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Meet Annette Kellermann: Star Athlete, Swimwear Pioneer, And Cinema's First Action Hero

The early-20th century superstar's biggest films may be lost, but her legacy won't ever be forgotten: See what critics said of her finest performances in this look back at her life and career.

by | November 20, 2020 | Comments

Annette Kellermann

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

It’s estimated that between 75 and 90 percent of films made before 1929 are either lost or only exist in incomplete form. As part of our RT Archives project, we are collecting contemporaneous reviews for those films – see a full list here and read what critics said about them at the time – and shining a spotlight on the stories and people behind them. Learn more about the RT Archives project here.

In the early 20th century, the name Annette Kellermann elicited an awe reserved for a select few. A screen siren in the most literal of terms, Kellermann (often credited as Kellerman, with a single “n”) was a swimmer-turned-actress who arguably stands now as a precursor for the kind of crossover success that has marked the careers of the likes of fellow former athletes Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indeed, like those two Hollywood stars, Kellermann’s physique was instrumental to her entry into and success in cinema, making her a pioneer of the jock film star that seems all too common today.

Kellermann was first seen on the big screen in short films like Miss Annette Kellerman (1909), where she showed off her swimming technique and her then-famous high dives. But it would be her work on feature films like Neptune’s Daughter (1914) and A Daughter of the Gods (1916), the first ever million dollar picture, that cemented her as a marquee name in the budding film industry. Only a few of Kellermann’s 30-odd film appearances survive to this day – both Neptune’s Daughter and A Daughter of the Gods have been lost – but they’re enough, along with her cultural impact as a health advocate, a one-piece swimsuit trailblazer, and an intrepid athlete, to have made her an indelible part of early film history.

Born in 1886 in Sydney, Australia to a pair of musicians (her father was a violinist, her mother a pianist), Kellermann needed to wear steel braces on her legs as a child. Likely due to polio, this is what first pushed her to take up swimming at age 6, as a way of strengthening her legs. By the time she was 13 she’d completely rehabilitated those future money-earners and by the time she was 16 she’d taken up swimming in earnest, winning meets and breaking records in New South Wales state championships.

Annette Kellermann

(Photo by Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images)

Kellermann soon became a sensation in Australia, alternating between participating in swimming and diving exhibitions as well as breaking more records during competitions. In 1905, she and her father moved to England where her long-distance swims earned her plenty of press; she was even sponsored by The Daily Mirror to attempt to swim the English Channel, a feat she’d try two more times in those years without ever being wholly successful. Moving away and eventually retiring from long-distance swimming, Kellermann set her eyes on more lucrative ventures that still made great use of her talents.

That’s how Kellermann ended up across the Atlantic. Oft-advertised as “The Perfect Woman” – posters for her appearances usually included measurements that showed her body metrics matched the Venus de Milo’s – Kellermann was a vaudeville sensation in the early 1910s. Her elaborate synchronized swimming performances attracted audiences in Chicago, Boston, New York, and eventually all over Europe and in her native Australia. 

It was during this time that Kellermann gained even more notoriety for an alleged 1907 arrest on a Boston beach. While contemporary women’s swimwear consisted of a rather bulky dress/pantaloon combination (often accompanied by long black stockings and bathing slippers), Kellermann had opted to wear a fitted one-piece costume that ended in shorts above her knees – the kind she wore during her exhibitions – which led to her being cited for indecency. 

Annette Kellerman

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

The incident, which remains disputed, nevertheless speaks to Kellermann’s advocacy against such strictures on women’s bodies. Advocating for sleeker swimsuits that were less restricting, she led the way toward relaxing Victorian-era norms on what was appropriate beachwear, eventually selling her own branded “Annette Kellermann Sun-Kist’ swimsuits” in U.S. stores from around 1914 to the late 1930s, all but making her name synonymous with the one-piece swimsuit we know today. 

A savvy entertainer keyed into a rapidly changing audience, Kellermann knew she had the wherewithal to diversify into other potentially lucrative endeavors. While her first foray on the stage (in the short-lived London production of Undine) in 1912 wasn’t a good fit, her eventual move into feature-length films soon turned her into a bona fide movie star. Her first feature film, Neptune’s Daughter, was produced by Carl Laemmle of Universal Film Producing Company; based on an idea pitched by Kellermann herself, the Captain Leslie T. Peacock-scripted and Herbert Brenon-directed adventure film followed a young mermaid intent on avenging her sister, who died when caught by fishermen’s nets. 

With a fantastical background and even a romantic subplot that echoed a certain Hans Christian Anderson folk tale, Neptune’s Daughter was crafted around Kellermann’s talents. Not only were her swimming and diving skills front and center in elaborate underwater set pieces, but that same “perfect body” that had lured vaudeville audiences to her shows was here yet again presented as a selling point. As Variety noted in its review of the film, men were likely to watch the film several times, “if only for the purpose of having another flash at the divine form of Kellermann, in this instance draped only by her hair, as the mystic power of the Witch’s shell transforms her from a mermaid into a regular girl.”

Annette Kellerman - Nude

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

Her second feature, A Daughter of the Gods – reportedly the first ever million-dollar film production – further established Kellermann as a performer whose sheer physicality could command the screen. Yet again playing a water-based creature, the Australian swimmer-turned-actress turned heads for what’s considered the very first nude scene by a major star. Still, critics at the time admired her acting as much as her physicality: “Miss Kellermann aside from her daring feats, acted with great skill and gave a most creditable impersonation,” Moving Picture World noted in its review of A Daughter of the Gods.

Kellermann’s creative input on these early productions, as well as later films like Queen of the Sea (1918), What Women Love (1920), and Venus of the South Seas (1924), put her in a league of equally influential film screen stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. The many death-defying stunts she performed – including jumping into pools with live crocodiles and diving from rocky cliffs, often shooting on location in Jamaica and Bermuda – established her as an action star whose showmanship and athleticism always went hand in hand. It’s no surprise to find that, decades later, another swimmer-turned-actress (MGM’s Esther Williams) would star in a musical biopic on her life in 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid

Kellermann was a legend in her own time, a true pioneer who managed to make a name for herself with her body but never let herself be reduced to it. While most of her films have been lost, her extraordinary stunts surviving only in film reviews and printed features, she remains a pivotal figure in early cinema that deserves to be better known and appreciated. 

What Critics Said About Kellermann’s Lost Films When They Were Released: “A revelation”

Neptune's Daughter

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

“In several of the scenes Miss Kellerman, in white, close-fitting tights, gives entertaining exhibitions of swimming and diving, her graceful form standing out against the brushwood like a marble statue as she poses before she dives.” – The Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

“[Kellerman] proves herself an accomplished actress, a mistress of the terpsichorean art, and an expert swordswoman, well worthy to be wooed and won by the King of the country she lands in.” – The Age (Melbourne) 

“There is one scene that particularly will live in the memory. Annette, a mortal, feels the lure of the water. Behind a bush in the forest she discards her peasant dress. Out darts a white-tighted figure. From a vegetation-faced cliff over an inland bit of still water Annette performs the evolutions that have thrilled her audiences in settings far different.” – George Blaisdell, Moving Picture World 

“Miss Kellerman, in a recent interview, said she did not wish to go in for swimming and diving any longer. She wanted a play in which she could have a dramatic part so she might be judged for her histrionic merits. In this production she has proven her right to such consideration.” – A. Danson Michell, Motion Picture News

“The usual spectacular dives Miss Kellermann has become famed for are performed during the picture, and she gives visual evidence also of her remarkable ability to swim and of endurance, always in the water with a fish-tail (as a mermaid) that prevents the employment of her feet for assistance, swimming only with her hands. As a picture actress, Miss Kellerman is a revelation.” – Variety

A Daughter of the Gods

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

“Some admirable light and shade effects are revealed in the photographed scenery during the progress of the story, which has been ingenious ly developed and produced, and the performance throughout of Miss Kellermann as the child of the seas is as skillful as it is graceful and refined.” – The Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

“Miss Kellermann aside from her daring feats, acted with great skill and gave a most creditable impersonation.” – Moving Picture World

“Herbert Brenon placed his confidence in the appeal of the mass scene and Miss Kellermann’s physical charm and skill in diving and swimming to carry the fanciful story along to success. His confidence, it would seem, was well placed.” – Motography

“The beautiful figure of Annette Kellermann and her matchless skill as an amphibienne are made the most of in “A Daughter of the Gods,” the elaborate, spectacular and somewhat monotonous photofable which was unfolded for the first time last evening at the Lyric Theatre.” – The New York Times

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