Roger the Sixth

It took a long time for Roger the Sixth to be produced. Joseph Carole originally wrote the play in 1940. He had just had an unexpected Broadway success with his marital comedy Separate Rooms, co-written with the actor Alan Dinehart, which received poor notices but notched up 613 performances after a canny advertising campaign hinting that the play was a little risqué. (It was later revived in Britain in 1947, with the leading role taken by blonde Frances Day, who incidentally was spanked in the 1936 movie You Must Get Married.) Roger the Sixth was his follow-up – but it got stuck in traffic for more than a decade.

The play begins when the newly married Marcia and Roger Bacon arrive at the former’s home. Roger knew she had been married before… but not five times! What’s more, she has a child by each of her previous husbands, and all of them have inherited the vices of their respective sires: the eldest son is a drunkard, the elder daughter is sex-mad and the younger cripplingly shy, while the other two sons are respectively a revolutionary and a juvenile delinquent. Roger sets out to solve their problems and bring them into line by traditional parenting. It is his old-fashioned method of dealing with the nymphomaniac daughter that most concerns us here.

Roger the Sixth was immediately taken to be a satire on American ‘Elizabeth Taylor style’ serial marriages, then best exemplified by the theatrical dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, who’d already had four husbands by 1940 and had reached six by the time the play was first staged. But Joseph Carole also had his eye on other Broadway trends, too. It cannot have escaped his notice that one of the big theater talking points of 1940 was spanking, thanks to John Barrymore and My Dear Children. So when Marcia’s butler tells Roger in the first act that the children need a strong hand, and he echoes the sentiment in the second act, we can guess where this is headed.

Roger’s stepdaughter Penny is trying to divorce her jealous husband George, and is obviously attracted to Roger when they first meet. She tries to vamp him, without success. Later he rebukes her, and an argument ensues in which she refers disdainfully to the strong hand he has used to curb the youngest son – which she describes as ‘attacking’ the boy. And that does it:

ROGER: As a parent maybe I should give you a dose of the same medicine.

Before Penny realizes what’s happening, Roger has grabbed her, dragged her to the divan where he sits down and manoeuvres Penny across his knees for a good old-fashioned paddling. The angry, struggling girl loudly protests this final indignity.

PENNY: Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare!

ROGER: This is something you’ve needed for a long time.

PENNY: Don’t you dare!

Roger starts laying a hefty hand across Penny’s bottom as she kicks and screams and struggles.

PENNY: Oh – Oh-hhh! Stop it! You brute, you beast! Stop it! You’re hurting me! Ohhhhh!

Roger continues laying it on. George runs in at centre and is mildly horrified by the proceedings. He hurries over to the divan and watches, almost dumbfounded, for a second or two as Penny continues her struggles and screams. Then he points a finger at Penny.

GEORGE: Say-y-y, what the hell’s the idea?

ROGER (barely looking up): Go away.

Then another character walks in.

He is also amazed, although in an amused way, as he stands there watching the spanking.

GEORGE: Goddammit, that’s my wife you’re spanking.

ROGER (desists as he glances up at George): Yeah – well, she’s my daughter.

With a quick move, Penny manages to escape from Roger’s knees and gets on her feet. She’s almost beside herself with rage and humiliation. She faces Roger, the tears running.

PENNY (words are so difficult): You – you beast! I hate you!

She rushes out, and Roger says he did this for George’s own good: in order to keep a wife, a husband must rough her up a bit. Later it turns out that he was right, George reports that her behavior is changed and the marriage saved:

GEORGE: That spanking you gave her must’ve sure hurt her feelings.

ROGER: I’m sorry.

GEORGE: Sorry, hell! It’s the best thing you ever did. What the hell did she do that made you spank her that way?

ROGER: Oh – er, she forgot to brush her teeth.

The play was picked up for production on Broadway in the 1941-2 season, but the backers weren’t happy with the script and sent it to producer Mollie B. Steinberg for a full rewrite. (She was later credited as the author in some pre-publicity.) To play Roger, they engaged Neil Hamilton …

01 Neil Hamilton

… who was later best known as Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s Batman series, but who already had an impressive track record as regards one key scene. During a spell making films in England in 1936, he first spanked his Hungarian costar Gitta Alpar in Everything in Life

02 Everything in Life

… and then spanked the aforementioned Frances Day in the aforementioned You Must Get Married. Sorry, no photo of that one, but here’s Frances…

02a Frances Day

… and here she is in a scene from the movie (just not the one we most want to see):

02b You Must Get Married

Back in the US in 1943 Neil Hamilton also spanked Rosemary Lane offscreen in All By Myself, and also in two publicity pictures for the movie.

03 All By Myself04 All By Myself

But sadly he didn’t get to do any spanking on Broadway in 1941/2, because the Roger the Sixth project collapsed.

Joseph Carole continued trying to get his play produced whilst working in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He published it in 1946, but it wasn’t until 1954 that it was finally picked up for performance … and on a different continent entirely!

The world premiere of Roger the Sixth took place on May 31, 1954, at the former London music hall, the Camberwell Palace. The Lord Chamberlain had licensed the script three days before on May 28 after a bit of mild indecision in the censor’s office about whether or not the spanking scene should be cut. Director Anthony Knowles’ casting notes survive, and they show that he originally intended ‘L. R.’ to play Roger, with ‘Madi’ as Penny. Who these actors may have been is lost in the mists of time, but when the show opened, the title role was played by American actor Bruce Gordon, later a regular in The Untouchables. And the role we might nickname, in homage to one of Carole’s influences, ‘the girl who gets spanked’ was played by 22-year-old dancer and future star Jill Melford.

NPG x87985; Jill Melford by Vivienne

(She later played Patrick Cargill’s publisher in the film version of Father Dear Father.)

It was a minor production and it went nowhere. So in 1957, Carole persuaded another company, the Repertory Players, to give it another chance. The Strand Theatre was booked for a one-night Sunday evening try-out on March 3, directed by Hubert Gregg. This time Roger was the aptly named Gordon Tanner, who later appeared in Dr Strangelove, and the recipient of Gordon’s tanning was Mary Law.

06 Mary Law

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, there was movement on the Broadway front. The play was to be a vehicle for the stage debut of Dorothy Lamour (who was spanked in And the Angels Sing back in 1944). Producers Nat Stevens and Andrew J. Breslin engaged John Holden to direct a stock production on tour, with the intention that it would then open in New York.

07 Lamour

A notable cast member was the young Alan Alda, but it is his father, Robert Alda, who matters to us: he played Roger. And the cast member who matters most of all is 22-year-old Diana Millay as the spanked Penny.

08 Diana Millay 1960

I can’t show you her actually being spanked, but to quicken your imagination a little, here she is in a movie she made ten years later:

Diana Millay 1Diana Millay 2Diana Millay 3Diana Millay 4

Sadly the 1957 Roger tour proved an ill-starred production, most memorable for the fact that Dorothy Lamour broke her ankle in a hotel bathroom and had to play Marcia in a wheelchair – fortunately Joseph Carole was on hand to write her injury into the script. In the end, the show flopped. Once again there was to be no Broadway for Roger the Sixth.

But three years later the play became an unexpected success in a very different theatrical environment – only without Joseph Carole’s script! A French adaptation by Michel André, entitled De Doux Dingues (Sweet Crazies), opened in Paris on April 8, 1960, and ran until the next year, with Suzanne Flon in the Marcia role. She had previously appeared in the original 1947 Paris production of The Little Hut, minus the spanking scene that was added in the English adaptation. She later vacated the role and was replaced by Suzy Delair, who had a spanking scene – but was replaced by a body double at the crucial moment – in the 1956 film version of Emile Zola’s Gervaise.

De Doux Dingues was a popular play that was twice shown on television, in 1964 and 1972, and has been intermittently revived across the French-speaking world into the present century. I haven’t made much of who played the Penny character, which in the original production was the rather cute Nicole Mirel …

09 Nicole Mirel

… because André’s version was heavily altered. He cut the number of previous marriages down to two, and the children to three, keeping the nympho, the shy girl and the brat. As you have probably guessed, he also cut the onstage spanking. The elder stepdaughter, now renamed Colette, does still get spanked as part of the story, but offstage and during the interval. In the second act, her stepfather, now called Michel, advises her ineffectual Italian husband to be assertive and take charge as head of the household. When we next see Colette, she has become a model of loving wifely obedience, and, once she is out of earshot, her husband explains to Michel what has worked this transformation: a sound spanking!

At around the same time the French version opened, a third British production of the original English-language version went into rehearsal. The play had been optioned in 1959 by Furndell Productions, a company run by Viscount Anthony Furness and the actor Alan Badel, who had sent it on a European tour. After seeing its success in Norway and Sweden, they engaged the actor Leslie Phillips to direct a new English production, which had a single Sunday try-out performance at the Strand Theatre, London, on April 24.

For this new version, Gordon Tanner returned to his role as Roger, but the previous Penny, Mary Law, was otherwise occupied. (She was a semi-regular in the ATV newspaper drama Deadline Midnight.) So her part went to the glamorous 29-year-old Jill Adams:

10 Jill Adams 1

Jill is going to be spanked more often than her British predecessors in the role…

11 Jill Adams 2

… because the Strand try-out went well enough for the production to go on to a full run; it opened exactly a month later at the Westminster Theatre. A photographer was present during one of the dress rehearsals, and the scene that most interests us was among those he shot, which enables me to tell you that Jill was wearing a little black dress when she was spanked. But regrettably I’ve never seen a photo of the spanking itself, if one was ever taken.

The critics differed in their assessment of the play, and in particular of the spanking scene. The News Chronicle took it quite evenly as it described the plot: ‘he sets about reforming all the children. His devices include spanking and matchmaking and generally making all the young ones realise that they have a place and then violently fitting them into it.’ The Glasgow Herald seemed to approve: ‘firm action with the palm of his hand in act three by the outraged Roger suffices to send these spoiled children back to work or marriage’. But the liberal lawyer and playwright John Mortimer, reviewing the play for the Evening Standard, seemed less approving: ‘He beats two of the children,’ he wrote, ‘one, a grown and married daughter, on stage.’ He summed this up as ‘bizarre behaviour’ that was meant to endear Roger to the audience … but apparently didn’t endear him to John Mortimer!

The London run was relatively short, and then the play was released for amateur groups. With ‘amdram’, it’s usually the case that the productions you know about are only a fraction of the productions that actually happened, but it’s still telling that I have only seen evidence of a single amateur production of Roger the Sixth. It took place in 1965, and was given by the Claremont Dramatic Society in Cape Town, which was unfortunately not the nicest place in the world during the years between 1948 and 1994.

And in the meantime, Joseph Carole continued his efforts to get the play produced in America. He told the press that he revised the script 18 times while it was under consideration by prospective managements. Its moment seemed to have come when it was optioned in 1962, now under the title Deceive Me Gently. A Broadway production was planned in the fall… but once again the plans collapsed before the curtain went up.

Maybe it was just as well. Had Roger the Sixth opened as planned in the fall of 1962, its Broadway competitors would have been Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Beyond the Fringe. It had been stuck in traffic so long that it was now a play out of its time, a relic from the age of FDR in the new era of JFK. Theater was moving on, becoming a different kind of animal… and spanking scenes would move on with it, as we shall discover next time when we encounter a much, much newer play…

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