assistant to the titular body builder (whose name Zandow, is an obvious play on Sandow). All the while, he is searching for the girl he had fallen in love with long distance via their wartime correspondence. The task is complicated by the fact that he has never met the girl in person. For awhile, he is led on by a vamp who pretends to be the girl; he eventually wises up. When he finally does meet the true object of his affections, she proves to be the blind daughter of the town minister. If that sounds Chaplinesque, remember that City Lights wasn’t until five years later.

At any rate, the mixture of touching elements with Langdon’s typical grab-bag of unusual gags prompted the critics of the time to laud the film as Chaplinesque as well. It was voted one of the ten best of the year in the annual Film Critics Poll, and the box office was even greater than that of the first film. I reiterate—this was Capra’s very first directorial effort.

To learn more about comedy film history including Harry Langdon’s The Strong Man, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

 

On Mack Sennett, His Bathing Girls, and Miss America

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , on September 14, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight is the crowning of Miss America 2015, 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.

1921 Miss America Contestants

1921 Miss America Contestants

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.

Burlesque chorus ca. 1907

Burlesque chorus ca. 1907

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.

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with Billy Bevan

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.

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The 1924 Harry Langdon short “Picking Peaches” has him judging the Sennett Bathing Girls in a beauty pageant

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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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