Was Gloria Swanson Really A Sennett Bathing Beauty?

Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson–whose name is basically synonymous with “glamour”–had an endearingly humble start in the 1910s as a star in Mack Sennett shorts. The petite actress was paired with the equally petite Bobby Vernon in a number of successful films like The Danger Girl (1917) and Teddy at the Throttle (also 1917)–and yes, they sometimes shared top billing with Teddy the Sennett Dog.

File:Bobby Vernon, Teddy the Dog, and Gloria Swanson - Talking Screen,  September 1930.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Teddy in the center, his rightful place.

Pretty different territory from the tuxes-and-ballgowns dramas Gloria later made with Cecil B. DeMille! Yes, as you’ve no doubt heard, the actress that would one day earn millions and pose in furs and jewels got her start as a frolicking Bathing Beauty in slapstick films, running around the beach in various striped, ruffly, puffy (or all of the above) bathing suits. Oh, Hollywood history–the gift that keeps on giving.

Ah, but is that bit of Hollywood history really accurate? Gloria herself would always insist that she was never actually a Sennett Bathing Beauty–and stuck to her story like glue, too. (I believe the phrase “vehemently denied” has also been tossed around.) She once said, somewhat dramatically: “I was never a Sennett bathing beauty. Those glossies that sometimes turn up were pulicity stills that I unfortunately made as a favor when I had a free hour. And I’ve paid for it all of my life.”

How she probably looked when she said that.

“But of course she was a Bathing Beauty,” you say, stifling a laugh. “I’ve got your photo of a bathing suit-wearing Gloria right here! Behold.”

“And here’s another one!”

Well, she doesn’t look sad about being a Beauty.

“Check this one out:”

This also happens to be one of my favorite photos, period.

“And heck, here’s a whole series she took with Marie Prevost–who we know was a Bathing Beauty:”

“So nice try, Gloria,” you say. “She obviously was a Sennett Bathing Beauty, at least in the beginning. Case closed!”

Ah, but what if I were to tell you that the case isn’t closed? And that despite decades of casual references to Gloria’s “Bathing Beauty days,” and even in the face of such overwhelming evidence as her youthful Sennett-employed self photographed in bathing gear, it looks like Gloria was actually right.

First we need to establish who the Bathing Beauties were, precisely. They were pretty young extras who increasingly started turning up in bathing suits in Sennett’s mid- to late-1910s comedies. In time, whole groups of girls in bathing suits were turning up, the logic being that if one pretty girl in a bathing suit could boost a film’s popularity, a whole fleet of them would be box office gold (similar reasoning went into the comic factor of the Keystone Kops).

Splashes of Fun and Beauty”–Sennett's Famous Bathing Beauties | Silent-ology
One of the most famous Beauties group photos.

Their scenes frequently showed them playing sports or otherwise frolicking on the beach, often as a sidebar to the main action. Sometimes they laughingly assisted the main characters with whatever antics they were up to, like a flock of mischievous sprites. Being technically extras, they weren’t given screen credit–the closest might be a title card announcing “The Sennett Bathing Beauties.” Actresses playing the Beauties had other roles, too, turning up as party guests, Grecian dancers, customers, wedding attendees, and the like in Sennett’s many comedies. Some Beauties went on to larger roles and even stardom (Phyllis Haver and Marie Prevost being prime examples), while others seemed content with working as extras. (If you like, feel free to read my whole entire post about the Bathing Beauties right here.)

Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties scene Photograph by Sad Hill - Bizarre Los  Angeles Archive
Increasing the box office revenue.

When Gloria arrived at the Sennett studio in 1916, she was one of the main players right off the bat, starting with her first appearance as “the Girl” in A Dash of Courage, costarring Harry Gribbon and Bobby Vernon. Film #2 was Hearts and Sparks, where she again costarred with Vernon with Hank Mann playing the heavy. She and Vernon would be the main stars of her third Sennett film, A Social Cub, marking the beginning of their onscreen partnership. You’ll notice that none of Swanson’s early Sennett roles involve the word “extra”!

File:Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, and Bathing Beauties - A Pictorial  History of the Silent Screen.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Bobby, Gloria, and some Beauties in The Danger Girl.

“Okay, so Swanson always worked for Sennett as a featured player. But what about those photos?” you say, now thoroughly confused.

Here’s how they came to be: In 1917 Sennett parted ways with the Triangle Distributing Corporation and decided not to renew some actors’ contracts. Bobby Vernon was one of them, sadly, but Sennett did keep on Gloria–and immediately stuck her in a very slapstick-heavy two-reeler called The Pullman Bride (1917). Costarring Mack Swain and Chester Conklin in all their pancake-makeup-and-crepe-mustache glory, it had a goofier feel than the lighter comic romances Gloria made with Bobby. Gloria plays a girl whose mother pushes her into a marriage with a “millionaire” (Swain) who turns out to be a waiter. The hapless couple runs into Gloria’s real love (Conklin) on a train–hence the “Pullman” part of the title. The film featured some scenes on a beach, which presented the studio with a perfect opportunity to take publicity photos of a suited-up Gloria.

Starting with the lobby card, presumably (yes, that’s her bathing suit).

Milking this opportunity for all it was worth, they also had her pose in a few photos with Marie Prevost and at least one with Phyllis Haver, perhaps so some extra cheesecake could get passed around. These shots have caused some confusion about Gloria’s Bathing Beauty denials–IMDb even has them connected to a nonexistent 1916 film called Sunshine (maybe some signals were crossed and someone confused the Sennett players with Fox’s Sunshine Girls?). But they were certainly taken for The Pullman Bride–that’s the same bathing suit Gloria wore in the photos with Swain and Conklin, she just removed her stockings and the patterned headwrap…kerchief…thingie! Just for comparison:

Gloria left Sennett after The Pullman Bride, not too thrilled with the turn her comedic career was taking. So as you can see, she was always a featured player at Sennett, never a bona fide Bathing Beauty, bathing suit photo shoot or no. Even stars like Mabel Normand and Louise Fazenda appeared in bathing suits while at Sennett, and they were never considered Bathing Beauties, either.

Silence is Platinum: Miss Louise Fazenda
Louise being a good sport.

Now, why would I want to write a whole post on a rather minor bit of trivia? It may be minor, but it’s also a great example of what historians mean when they talk about “studying subjects in depth” and “examining the historical context.” A shallow study of history would be: looking at the pictures of Gloria in a bathing suit; seeing they were from a Sennett film; thinking “hey, Sennett had Bathing Beauties, ergo Gloria in a swimsuit in a Sennett picture obviously equals Bathing Beauty. Doi!” Ah, but as we’ve seen, assumptions are one thing…!

Film history is absolutely riddled with these little details. If you like learning about cinema, it’s easy to focus on big-picture myths such as silent actors being “destroyed” by the talkies (not so much, especially since so many were stage-trained), or the acting in silent films being uniformly hammy (here and there, but not all the time!). But it’s the untangling of all these little pieces of historical inaccuracies that really leads to a clearer, richer understanding of the big picture in the first place.

So yes, Gloria, you can rest easy–it looks like you were right all along!

Gloria Swanson, Ca. Early 1940s Photograph by Everett
Looks pretty satisfied to me!

Just for fun, here’s Gloria later in life playing with the whole “former Sennett actress” image, maybe for a party of some sort (this is not muddying the waters, mmkay).

Picture 145

And, of course, she gamely played a Bathing Beauty for a little scene in Sunset Boulevard. Can’t say she didn’t have a sense of humor about herself!

23 thoughts on “Was Gloria Swanson Really A Sennett Bathing Beauty?

  1. Wow! Thanks for untangling that one for me! I had no idea I was completely and utterly in error! 😁
    Can we just take a minute and appreciate Gloria’s footwear in those non-Bathing Beauty photos though? Every time I see those pictures I get obsessed with them all over again. Are they regular shoes or some sort of swimming shoes?
    I need them, whatever they are. 😁

  2. Just to muddy the waters a bit, Gloria was being referred to as a bathing beauty as early as 1918, right after she left Sennett. And one of the people who called her a bathing beauty was Gloria herself. I’ve been researching the beginnings of the Beauties for a book project and that is one of many interesting things I come across.

    • Interesting about Gloria herself stating it, Tom! But perhaps not too surprising, she was probably less fussy about that kind of thing before she was a big box office star. (Good luck on your book project, by the way!)

      • I wonder if the story started with her publicist at the time. Perhaps a narrative that Gloria was pulled from the chorus line, so to speak, and is now starring in big Demille pictures was felt to be more interesting than a feature player taking the next logical step in her career. BTW, I took a deep dive into this last night and discovered that, although it had been around for a few years, the Gloria/bathing beauty story really took off in 1921.

        • That makes sense, people have always loved “rags to riches” stories and back when cinema was young, there was a lot of them!

  3. Yes, truth and accuracy matter. 🙂 Thanks for setting the record straight! Gloria and Mack Swain and Chester Conklin—now that’s an odd combo. 😀

  4. Interesting story, well researched! If I’m honest though I never found Swanson even the tiniest bit attractive let alone a beauty, especially when you consider who her peers were at that time. :-/

    Can’t say I’ve seen enough to judge her as an actress either as the only film I’ve seen is Sunset Boulevard and she was admittedly great in that.

  5. Thank you for this very interesting post. We should indeed sometimes leave the well-known things apart to concentrate on “unknown” topics. (and many other fields than film too)
    Indeed Gloria Swanson was probably not a – or not a common – ´bathing beauty”. She had quite different experiences as actress in so different films: from Sennett to Cecil B De Mille, six films with Rudolph Valentino. Her filmography shows very different kind of film and leaving her in a – being right or wrong- category would be a mistake.
    From her I love contradiction: as staid in an earlier comment, she defined herself a bathing beauty before telling she had never been; or (maybe more famous) she produced and was actress of a film from Von Stroheim (Queen Kelly) in which there have been many problems on the set, not only between Von Stroheim and her (they indeed did not complete the film) but they played together in Sunset Boulevard some 20 years later and were very happy to work together in Wilder’s film.

    • I like that about her, too. She was protective of her glamorous image but seemed to have a sense of humor about herself, too–an interesting combination. I get kick out of some of her quotes, too: “If you’re 40 years old and you’ve never had a failure, you’ve been deprived.” “I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.” And this one, which has aged spectacularly well: “All creative people should be required to leave California for three months every year.” 😀 😉

  6. Out of all periods of cinematic history, the silent era is so full of long-standing mistruths and rumors that we NEED to examine them closely. While some authors go too far with the “aha! look at this lying actor” schtick (Charles Affron’s cynical Lillian Gish biography comes to mind), re-examining long-held assumptions only serves to enrich our understanding of this vital and creative period for film.

    Thanks for this post! I’m glad Gloria has been vindicated.

    • You’re welcome! I’m right there with you about Affron’s biography. It seems like he became obsessed with figuring out fact from fiction, to the point where Lillian maybe generalizing about things, or glossing over others, was all evidence of INEXCUSABLE LIES!!1 …Because no one’s ever generalized or focused more on upsides before, lol.

      • What really killed me was his suggestion that her passionate defense of Griffith was self-serving– that because her legacy was so tied up with his, that must have been why she championed him throughout her life (we’ll ignore that she had triumphs with other directors, like THE WIND and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER). And I’m like– he was her mentor? The guy who made her famous? It doesn’t have to be 100% self-serving, dude. I am by no means a Griffith acolyte (and I think Gish did her best work for other filmmakers) but it just seemed so, so cynical.

        • I don’t know how you could watch the battle scenes from INTOLERANCE and conclude that Lillian was just trying to make him seem more skilled than he was, lol.

  7. It’s difficult to sift the truth from the fiction published about Hollywood. Most writers and biographers don’t do original research and instead parrot their predecessors statements. Lies big and small are repeated so often they become accepted as true. (Original research is the antidote to propaganda, and not just in film history but in our daily lives, where knowing the truth really matters.)

    Wasn’t aware that the Sennett Bathing Beauties were extras. Did the 1917 public know this? Was being a BB/extra shameful? Am a bit puzzled as to why Swanson would ‘vehemently deny’ being a BB later. That she appeared in Sennett films didn’t prevent DeMille from hiring her in 1919 and making her an undisputed star.

    The ups and downs of fame interest me. Swanson divorced Wallace Beery – a supporting actor in silents – who unexpectedly became a mega star at MGM in talkies while Swanson’s star dimmed and she faded away until ‘Sunset Blvd’ – also on my top 10 list of great films – restored her star status while Beery never starred in anybody’s top 10 ten list.

    The photo from ‘Pullman Bride’ of Swanson and Swain shows Chester Conklin in the background. Due to one of your posts about the SFSFF, I watched on youtube the 1927 Pola Negri film ‘Woman of the World.’ It costarred Conklin, who was terrific. And Negri – supposedly Swanson’s studio rival – is FABULOUS. This film has now moved onto my top 10 list. While Negri’s comedy lacks the greatness of Swanson’s ‘Sunset Blvd,’ it’s superior to any film Swanson made in the 20s.

    • Ah, that brings me back to that particular screening–Pola was a big hit with the SFSFF crowd!

      I think the public was aware that Bathing Beauties were basically “extras +,” since many of the girls weren’t identified by name. They were still iconic, however, which might be why Gloria didn’t mind being associated with them at first, but didn’t care for it anymore later on.

    • P.s. I love this: “Original research is the antidote to propaganda, and not just in film history but in our daily lives, where knowing the truth really matters.” So.True.

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