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.
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.”
Tom Thacker, a collector and researcher specializing in photos by the silent era photographer Nelson Evans, just turned up a marvelous portrait of Sybil Seely (often considered by Buster Keaton fans to be his finest leading lady)! How fantastic is that?!
If you’re ever having an earnest discussion about silent comedy (and who wouldn’t), there are a few topics that will often bring out a smile: fake mustaches, cream pies, satirical twirling of said fake mustaches, the Ton of Fun. And there’s one topic that always seems to make people smile: Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties.
Once considered mildly risqué, but now considered surprisingly innocent, the playful, perky, mischievous girls popped up in Sennett’s comedies time and time again. Admittedly the plots would sometimes screech to a halt just for them, but at least half of the theater audiences were too appreciative to mind. Continue reading →
This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of The Keaton Chronicle, a quarterly publication of the International Buster Keaton Society.I am beyond pleased to be presenting it here on Silent-ology, with a couple bonus photos and clippings too!
If you ask Buster Keaton fans to name their favorite leading lady, chances are they’ll respond right away with “Sybil Seely.” Charming, natural and gracefully spirited, the brunette ingénue appeared in only five shorts with Buster but has been leaving a fresh impression on viewers ever since.
Even with all the praise, little has been known about Sybil. Who was this young woman who just happened to enhance some of the greatest short comedies of all time? Continue reading →