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