Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

 

 

 

 

Mack’s Beauties

by

Delores Hanney

 

Put them in bathing suits and just

have them around to be looked at

as the comics are making funny

                        Mack Sennett

 

They were a platoon of picturesque piffle. Eye magnets woven in amongst comedian clods doing the real work of forwarding plots – such as they were – with goofy gratuitous violence, pratfalls and general silliness. Mack Sennett was the king of silly, evidenced by his letting loose on the world the likes of the Keystone Cops. In 1912, he came to Los Angeles to make pioneering silent screen comedies, an undertaking of gut-splitting success.  He was also a promoter of awesome acuity. 

 

It was 1914. Sennett was lolling about, as was his practice, soaking in his bathtub at the center of his office at the Keystone Studios and reading the newspaper. There on the front page was a three-column picture of a fine little female that had been mildly injured in an automobile altercation. What struck him like a meteor in a moment of analytical brilliance was the awareness that “the picture [and the article it illustrated] made the front page for two obvious and attractive reasons. The young lady’s knees were showing.” This epiphany instantly sparked the birth of the Bathing Beauties.

 

Togged out in fluffy beach foo-foo, the novel swarm of knee-nudists sprung from a bottom-line motivation as a ploy to garner free publicity. It worked. News editors were on it, gleeful as chickens with a bug for breakfast: for publicity stills were where the Beauties first appeared. The images were cunningly shot in such a way that the comics could not be excised from the pictures, leaving enticing entanglements of beauties and bozos. With these intact versions, newspapers endowed Sennett’s films with more press geography than the whole herd of other Hollywood studios put together.

 

In a happy coincidence, Nelson Evans came to Keystone in the role of free-lance

photographer that very same year becoming a favorite photo-taker of the breezy beauties. He was young and his work was fresh and original, further bolstered into the freshness stratosphere by Sennett’s need for a brand new cheescakey style wrapped around the little legion of his tasty bathing babes. The confluence of Evans’ art and the lasses’ deliciously concupiscent allure brought them a certain racy acclaim. Soonly, they took their place in the movies themselves: swell eye-candy to decorate the improbable stories of bumbling and rollicking and unruly oafs in manic mode.

 

Slapstick maven Mabel Normand is sometimes mistaken for the first of the Bathing Beauties. The confusion arises from her 1912 title role in The Water Nymph, costuming for which included black tights topped by a black leotardy number. Gloria Swanson, by contrast, insisted that she was not a Bathing Beauty yet that’s exactly why Sennett hired her. Talent and beauty swiftly propelled her out the Keystone door and onto more dramatic things with flamboyant producer/director Cecil B. DeMille.

 

Bathing Beauties came and they went but between 1915 and 1928 the collective roster was composed of hundreds. Careers of only a few ever excelled beyond the rank of cupcake, notably Marie Prevost, Phyllis Haver and Carole Lombard. Of course, other studios stepped up smartly to annex the construct in order to publicize their own silent comedies.  

 

Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties loomed large on the Venice landscape! Constant as gravity, individually or in flocks, they frolicked and splashed along the seashore while Evans or some other camera jockey made pazillions of pictures of them. There is still a plentitude of the images readily available right now, close to a century later. On eBay alone, a hundred and three of them are offered today, in the form of postcards, arcade cards and eight-by-ten photos. During World War I, some of these remnants of yesteryear might actually have served as emblems of encouragement to soldiers who took them to heart as their prime pin-up preference.

 

At the same time Venice, California, was also the milieu of choice for never ending parades of pretty stars, the occasional Bathing Beauty among them, moving along Ocean Front Walk aboard some conveyance or other, hyping a new film. The exercise made a lovely opportunity for bird watching, so to speak, attracting appreciative crowds made up mainly of men. The early 19-teens brought the inauguration of an annual summertime beauty contest in Venice. Sennett’s bathing girls took part initially in 1917, when they sucked up first place, second and third, as The Mack Sennett Weekly proudly proclaimed. The Keystone Studio publication was sent to distributors, theatre owners and trade magazines, the back page of it liberally festooned with pictures of his Bathing Beauties.

 

The beach sweeties brought a certain bling to Sennett’s comedies. But fact is, Mack’s Beauties might have been deployed with equal success to promote the attractions of Venice itself! 

 

(previously published in the Venice Historical Society’s Journal; volume 28; Summer 2014)