For a long time, it has been imagined that Hollywood glamor girl Mary Beth Hughes (1919-95) must have had some kind of a built-in spanking avoidance device.
In 1941, for example, she played one of the title roles in The Cowboy and the Blonde, which so obviously should have included a spanking scene that it often appears on lists of movies that did. The regrettable truth is that nothing of the sort happened. She also played a bad girl in Free, Blonde and 21 (1940), but ended up in jail rather than over somebody’s knee. And from the 1960s until as late as 1992, television screenings of her 1940 backstage movie The Great Profile, in which she and John Barrymore played a married couple, were regularly previewed with the following summary of its tale of a difficult theatrical engagement:
Barrymore’s high jinks run rampant as he forgets the script and plunges into adlib, climaxed by the spanking of his wife.
But all those newspaper sub-editors across America who kept on digging out that one-liner from the files, year in, year out, had never bothered to watch the film.
However, the story of The Great Profile is not only about misinformation in perpetual circulation, and it will disprove the notion that Miss Hughes bore a charmed life when it came to the security of her rear end.
During 1939, 20th Century Fox had been developing a movie about Evans Garrick, an ageing alcoholic actor with marital troubles, who tries to achieve a reconciliation with his wife by appearing with her in a stinker of a play. Adolphe Menjou had been cast to play the lead. But then the papers filled with the story of an ageing alcoholic actor who was dumped by his wife after they costarred together in a rather poor play: John Barrymore, whose tour of My Dear Children was disrupted by a celebrated casting hassle when his wife and costar Elaine Barrie walked out after being spanked too realistically onstage.
Someone at the studio had a bright idea that would simultaneously avoid a libel suit and garner valuable publicity for the picture. Menjou was paid off and John Barrymore was hired to replace him, with Mary Beth Hughes playing his wife. The script was rewritten to make it more obviously a Barrymore vehicle, which included entitling it The Great Profile – a phrase that was a byword for Barrymore himself.
Barrymore bought himself out of the New York run of My Dear Children in the expectation that a movie salary would solve his financial problems, and arrived in Hollywood to begin making the film on June 8.
As the movie begins, Evans Garrick has disappeared while making a film version of Macbeth, forcing the production into a suspension. On his return, his wife, Sylvia Manners, leaves him and he also receives news that the studio has fired him: ruin awaits around the next corner. But so does salvation, or so it seems: he is approached by a young woman, Mary Maxwell (Anne Baxter), who wants him to read her play, The Beloved Transgressor, which comes with finance already arranged. Of course, the cash is obviously more important to him than the quality of the play. But he also sees an opportunity to get Sylvia back, so he announces to the press that they will star in the play together – even though he has neither read the script nor asked Sylvia.
When the play opens in Chicago, with Garrick as a washed-up painter and Sylvia as his wife, the first-night audience breaks all records in the speed with which it nods off to sleep. Garrick knows the play is dire and his nerves get the better of him after the first act, with the result that, when he makes his entrance for the second, he is hopelessly drunk and has to ad lib his way through, complete with a generous helping of wisecracks directed to the audience, who duly wake up and begin to enjoy themselves.
The improvisation grows progressively more outrageous, until an especially offensive remark provokes Sylvia into pinching his leg. A chase around the stage follows, with Garrick obviously bent on reprisals when he catches her…
And what happens when he catches her was the very first scene they shot. Barrymore walked onto the set and met Mary Beth Hughes for the first time.
Five minutes later, she couldn’t sit down.
The studio lost no time in taking and issuing a publicity still of the scene, which found its way into the newspapers within days:
And the studio publicists saw the opportunity for a juicy little anecdote:
Two difficulties followed in quick succession. In mid-June, the Hays Office banned the spanking photograph; it was never seen again (until now). And days later, the authors of My Dear Children decided the spanking itself was a cash-in too far. If Fox wanted to include the spanking scene, their lawyers argued, the studio would have to buy the rights to the whole play – for $20,000! Now, much as you and I might have retorted that there was nothing unique about a spanking scene and that lots of other plays and movies had featured them, Fox decided to avoid litigation and reshot the scene to change one gross indignity for another. Mary Beth Hughes joined the ranks of Hollywood actresses who were spanked for nothing.
In the finished movie, Garrick doesn’t get as far as spanking Sylvia when he catches her. He grabs ahold of her skirt…
… and it comes away in his hand:
The stage manager calls urgently for the curtain, and Sylvia walks out of the play, headed for Reno to file for a quickie divorce. The show itself, however, gets rave reviews.
The Great Profile was released at the end of August, and many newspaper previews emphasized the spanking scene, notwithstanding the fact that it had been dropped months before. But not all punters were destined for disappointment. Some movie theaters played it in a double bill, the other half of which was… Public Deb No. 1!