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Topical Budget 780-2: Girl of 19 Conquers Channel (1926)


Main image of Topical Budget 780-2: Girl of 19 Conquers Channel (1926)
35mm, black and white, silent, 43 feet
Production CompanyTopical Film Company

Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim the Channel.

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Screened on 8 August 1926, just two days after the feat, this Topical Budget item chronicles the achievement of the first woman (and only the sixth human being) to successfully swim the English Channel, setting a record of fourteen and a half hours that would stand for the next 24 years.

The title notwithstanding, American swimmer Gertrude Ederle was actually two months short of her twenty-first birthday when she set out from Cap Gris-Nez in France at 7.05am on 6 August. It was her second attempt, the first carried out the previous year when she was disqualified after a coughing fit caused her trainer to intervene. This was briefly alluded to in Topical Budget's 'Drama of Channel Swim' (729-1, 13/8/1925), though they were then unable to secure any footage of Ederle herself.

Born in Manhattan on 23 October 1905 (many sources give the following year, hence the miscalculation of her age), her Germanic name was the result of her immigrant ancestry. She began to break swimming records from her early teens. She won gold and bronze medals at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris (the same ones immortalised by the film Chariots of Fire in 1981), and the following year successfully swam the 21-mile crossing from Manhattan to Sandy Hook.

By the time she made her second attempt at the English Channel, she had attracted a huge amount of sponsorship and media attention, including an exclusive deal with the New York Daily News. As a result, there's little footage of Ederle actually swimming in Topical Budget's account, and no evidence that this is from the Channel attempt.

She returned to New York to a ticker-tape parade and predictions of stardom (and numerous marriage proposals, immortalised in the popular song 'Tell Me Trudy, Who Is Going To Be The Lucky One?'), and for a time earned $2000 a week, a fortune at the time. However, poor management and a fragile temperament meant that she failed to capitalise on many media opportunities. She was also becoming increasingly prone to hearing problems, a side-effect of childhood measles exacerbated by her favourite sport, and was almost totally deaf by 1940. She spent the rest of her life teaching deaf children to swim, and died on 30 November 2003 at the age of ninety-eight.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Complete item (0:43)
Topical Budget 729-1: Drama of Channel Swim (1925)
Topical Budget 924-1: Cycling the Channel (1929)