Mack Sennnet and the Bathing Beauties

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Photograph from the John K. McLaughlin Collection, Jimmy Starr series

Mack Sennett was a Canadian-born American director and actor and was known as the innovator of slapstick comedy in film. His topsy-turvy  world of cross-eyed rubes, bearded villains, bathing beauties and bumbling cops falling off cliffs, out of buildings, and throwing custard pies was an unexpected creation of a man who grew up wanting to be an opera star. Sennett’s brand of slapstick humor proved to be highly popular with audiences and helped him become one of the most powerful men of early Hollywood.

In 1917, Sennett assembled a bevy of women known as the Sennett Bathing Beauties to appear in (then) provocative bathing costumes in comedy short subjects, in promotional material, in arcade cards and postcards, and in promotional events like Venice Beach beauty contests. The girls were even taken on a national tour promoting Sennett’s Yankee Doodle in Berlin, which included dropping  150,000 miniature Bathing Beauties photos from an airplane over Times Square, and were immortalized in song, via Ray Perkins’s 1919 “Help! Help! Mr Sennett (I’m Drowning in a Sea of Love).”

Brent Walker wrote in his Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: “Their fun-loving, carefree antics in scanty bathing suits tweaked the noses of those viewers not prepared to dive headlong into the hedonistic Roaring Twenties just around the corner.” Sennett’s films often set aside chunks of running time just for shots of the antics of the beauties, regardless of how well the shots served the plot.

n 1927, Sennett was growing tired of promoting the Bathing Beauties. They had become a bit over-familiar and had started losing some of their “naughtiness,” since smaller swimsuits were becoming commonplace. By 1928 they had been phased out of Sennett’s films.

To see more images of the bathing beauties, visit Special Collections located on the second floor of the Bartle Library (off of the North Reading Room).

Mack Sennett films can also be seen in the Kanopy Streaming Videos database.