The most famous and most influential American stage spanking, other than Kiss Me Kate, featured in the 1939 comedy My Dear Children by Catherine Turney (1906-98) and Jerry Horwin (1905-54). The play ran for a more than a year and was remembered long afterwards, not least because of the extensive press attention it received. And a great deal of that attention was specifically about the spanking. Here is the full, epic story of that turbulent production and its aftermath…
The play is set at Christmas in a castle in the Swiss Alps, where an ageing, temperamental matinee idol, Allan Manville, is having an affair with a countess whilst preparing to write his memoirs. Also present is Reed Hanson, a reporter covering Manville’s complicated life. There are three unexpected arrivals in the first act: his three daughters, all by different mothers who had once been his acting partners. He has never met any of them since their respective babyhoods, but now they have all sought him out, trailing their various boyfriend problems behind them. In the course of the play, he gets a bad case of fatherly feelings, and in consequence one of them gets a bad case of unsittable bottom syndrome…
His favorite daughter, and the only one who has ever troubled even to write to him, is the middle one, Cordelia Clark. The script describes her thus:
‘She is a handsome girl – daring – brilliant – overly sophisticated. Other people seem to become part of the background when she enters a room. She is the only one of them to inherit her father’s electric personality.’
During the second act, Manville has had all his guests don Shakespearean costume as part of the seasonal celebration; he is now dressed as Hamlet, while Cordelia is Juliet. It turns out that Cordelia has not only inherited his personality but also his inclination to short-term romances: she has just dumped her own young man Willard in order to make a play for her elder half-sister Portia’s prospective fiancé, then takes Willard back after her younger half-sister Miranda has herself fallen for him. Manville disapproves, leading to friction between father and daughter and a needling exchange of apposite biblical quotations – and, although ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is not among them, that’s where this is headed…
Near the end of the second act, they get into a screaming argument about all the amorous complications she has caused. He calls her a ‘selfish brat’ and quotes ‘honor thy father’ at her.
CORDELIA: What do you mean, ‘Honor thy father’? What have you done that any of us should revere you?
MANVILLE: So – you think I’ve neglected you, do you? (Advances to her) You think I haven’t been a real father, do you? You think my parental technique has been inept? Very well, my dear Cordelia!
He forces her over his knee and begins to spank her.
Hanson rushes in while the spanking continues. ‘This is not for publication,’ says Manville. But Hanson hasn’t come to report the spanking. He’s come to tell Manville that his rival for the countess’s love is on his way to the castle. While he’s distracted by this unwelcome news, Cordelia bites his hand. He snatches it away and says, ‘You coward.’ As he resumes his task, the orchestra starts to play ‘Jingle Bells’ to make it the perfect Christmas spanking. Then the script calls for a ‘Quick Curtain’.
In the third act, a few hours later, Cordelia’s beau has been looking for her as everyone prepares to leave the castle. She explains that she has been walking.
WILLARD: Cordelia – walking?
CORDELIA (laughs a little bitterly): Perhaps I couldn’t sit down. Father’s very thorough.
She starts to sit down – then rises gingerly.
She explains that she’s not going away with him after all.
WILLARD: But everything was settled.
CORDELIA: Until my father took me over his knee.
WILLARD: He had no right. You – a grown woman.
CORDELIA: It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I was a crazy kid with a lot of phony ideals.
And in the end, everything turns out for the best: Cordelia and her father are reconciled, and Manville resolves to give up writing his memoirs and return to the theater with a new acting partner. The only problem is how they are to be billed: ‘Cordelia and Allan Manville’ or ‘Allan and Cordelia Manville’!
Miss Barrie Picks Her Part
The remarkable story of the play’s fourteen-month first production starts with the ambitions of one woman, Elaine Jacobs. At the age of 16, she fell in love with the distinguished Shakespearean actor and movie star John Barrymore, nicknamed ‘the Great Profile’, after seeing him play the title role in the 1931 film Svengali. She changed her surname to Barrie to sound more like his, contrived to meet with him and eventually married him in 1936 when she was 21 and he was 55.
It was a stormy May/December relationship that came repeatedly to the brink of divorce, not helped by his progressive descent into ill health and alcohol dependency. In 1938, during one of the good patches, she was trying to find a way to restart his stage career and propel herself to stardom in his wake, when she came upon the script of My Dear Children. She decided that this play, which ends with a career renaissance for an ageing actor with a new young sidekick, would be the perfect vehicle for John Barrymore and herself. She bought the rights. And the role she intended for herself was, obviously, Cordelia Clark…
In her autobiography, All My Sins Remembered, Elaine describes how she and Barrymore first discussed the play. He took a little persuading, but one thing she said to him was, ‘I’m sure you’d enjoy the second act curtain.’ Meaning, of course, the spanking scene. ‘And so would you, my dearest darling,’ he replied.
It has to be said, and often is, that My Dear Children is no masterpiece of the playwright’s art. Barrymore’s producer, Arthur Hopkins, refused to touch it. His agents disapproved of the whole idea. Even Elaine’s mother tried to talk her out of it, but, ironically in view of what was to come, remarked that she was too old to be spanked out of it. But she was adamant, and eventually she secured Richard Aldrich and Richard Myers as producers, who in turn hired Otto Preminger as the director.
The Austrian emigré Preminger had some drawbacks. He didn’t get on with Catherine Turney, the play’s co-author. He had little respect for Elaine, having accurately spotted that she was ‘a woman of little acting ability’, while Elaine in turn felt he lacked the light ‘champagne’ touch the project needed. But he did know something about directing spanking scenes: he’d done one already in the 1936 movie Under Your Spell…
… in which the romantic tangle created by a spoiled socialite, played by British actress Wendy Barrie, is ultimately sorted out by the simple method of giving her a good spanking. Here’s Wendy, who was no relation to Elaine:
In the final cut of the movie, she is spanked offscreen… but in the theater there’s nowhere to hide while the curtain stays up…
Rehearsals began in New York in March 1939. At one early session, Preminger decided Barrymore needed a demonstration of what was required in the spanking scene. Elaine later remembered: ‘Otto was a little fresh in his slapping when he had me over his knee.’ But there was worse to come later…
During the rehearsal process it’s crucial to build up the cast’s collective confidence in the script they are going to perform. That wasn’t happening with My Dear Children. The actors worried that this mediocre play was going to turn out dull. But they hadn’t reckoned with John Barrymore’s plans for the show. He wasn’t going to play the script so much as play around the script, rather like a jazz musician riffing on a theme. Audiences didn’t come to see the play, but to see its leading man giving what was effectively a stand-up comedy performance within the play, different every night. Of course, this had its consequences. For one thing, the additional, unscripted business upped the show’s running time; performances that started at 8.30 were known to go on until after midnight. And more pertinently, the star’s unpredictability extended to how he played one particular sequence at the end of the second act…
My Dear Children was planned to find its feet with a preliminary tour, starting on the East Coast and crawling across the USA as far as Nebraska before looping back through Iowa and Illinois en route to a big city opening in Chicago. But the crucial first night on March 24, 1939, was at the McCarter Theatre on the campus at Princeton, to a celebrity audience that ranged from theater impresario Lee Shubert to Broadway star and future Gotham City Penguin Burgess Meredith. One audience member made Barrymore most self-conscious of all: among the first people to see the play, and to see Elaine Barrie get spanked, was this physicist and all-round genius…
And so the play set off for six weeks on the road. It was due to open at the Selwyn Theatre in Chicago, on May 8. But a lot can happen to a play in six weeks…
Spank Me in St Louis
‘John Barrymore and his bride have split up again,’ read a syndicated tidbit that ran in many newspapers across America on May 8, a date obviously chosen for maximum publicity value in relation to the Chicago premiere. ‘Could it be that he was too enthusiastic in that spanking scene they played in My Dear Children?’
The couple’s relationship took a downward turn in the early weeks of the tour. In his heart of hearts, Barrymore knew that he was wasting himself in a second-rate play, and he blamed the woman who had talked him into doing it. By the middle of April, they were no longer on speaking terms except when in character onstage. And onstage, Barrymore also had another way of expressing his feelings…
Put quite simply, he began to spank Elaine harder and harder. ‘Everything in the show built to the spanking scene,’ she later wrote, ‘and I never knew how far he would go. The play had become sheer hell for me.’
Things reached their climax on Monday, April 24, the first night of a week’s engagement in St Louis, Missouri. Exactly what happened has to be picked out of a whole lot of self-serving claims and salacious gossip. Elaine and her husband told directly contradictory stories. When asked about Elaine’s claims that he had spanked her too hard, Barrymore issued a jocular denial:
‘That notion originated in the mind of the bass drum player. Or maybe it was the trombone player. Victor Herbert once told me that trombone players were inclined to be a little screwy. One doesn’t do things like that in public. And I’ve never yet spanked a woman in private. It’s too depleting.’
He may well have found the spanking scene ‘depleting’ that Monday night, because what emerges clearly from all the other conflicting testimony is that Elaine Barrie received what was probably the hardest, longest, most vigorous spanking that has ever been administered to any actress in the line of duty. Barrymore spanked her so hard that the force of it split open the seat of her Juliet dress – whereupon he continued to spank her on her panties. Immediately after the curtain came down on the spanking, Barrymore went out and announced to the audience: ‘There will be no encore.’
Elaine later embroidered the incident in a divorce petition, claiming that what had been split was actually ‘a pair of her best lace panties’. She took a taxi back to her hotel, but couldn’t sit down in it and had to kneel on the floor of the cab. And once in the privacy of her hotel bedroom, she discovered that, not surprisingly, her husband had ‘reddened her epidermis’, as the Chicago Tribune delicately put it.
But the show must go on. For the Tuesday performance, Elaine looked a little chunkier around the seat. She had decided to fight paddling with padding! But that didn’t get to the bottom of her marital problems, and after the Wednesday matinee she rushed from the theater, still in full costume and make-up, and fled to the sanctuary of her hotel. A statement was later issued to the effect that she would be leaving the show at her own request, but had agreed to stay on for the rest of the week.
Reporters immediately began to speculate about what had caused the bust-up, and they quickly hit on the most obvious reason. The truth was that this was a very complex marital relationship, and the rift couldn’t be fully explained by anything so simple as a sore bottom and a ripped dress (or panties). People who had seen the Wednesday performance were asked about the spanking and replied, ‘He barely paddled her.’ But the truth wasn’t going to be allowed to get in the way of a good story: soon it was universally accepted that Elaine Barrie had walked out of the show after her husband had spanked her on stage with, shall we say, an unwarranted excess of realism.
It’s not just a good story, it’s also quite a familiar one, isn’t it? It’s always being said that the inspiration for Kiss Me Kate came from the way the fiery marriage of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne was reflected in their 1939/40 production of The Taming of the Shrew. But the 1948 musical’s creators were surely also drawing on another entry in the 1939/40 theatrical season in which an actress tried to leave a show after an onstage spanking from her estranged husband!
Gentlemen Prefer Spanking Blondes
Elaine Barrie’s walkout decisively shifted the focus of My Dear Children’s public image. The American Weekly, the Hearst Corporation’s Sunday magazine, ran the story that June with a caricature of the spanking scene – the earliest known visual representation.
The publicity men realized that this story could be run over and over again with whatever new spin was required, and the role of Cordelia Clark acquired a press soubriquet: ‘the girl who gets spanked’. But the immediate problem was to ensure there was in fact a girl to get spanked.
Such situations are occasionally the making of an understudy’s career. The understudy who traveled with the tour, learning the lines and rehearsing the scenes, was 23-year-old Louise Larabee, and the press at first assumed that she was destined to take over from Elaine. Here she is:
We don’t know whether she ever actually had to ‘go on’, but she would certainly have been spanked during the understudy rehearsals. But alas (or luckily) for her, when it came to a permanent replacement for Elaine Barrie, the management had other ideas.
Five days after Elaine’s walkout, there was a new actress playing Cordelia: 21-year-old blonde Doris Dudley. The substitution was so swift and smooth that Elaine suspected it had been planned for weeks in the event of trouble. Here’s Doris meeting John Barrymore on the day she joined the cast:
At the time, she was best known for an incident straight out of a 1930s screwball comedy, in which she found herself stranded by bad weather in New York on the day her play opened in Boston… so she borrowed a plane, flew to Boston without a pilot’s license, crash-landed at the airport – and made it to the theater on time! Now, after intensive on-on-one rehearsals with Preminger in New York, she flew out to the Midwest and made her first appearance in Omaha on May 1. Here she is, reading the script in her dressing room on that very day:
She obviously hasn’t got as far as the spanking scene yet!
No, My Darling Daughter
One other person was angling for the role of Cordelia at this time: John’s real-life daughter, 18-year-old Diana Barrymore.
But this wasn’t all that it seemed. By chance, the role of the eldest daughter, Portia, fell vacant shortly afterwards when Dorothy McGuire left the show, and Diana was offered the part. It would have been perfect for the publicists: the arrival of Diana, the child of John’s estranged third wife Dolores Costello, would have matched the plot of My Dear Children. But Diana turned it down and spent the summer acting with a stock company in Maine at a humiliating $10 a week, while the more lucrative part of Portia went to Patricia Waters, seen at the top here:
Evidently Diana wanted to play Cordelia or nothing. But that probably wasn’t because she craved a nightly spanking across her father’s knee, nor even because Cordelia was the play’s leading lady. She detested Elaine, and she calculated that her father’s on-off marriage might be a little harder to switch back on if the new Cordelia was someone he’d find it hard to have fired from the show. This was nothing if not prescient…
This wasn’t the last time Diana’s career brought her in danger of a good spanking. In the 1942 movie Between Us Girls, she plays a 21-year-old who, for complicated plot reasons, poses as a 12-year-old. Here she is being naughty:
Here she is being naughty with her mother’s fiancé, played by Robert Cummings:
And in the script, when he finds out she’s really 21, he spanks her, and then throws her into a lake to cool off. In the finished movie, however, he just throws her in the lake without giving her anything to cool off from. But Diana’s luck ran out when they shot the publicity pictures for the film:
That’ll teach you to meddle in your father’s marriage!
So now, as far as the publicity men and the newspapers were concerned, My Dear Children was no longer just a vehicle for John Barrymore. Now it was also a play about the spanking of Cordelia Clark. And once it had its Cordelia, there was one thing more the publicists needed: a photograph of her getting spanked. And so…
I have to say I don’t know exactly when or where this shot was taken, but a close look at Doris’ hair shows it must have been soon after she joined the company, either in Omaha or around the time they opened in Chicago. As the play’s run went on, her curls grew looser and longer, as you can see in these pictures taken in May (Omaha), November (Chicago) and February (New York):
That means this is the earliest of the seven known photographs of the spanking scene. It isn’t the best, but what’s especially good about it is Doris Dudley. Remember, this is only a publicity mockup of the scene, probably done a little hastily if the imperfect, slightly casual pose is anything to go by: this time, just for once, Cordelia isn’t really being spanked. In those circumstances, many an actress wouldn’t give it their all. But Doris was a professional and she was truly committed to her new windfall of a role. Look at the performance she’s giving, the care she’s taking with her face to suggest that she is getting a sound spanking – one that hurts!
And so the production hunkered down for a profitable eight-month stay in Chicago. Within a fortnight it was clear that My Dear Children was a hit: the Selwyn Theatre was booked out weeks in advance, drawing capacity audiences of around 7,500 people a week and showing grosses that hadn’t been seen in the city since before the Wall Street crash. What was pulling them in was Barrymore’s ad-libbed antics – there were complaints only on the rare occasions when he played it straight! – and these antics were partly fuelled by drink. ‘He arrives every night, dead or alive,’ commented the theater doorman. No two performances were the same: sometimes he was drunk enough to be brilliant, sometimes so drunk he was terrible. Then on one fateful night he was unable to be there at all…
Barrymore had a minor heart attack on May 30, and a younger actor was found to go on in his place at short notice. So here’s the man who got to spank Doris Dudley for one night only:
The stricken Barrymore asked Welles to send a telegram in his name, to be read out to the audience before the performance, in which he apologised for his own inability to be there and thanked Welles for taking over. Welles dropped him a note to confirm this had been done:
He goes on to say: ‘Also I am playing your part in irreverent imitation of how I imagine you might play it. (I will stink).’
No history relates whether he did stink or not, but the show then took a three-week hiatus to allow Barrymore to recover. His only duties included a studio photocall with his ‘daughters’ for theater photographer Maurice Seymour on June 6; but his condition precluded vigorous activity, so there seems to have been no attempt to stage a certain popular scene! Afterwards a junior member of the cast was appointed to be his keeper and ensure that he reached the theater on time, at least moderately sober and in a fit state to perform.
All of this happened, and all of Barrymore’s manic, drunken behavior was tolerated, because the show was a smash hit. And, as is always the way, success spawns merchandising. The management decided to issue a souvenir program with photographs of the cast and scenes from the play. So the two stars found themselves called for another photographic session on August 6. One of their tasks was to pose for some more pictures of the spanking scene. Here’s the first one they did:
As you can see, Doris’ dress has been partly lifted to display her legs as she is spanked. That may have been the desired effect, but this wasn’t considered quite a perfect execution: the raised part of the skirt is inside-out, showing the seam, and it sits on top of her in messy folds. So on the second attempt, they tucked it up neatly inside:
This was the shot the management liked, and used in the souvenir program. They liked it so much that it was also the image selected to represent the play as a whole on an advertising postcard:
The caption, ‘John Barrymore joins in sending Riotous Greetings’, calls attention to one of the show’s main draws that couldn’t be captured in still photography, but the picture confirms just how important and central the spanking scene was considered to be.
Sting, Baby, Sting
None of the pictures we’ve seen so far conveys just what a sheer spectacle Cordelia’s spanking was. Newspaper comments regularly characterized it as ‘hearty’, ‘enthusiastic’ – and, most telling of all, ‘loud’! When Doris Dudley’s 6-year-old son first saw the play in Chicago, he yelled out involuntarily at the sight of his mommy being soundly spanked. And, according to Barrymore’s biographer Alma Powers-Waters, the wife of the show’s company manager, even after his illness ‘he continued to spank his daughter with gusto’. We get a glimpse of that gusto in the next pair of photographs.
Early on in the play, Hanson’s photographer is caught talking unauthorized shots, intending to sell them to Life magazine for a spread about Manville. The publicists decided that, in advance of the planned opening on Broadway, it would be worth getting a genuine photo feature in Life, so in November the magazine dispatched the photojournalist Bernard Hoffman to Chicago. Hoffman was later the first American photographer at Hiroshima after the bomb fell, but in 1939 he witnessed a very different ground zero…
On the afternoon in question, the cast ran through selected scenes from the play while Hoffman took a total of 154 photographs. Just eight of them ended up in the December 4 issue of Life, including neither of his two pictures of the spanking scene. When you see them, it’s obvious why that was:
Although Barrymore was in the wrong costume for the scene, in all other respects they performed the spanking just as they would in the play itself… with a vigor that was simply too fast for the camera shutter. Look again at the first picture. Barrymore’s hand has landed on Doris’ bottom, but you can also see the movement blur of its rapid descent. You can see the traces of her wildly kicking legs and the trajectory of her face as she jerks her head upward, mouth open as she cries out in pain. Technically speaking it’s an unusable photo, but almost because of that it captures perfectly a sense of what an astonishing, visually exciting moment of theater the scene must have been. And don’t forget, it was also loud!
Who would have thought that any actress would covet the role of ‘the girl who gets spanked’? But that’s exactly what happened next…
You’ve Got to Fight for the Right to a Spanking
On January 6, 1940, the show closed in Chicago having played for 32 weeks (not including the three weeks Barrymore was ill). It had taken more than $250,000. After that last performance, Barrymore received a tip-off that worried him. During the run, he’d sometimes responded to the intruding noise of sirens on the street outside the theater by quipping that his wife must be in town. But that night she really was…
He had no wish to see Elaine. He hid out in a suburban hotel and later slipped away from Chicago in disguise, traveling to Pittsburgh to begin the three weeks on the road that would take the show to New York, where it opened at the Belasco Theatre on January 31. And who should be there on the first night but the persistent Elaine Barrie?
Barrymore had a guardian outside his dressing room: daughter Diana pointedly turned Elaine away with raised fists when she came to visit, and after the show she took her father out to the Monte Carlo nightclub. All went well until she got up to dance, leaving her seat vacant. It wasn’t unoccupied for long: Elaine materialized as if from nowhere, wearing a low-cut gold lame evening gown, and told her husband that she couldn’t live without him. ‘I don’t want you back for keeps,’ she assured him. ‘All I want is 24 hours of bliss.’ And his heart melted:
When Diana returned to the table, there was a public row with Elaine that ended with Diana retiring, vanquished. Then Doris Dudley visited the Barrymore table, and opened with, ‘You’ve won, haven’t you, my little conqueress?’
Elaine had some hard words for Doris, and then the reconciled couple left to spend the night and most of the next day together at Elaine’s hotel. When he arrived for the second New York performance on the evening of February 1, Barrymore had decided that the 24 hours of bliss should continue indefinitely. And that meant he wanted his wife back in the show.
Naturally Doris was, as the Oakland Tribune put it, ‘much perturbed over her spanking future’. She told reporters, ‘I’m in the peculiar position of trying to fight sex with talent,’ and declared that she wouldn’t leave the show voluntarily: they would have to fire her to get her part. A photocall was arranged for all three performers and Barrymore posed, as one caption put it, holding his ‘benevolent palms’ above the two actresses’ heads…
… but the real issue was which of them would be feeling his less than benevolent palm across her bottom. The newspapers spun the story as a tussle between two actresses for the right to be spanked.
Doris received hundreds of letters of support, but during the Saturday matinee on February 3, at the end of the second act, she realized that all was lost.
She had been with the show for nine months. She had been soundly spanked by John Barrymore nearly 300 times (not to mention once by Orson Welles). She knew very well what it was like. But that afternoon, for the first time ever, he went easy on her. His half-hearted spanking performance told her all she needed to know about what was on the cards.
By the union rules of the day, any performer who got fired was entitled to two weeks’ notice in writing. Doris arrived early for the evening performance fully expecting to be handed a letter, and fully intending to work out every day of that notice period: in effect, sixteen more spankings. There was no letter, but she was told to report to the producer’s office the next day, Sunday. A deal was offered that would cut her remaining performances, and spankings, from sixteen to twelve – nine evenings and three matinees. After that, she would get a raise and go into the road company of Claire Booth Luce’s anti-Nazi play Margin for Error, which was due to open in New Haven on February 16, two days after her last painful session across John Barrymore’s knee. The director and star was someone she already knew: Otto Preminger, who had also directed My Dear Children – and probably spanked her during those initial rehearsals in New York the year before!
And so it was that, as a syndicated press story put it, ‘Doris Dudley was spanked out of the cast.’ She was remembered for years afterwards as the actress who played John Barrymore’s ‘much spanked daughter’. For instance, when in the fall of 1940 she joined the cast of the radio sitcom Meet Mr Meek, playing the ingenue daughter of a shrewish mother and her henpecked husband, the press quipped that she ‘got so many spankings from John Barrymore in his last play, My Dear Children, that she gave up “legit” for radio, where the soundman takes the whacks instead of the actress’. (‘Legit’ is short for ‘legitimate theater’, meaning live performance in a play, as opposed to vaudeville, movies or broadcasting.)
But the longer perspective of theater history has been less kind to Doris. Seduced by the glamor and soap opera of the stormy Barrymore marriage, previous accounts of the affair have tended to emphasize Elaine Barrie’s performance as the spanked Cordelia. But the truth is that Doris Dudley, by far the abler actress of the two, played the part for twice as long as Elaine and received twice as many spankings – and all without a word of complaint. By rights and in fairness, Cordelia Clark should be remembered as her part, not Elaine’s.
Never mind, dear – Vanilla Spanking loves you!
Back Under the Benevolent Palm
Elaine made her first Broadway appearance as Cordelia on February 15. The Chicago Tribune later reported that Elaine ‘has taken her public spankings in the play with as good grace as the situation and circumstances permit’. Their man at the Belasco on her first night wrote that ‘there was a light buzzing in the auditorium’ as the play moved towards the end of the second act. After all the publicity, the spanking scene was the one everyone was waiting for. ‘What, wondered the crowd, would happen now? Mr Barrymore was firm with Miss Barrie, but not rough. He spanked her with more fervor, and apparently more satisfaction, than he had spanked her successor, Doris Dudley. But this was to be expected. Something must be allowed for a husband’s normal reactions. It is so seldom he is afforded so perfect an opportunity of employing the traditional corrective.’ And Elaine, it seems, was happy to be spanked. She had got what she wanted.
The change of cast brought the actors one extra duty. New publicity pictures had to be taken with the new Cordelia. Elaine had already made a first move in that direction by getting herself photographed during rehearsals, with another member of the cast, Leo Chalzel, standing in for her husband:
But that was a novelty curio, not a generally usable publicity shot. Barrymore and Elaine were summoned to the theater early on the afternoon of February 16 for the photographer to take shots of Manville telling his daughter what she deserves…
… and then giving it to her…
The photo was later printed in Picture Play with a caption subtly knocking the inexperience of one of the participants: ‘John Barrymore instructs Elaine Barrie in stage technique with great impetus.’ And that, frankly, was as well-deserved as the spanking!
There was also time for a little horseplay at the photo shoot. I said earlier that there are seven known photographs of the spanking scene in this production. Here, presented solely for reasons of historical comprehensiveness, is an eighth:
That’s the director, Otto Preminger, getting the Barrymore treatment while Elaine looks on. It can’t have taken long, because he had a train to catch: he was due on stage in Connecticut with Doris Dudley that night!
Barrymore now introduced a new bit of unscripted business at the end of the play: when Manville and Cordelia are reconciled, he would pat her on the bottom and remark, ‘My, what a nice fanny you have.’ (That’s ‘fanny’ in the American sense, of course.) Elaine may initially have appreciated the compliment, but after a few performances she may not have welcomed being touched on that particular part of her anatomy so soon after the spanking scene. It didn’t take long before her husband’s ‘benevolent palm’ fell heavier, and she was once again resorting to the padding she had used in St Louis. This only made him redouble his efforts to make an impact, so she retaliated with her own forceful interpretation of the wrist-biting called for in the script. After she drew first blood, he took to wearing leather wrist bands – and spanked her harder still!
One lady playgoer, apparently concerned in equal parts for the state of his marriage and the state of Elaine’s bottom, wrote him a letter of advice. ‘If you would not spank your wife so high up, it would not be so painful to the victim,’ she wrote. You can see him doing just that to Doris Dudley in the Life photos, spanking to make contact with the upper part of her bottom. His lady correspondent suggested instead: ‘Cup your hand and spank low on the buttocks with an upward swing, it will look just as effective.’ She signed herself ‘A Mother of Experience’ – presumably one who regarded maternal spankings as less about making an impact on her naughty daughters’ posteriors so much as a kind of exemplary theatrical display for the benefit of the other siblings who were watching!
So far as we know, Barrymore didn’t take the maternal advice, but there was respite on the way…
Hollywood Drops the Ball
‘Elaine Barrie’s bottom will be spared a spanking for six weeks this summer,’ wrote Picture Play’s New York correspondent. ‘My Dear Children, in which she has been draped nightly over the knee of her roguish spouse, John Barrymore, has recessed.’ To be precise, the play closed in New York on May 18 after a four-month run of 117 performances, because Barrymore had bought himself out to make a film in Hollywood (for five times the money he was making on Broadway). This was The Great Profile, whose separate but related story will be told elsewhere.
The film, which features no spanking scene, was released that fall at around the same time as another from 20th Century Fox that is better known in the annals of cinema spanking: Public Deb No. 1, whose highlight was, according to an early review, ‘one of those lusty, Barrymorish spankings which are ruinous on gowns, impressive with regard to posteriors, and distracting to female tempers’ (Pittsburgh Post Gazette). My Dear Children evidently still lingered in the American memory!
But it didn’t linger on Broadway. There were plans to resume ‘the saga of the spank’ in New York on August 19, and it was reported that ‘Elaine Barrie will again play “Bottoms Up” on the Barrymore knee to the delight of audiences’. But that never happened. First it was decided to take the show on the road again… but Barrymore was just too ill to continue (he died, sodden with drink, less than two years later) and Elaine Barrie had renewed divorce proceedings with a twelve-page petition that included the aforementioned elaborated, panty-splitting version of the St Louis spanking of April 1939. And this time, there was no going back.
Spank Her, Baby, One More Time
But that wasn’t quite the end of My Dear Children. Fitful efforts to get it made into a movie began when the play was still in Chicago – Barrymore was reportedly offered $150,000 to star in it – but the film rights were only finally sold in September 1954, to Columbia Pictures (who didn’t bother to make the movie). Plans laid in 1946 to turn it into a stage musical were likewise stillborn.
The play’s future in the American professional theater was limited to a handful of stock performances in the mid-1940s, of which it’s worth mentioning three. Almost nothing is known about the earliest of these, at Seattle in the 1942/3 season, except for the fact that there are pictures from the production at the University of Washington, in an archive collection that’s open to the public. Surely they must have photographed the famous spanking scene – so if we have any readers in Seattle, it might be worth taking a look! (Please share what you find: don’t be a hoarder!)
The other two notable stock productions both had direct links to the Barrymore original. On August 17, 1943, My Dear Children opened at the Subway Circuit Theatre in Brooklyn, in a production directed by Arnold Korff, who had played an aged servant in the 1939/40 production. Manville was played by second-league horror star Lionel Atwill, who was hoping the play would give him an entrée on Broadway. (It didn’t.) And ‘the girl who gets spanked’ was blonde June Stewart, who ‘comes close to running away with the play’, according to the reviewer in the Brooklyn Eagle.
The next professional Manville of note was another horror actor, and a close friend of the now late Barrymore, John Carradine. His production opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in Calfornia on December 6, 1944, with Sonia Sorel getting spanked. Here she is:
She can’t have objected too much, because she married Carradine on March 25 the following year. They then took the play out east, and opened for a week at the Brighton Playhouse, Coney Island, on July 31.
In 1944, Manuel Barbera translated the play into Spanish as Mis Amadas Hijas (My Beloved Daughters), and it was performed in both Argentina and Uruguay. Narciso Ibáñez Menta both directed the play and took the role of Manville, in which capacity, just like Barrymore, he spanked not one but two Cordelias! On March 16, when the show opened at the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires, the girl getting the nalgada was 25-year-old Rosa Rosen:
But when he ran the play for two weeks at the Teatro Artigas in Montevideo, from July 15, it was with a mostly new cast, so it was Elsa Martinez he put across his knee:
Here’s the whole Argentinian cast and backstage crew at the premiere:
Back in the US of A, the play was also taken up sporadically by amateur groups, including the Civic Players of Syracuse, New York, whose production got two brief outings in the summer and fall of 1941, totalling five performances in all. One notable feature of this version was the minor adaptation to make the Swiss setting more generic and Ruritanian, thereby avoiding any specific reference to the current political situation in Europe. And, perhaps more pertinently, this was yet another production with two different Cordelias: Gertrude Waite took the spankings in the summer, but was replaced by Jane Cutting in October. It is not known whether Gertrude had followed in Elaine Barrie’s footsteps and walked out because her bottom couldn’t take it!
However, the play’s slightly risqué reputation meant it made relatively little headway in mid-century America’s thriving culture of school drama. But it was the community play at Cedar City High School on February 11, 1943…
… and ten years later the Senior class of Bellevue High School in Washington State also tackled it, with Stan Burnett and Jo Ann Tate:
And so My Dear Children sank gradually into the obscurity of past history while Kiss Me Kate rose to glory retelling a little of its backstage story. But if there’s one person who deserves to be better remembered for her part in the affair, here she is with John Barrymore:
Applause, please, for Doris Dudley – the true star of My Dear Children!
Acknowledgement: The 1943 Cedar City High School photograph was discovered by Richard Windsor, and identified by me.