We begin with Shell Scott, a ‘hard-boiled’ California private eye who appeared from 1950 to 1987 in no fewer than 37 novels and four short story collections by Richard S. Prather (1921-2007).
The book that concerns us was first published in 1952 as Pattern for Murder, under Prather’s pseudonym of David Knight, then reissued in 1958 in his own name under the altogether more distinctive title of The Scrambled Yeggs. It begins with an encounter between Scott and the hoodlum Fleming Dragoon and his sister Sara, who is described as a diminutive woman with pretty legs and short hair, ‘fluffy around her small head, and as black as the bottom of the sea’, and wearing a black silk dress that clings tightly to her curves. In the course of the scene, she tries to sweet-talk Scott, then gouges her fingernails into his neck. He responds in a way that we might expect, and enjoy:
I’m not sure whether I actually started out to spank that litte hellcat, or whether it just happened that way. But I automatically took a step toward Sara and grabbed her wrist as I sat down in the chair again, yanking her toward me. She flopped over my thighs, apparently caught by surprise.
I held her with my left hand, raised my right in the air and then slammed it down with a satisfying thwack on her gently gyrating derriere, again and again.
The scene made the cover of the paperback…
although it’s clear that the artist hadn’t paid any attention at all to Prather’s description of what Sara looks like or what she is wearing.
The book was later published in a British edition in 1961, in which the relevant passage reads: ‘I held her with my left hand, raised my right in the air and then slammed it down with a satisfying thwack, again and again.’ And there we come to the point: Sara’s ‘gently gyrating derriere’ disappeared in the trip across the ocean.
Here’s another disappearing derriere:
The photo is from a 1977 newspaper story publicizing a new run of the New York revue, Another Way to Love, and you might not think anything’s amiss, if you didn’t know that what actually happened onstage was:
OK, you wouldn’t expect most newspapers to print a skirt up, panties down, bare bottom spanking photo without some ‘doctoring’, but my point is the wider one that, since spanking is inevitably indecorous (as I’ve discussed elsewhere), it tends to attract censorship – but not always to be censored in itself. For another example, let’s go back to 1918 and consider what happened to the Hal Roach comedy short A One Night Stand. It features the clown Toto as a stage hand at a small-town ‘opry house’ who inadvertently ruins several of the acts. There is a scene in the second reel in which a mother (Margaret Joslin) spanks her leggy daughter, played by Clarine Seymour:
The film was censored by the authorities in Chicago to remove three bits of business that were considered indecent, the third of which was connected with the spanking. No objection was raised to the spanking itself, but what the censors wouldn’t allow was a shot of Toto fanning the girl’s derriere afterwards in an effort to cool it down!
So far, so familiar: the problem isn’t with spanking as such, but with the attention it draws to the target area. But with that in mind, let’s consider the case of a 1938 movie starring Wayne Morris and Priscilla Lane.
No, I don’t mean Love, Honor and Behave, which ends with that epic but strangely unexciting spanking scene. I mean the movie they made immediately afterwards, on some of the same sets: Men Are Such Fools, about secretary Linda Lawrence (Priscilla Lane) and her ambition to become an advertising executive, but perhaps of most lasting interest because the director was Busby Berkeley and the cast included Humphrey Bogart. A Pennsylvania paper described it as ‘another of those husband-spank-wife pictures’, which is a long way from the literal truth. The danger to Priscilla’s posterior is much diminished compared with the previous outing, but there is an early scene in which she helps a colleague (Mona Harris) to remove a tight shoe and ends up getting an unintended kick in the seat:
And later on, Morris gives her an affectionate little slap on the bottom as they arrive home one night:
And that meant trouble in Ontario. When the movie came up for exhibition there, the censors ordered the bottom-smacking to be cut out. That must have been tricky, because the slap is the initiating moment of an extensive piece of business, a playful mock-fight, which is completely unmotivated without it.
Here’s the problem: censorship tries to be like invisible mending, to make its cuts seamlessly without any obvious sign that anything has been done. The British edition of The Scrambled Yeggs and the newspaper edit of the Another Way to Love photo are examples of the job being done skillfully. But with sound, vision and a narrative line, a film is a much more complex artefact, so it’s hard to see how the Ontario censors could have made such a neat job of trimming Men Are Such Fools without leaving some trace of their work.
That’s one reason why stage and cinema censorship most often operated through agencies like the Hays Office or the Lord Chamberlain’s department, which censored movies and stage plays in advance so that the finished production was at least a coherent thing, and so that local boards and watch committees were spared the fiddlier task of making cuts to that finished production whilst also ensuring that their interventions went unnoticed. But when pre-censorship proved ineffective or wasn’t in operation, or when the local authority simply had different standards, the results could be calamitously extensive when the material deemed objectionable went beyond mere passing references and imagery.
Our case in point is the silent comedy short Jerry’s Running Fight (1917), about an attempted elopement in which the escaping girl (Claire Alexander) disguises herself as a boy – that’s her on the left in the poster. She is pursued and caught by her father (Joseph Hazelton), and after an elaborate slapstick fight sequence, Claire’s boyfriend goes to jail and she, still dressed in boy’s clothes, gets dealt with by dad and his slipper:
That was fine in the USA, and it was even acceptable in Ontario. But when the very same print crossed the border for exhibition in Manitoba, the province’s Board of Censors decided that the spanking was ‘vulgar’, and, since the scene was the payoff to the whole film, they duly banned the whole film.
So Jerry’s Running Fight, complete with the spanking scene, was deemed fit for viewing to the east in Ontario and to the south in the US, though there’s no information about what, if anything, Saskatchewan had to say about it. But if you lived in Manitoba, bad luck! What you were allowed to see at the movies depended on where you lived, and also, obviously, on the particular sensitivities and prejudices of the particular individuals in your area who were entrusted with deciding what was admissible and what was obscene. Some objected to spanking, some only to excessive attention to ladies’ bottoms, whereas some saw no harm in either. With the matter under local control, the entire system was rife with arbitrariness and inconsistency.
One US state that was noted for a particular aversion to bottom-smacking was Kansas: in the pre-Code 1930s, its State Board of Review was said to regularly order the excision of movie spanking scenes. This reputation may have been exaggerated, for the Board certainly let through a number of such scenes: the censorship records for Don’t demand the elimination of a scene ‘where girls stand on grates and skirts blow up’, but make no mention of the spanking; Exchange of Wives had to lose a great deal of Renée Adorée being kissed, but none of her being spanked; the only cut required in Professional Sweetheart was ‘words by Ginger Rogers’, not her getting a spanking in her underwear. But nevertheless the records do contain orders for the removal of six spanking scenes on grounds of ‘indecency’, including the one from A One Night Stand (plus ‘Toto fanning girl after the spanking’, of course).
It isn’t entirely what it seems, however, for there is some evidence that the officials who demanded the cuts, or those who compiled the records, were imprecise in their use of vocabulary. The last movie to be censored for spanking was the melodrama Registered Nurse, released in April 1934, just two months before the start of systematic enforcement of the Hays Code: ‘Eliminate view of Vince Barnett spanking Virginia Sale on her posterior’, say the censors’ instructions. The two actors were playing comedy relief ‘lower orders’ characters, but for the benefit of any disappointed old-timers in Kansas, it must be revealed that the so-called ‘spanking’ was actually only:
Spanking in the proper sense of the word was in fact more likely to be acceptable because it was the formal administration of justice; smacking was problematic because it was a hand-to-bottom sexual act, albeit of a very mild order.
But my central point is that there were recognized local prejudices, even if they weren’t always acted upon consistently or comprehensively. Eventually the studios began making movies in multiple versions tailored to the known preferences of different state censorship authorities, and while that may have made life easier for all concerned, it also made it theoretically possible for those local limitations to reach across state lines, and into the future. There may be several different cuts of a movie in existence, but how many of them do you need to archive? It was a real issue in the era of physical media, and it meant that sometimes the version that was kept might not be the one with the spanking. For a long time, the ‘official’ version of Prisoners of the Casbah (1953), starring Turhan Bey and Gloria Grahame, lacked the following scene:
Researchers eventually unearthed an uncut version, but the chances of that diminish as you go farther back in time; some movies, such as The Primitive Lover (1922), only survive in censored form. You may have been unlucky to live in Kansas, or Manitoba, or wherever, unable to enjoy the simple pleasures granted to the rest of North America; but the archival lottery means that local censorship boards still have some residual power, beyond their jurisdiction, over what you and I are able to see today, more than half a century after America finally abolished movie censorship in 1966.