Who will rule the minor German principality of Anspach after the death of its present ruler, the Marquis (or ‘le Margrave’)? It’s the usual, recurring problem of aristocratic rulers: securing the succession. The Marquis has no son, only a charming but air-headed daughter, Princess Dorothée. He does have a younger brother, but of doubtful legitimacy, and there’s no prospect that he himself might, even at this late stage, produce a son and heir. The reason is simple: his wife, the Marchioness (or ‘la Margrave’ – in French, the male and female titles are the same word, differentiated only by grammatical gender, so it’ll be less confusing if we use the English equivalents). She’s a scion of the British royal family, haughty, vain and sly, who hates her miserable married life in this ‘odieuse et ridicule’ German backwater, not to mention hating her husband and their daughter, and is in turn heartily detested by the Marquis. There will be no more babies, of either gender, for this couple.
The problem becomes pressing with the appearance of a spectral white lady who manifests herself whenever a male member of the House of Anspach is about to die. The Marquis swiftly makes a will which disbars the Marchioness from the regency and assigns power instead to the flighty and utterly unsuitable Princess Dorothée. Luckily for all concerned, the one who dies is the brother, who obviously wasn’t illegitimate after all, but having made the will, the Marquis refuses to change it. And so the Marchioness sets out to take her revenge and secure her own position…
That’s the central situation in the sardonic 1932 comedy La Margrave by Alfred Savoir (1883-1934), who is best known for his 1921 stage play, La Huitième Femme de Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife), which was filmed in 1923 and remade in 1938 with the added attractions of Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and a spanking scene.
In contrast, La Margrave was never filmed but had its spanking scene present and correct from the start. In the original production, which opened at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées on November 18, 1932, the key role of Princess Dorothée was played by Lucienne Bogaert, who at the age of 40 was considerably older than her character.
She was praised for her performance, and the production was praised for its gorgeous 18th-century period costumes…
… though only one of those two things will be relevant when we come to the spanking scene. And if I’ve succeeded in drawing major attention to the character of Dorothée, that’s exactly what the play does too as the story develops.
Since she is to be the next ruler of Anspach, it is now vital to get her married to a suitable European royal. She prefers the Polish Prince Charles-Auguste, but he’s too junior for such a marriage to be diplomatically useful, and the Marchioness also sneers at his poverty, calling him Prince ‘Va Nu Pied’ (Go Barefoot). Another possibility is the old, lecherous, hunchbacked Elector Palatine, who meets with less enthusiasm from Dorothée, for obvious reasons. But the Marchioness has a scheme of her own, which will have a very different outcome. Towards the end of the second act, she asks whether her daughter believes in God and, when Dorothée answers in the affirmative, remarks, ‘That’ll be useful.’
The third and final act of the play takes place in a hunting lodge where Dorothée plans to stay the night and be serenaded by Charles-Auguste. But unknown to either of them, there is a commoner in her bed, put there by the Marchioness to do the obvious with her; once she is no longer a virgin, she will be disgraced and can be safely packed off to a convent (hence the usefulness of her not being an atheist), leaving her mother as the only possible ruler after the Marquis goes to an early grave. Yes, there are hints that this is also part of the fiendish plot.
The man who has been selected as the seducer and possible poisoner is a French painter, Lebrun, and in 1932 he was played by Pierre Renoir, who happened to be the son of a French painter (and, incidentally, elder brother of a celebrated film director). When Dorothée finds him in her room, she’s less disconcerted than she might be, despite the fact that she was getting ready for bed and so is wearing only her underwear. Her behavior oscillates between haughty and naughty: she imperiously tells him he shouldn’t remain seated in her presence, then keeps ‘accidentally’ losing her slipper so that he can find it and put it back on her foot; one moment she’s clicking her fingers at him (a habit picked up from Charles-Auguste), and the next, flirtatiously lifting the hem of her chemise to reveal a little more thigh.
The two characters travel in different directions in the course of the scene. Dorothée begins to get excited at the prospect of being taken in the painter’s strong, manly arms, as muscular as those on the statue of Apollo beside the park fountain, and when the finger-clicking Charles-Auguste approaches the window, mandolin at the ready for their chaste assignation, she sends him away now that she has a real man to occupy her. But Lebrun is so struck by her that he comes to his senses: if he dishonors her as planned, he will become a pawn in a game of high politics of which he disapproves.
Dorothée is still thinking about her entanglement with the Polish Prince and how to escape from it. Lebrun probably isn’t thinking about the rule of protocol making it improper to sit down in the presence of a princess, because he’s about to break it, along with a fair few other rules about how commoners should treat princesses, and what parts of the royal person are allowed to be touched. In consequence, sitting down will not be part of this particular princess’s immediate future. And as for being taken in his strong arms – well, they remain relevant, but it’s his manly knee she’s going to be taken across…
Here’s how the encounter plays out:
DOROTHÉE: What a cruel fate to be deluded in love.
LEBRUN: It’s not as cruel a fate as mine.
DOROTHÉE: All the same, love…
LEBRUN: Yes, all the same. Stay away. Stay away. I don’t want it.
DOROTHÉE: But I want it.
LEBRUN: All right, I’ll make love.
(He puts her across his knee and gives her a hard smack on her bottom.)
DOROTHÉE: But this is not love, Monsieur Lebrun: you’re mistaken!
LEBRUN: No way.
(He gives her a second smack.)
DOROTHÉE: But it hurts!
LEBRUN: Did nobody warn you?
(He gives her another smack.)
DOROTHÉE: Monsieur Lebrun, let me go. Enough of love! I don’t want any more of it, ever, I promise you!
LEBRUN: If you promise.
(He releases her.)
DOROTHÉE: So, is that the famous French loving that people talk about?
LEBRUN: Exactly that.
DOROTHÉE: It’s very overrated.
DOROTHÉE: But there’s something about it, an idea. Of course, the first time it’s a surprise, it’s breathtaking.
LEBRUN: Listen, you mosquito, if you say one more word, just one, if you don’t stop assaulting my ears…
DOROTHÉE: No, Monsieur Lebrun, I won’t say anything.
LEBRUN: You know enough now, and even too much. You’re an expert.
And with that, he sends her packing with a sore bottom and romantic ideas about the role of spanking in courtship. The next caller at the lodge is the Marchioness, who also rather fancies him to the extent that, when the Marquis arrives soon afterwards, he finds them in one another’s arms. And the Marchioness finishes the play by telling her husband to go away and not worry about it: she’s about to arrange for him to have the one thing he most needs, a son and heir!
No photograph of the spanking scene has so far come to light, but it was sketched by a theatrical cartoonist:
One thing we can say for sure, however, is that this is not a wholly accurate representation of the scene. The cartoonist shows the spanking being done SLB (sous le bras), which was indeed a frequent position in French spankings up to the 1960s. But this is the only known example of an OTK spanking in a pre-1939 French stage play: the other three were all SLB, but here all the banter about sitting down in the Princess’s presence requires that he put her across his knee rather than spank her while standing up, and contemporary reviews confirm that this was how it was done in the production. But at least the cartoonist got one thing right: she was indeed very scantily clad in just a short chemise!