Basement Beauties:
Mack Sennett's Early 20th Century Swimsuit Sirens

UCR/CMP Underground Gallery, March through Summer 2002

Basement Beauties is a showcase of early 20th Century swimsuit models. These digitized photographs are reproductions selected from a gift of Donavan Roberts. The portfolio includes dozens of Mack Sennett photographs featuring Hollywood actors and starlets, ca. 1915.

Mack Sennett popularized slapstick escapades on movie film. His Keystone films (1912-1933) were short action-packed comedies that featured wide-eyed Keystone Cops chasing the bad guys, frequent tossing of custard cream pies, and scenes with scantily clad barelegged women (the Sennett bathing beauties).

These comedies were popular for more than physical humor and fast action. The allure of bathing beauties attracted large numbers into theatres. The Temperance Movement considered the exploitation of under-dressed women too risqué for the general population. However, in Sennett films, frequent exhibition of "forbidden fruit" and moderately erotic antics were commonplace. The Sennett Studio received hundreds of letters protesting his exploitation of women but high art and moral correctness were not his goals.

Acting roles were loosely scripted and improvisation was encouraged. Bathing beauties were to look lovely, cultivate sex appeal, and steal the scene. Bathing beauties were poised in suggestive stances, strutting, dancing, flapping, swimming, or hamming it up in front of the camera. Some of Sennett's bathing beauties gained notice as leading ladies: Gloria Swanson, Carol Lombard, and the original bathing beauty, Mabel Normand (premiering in The Water Nymph, Keystone-Mutual, 1912).

The test of time has removed the varnish of eroticism and controversy surrounding Sennett's beauties. Today the audience is free to view Basement Beauties as an innocent display of playful young women dressed in eccentric yet wonderful bathing suits.

Basement Beauties: Context within a Brief Historical Timeline

1900 1.3 millon Americans owned telephones.
1900 L. Frank Baum publishes "The Wizard of Oz."
1903 Wright Brothers first flight.
1906 Upton Sinclair publishes "The Jungle."
1907 Plastic invented.
1908 Henry Ford introduces the first automobile.
1908 Moviemaker Mack Sennett, begins working for D. W. Griffith at the Biograph Company.
1911 Edith Wharton publishes "Ethan Frome."
1912 The Temperance and Prohibition Movement was in full swing.
1912 Sinking of the Titanic.
1912 Mack Sennett, the sultan of slapstick and comic films organizes the Keystone Company.
1913 Ford's brand new moving assembly line cranks out Model Ts like no other manufacturer in the world.
1914 President Woodrow Wilson pledged America's impartiality with his Declaration of Neutrality.
1916 Edgar Price Burroughs publishes "Tarzan of the Apes."