Today’s stage play started out as a movie and, for reasons that will become obvious, most of what I have to say is about the movie itself rather than the stage adaptation. It belongs to the established Czech genre of the dramatic fairytale, of which the most important cinematic example is probably Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973). Honza Malem Kralem – the title translates as Honza Almost a King – is a less coherent, less accomplished film overall, but from our point of view it has one big thing going for it: a really outstanding spanking scene!
The story is a striking combination of familiar material with fresh. Honza’s mother is tired of him loafing about the house, and sends him out into the world to make his fortune. The key to this, he believes, is a royal proclamation about the Princess: she has lost the power of speech, and anyone who can break the spell and make her talk will be awarded her hand in marriage along with half the kingdom. Fine in principle, but in practice there are three complications. The first is the additional stipulation that anyone who attempts the task and fails will be beheaded. Secondly, en route to the court Honza meets and falls in love with the beautiful peasant girl Marjanka – so does he really want the Princess after all?
The answer becomes clear when he meets her – and encounters the third complication. She is beautiful … and horrendously spoilt. And the speechlessness turns out to be a prank, not a spell, as Honza discovers when he does something the Princess objects to: he kisses her, releasing a tirade of abuse. How dare a mere peasant do such a thing!
Never mind: Honza has fulfilled the conditions of the proclamation, and goes to tell the King. But he reckons without the Princess, who takes her revenge by stubbornly remaining silent, knowing that this will cost him his head. What a nasty, naughty girl!
The morning of the execution arrives and the crowds have gathered to see Honza’s head roll. Even Death has come to claim him, in the terrifying form of an old woman with a scythe. But first he has a last request. He calls the Princess over… and does something else that she objects to, which gives her little option but to speak – though most of the words are variations on ‘Ouch!’, ‘Help!’ and ‘Stop!’
‘She speaks,’ exclaims the delighted King, and with his sceptre mimics the up and down movement of Honza’s arm. ‘Just spank her! What a sweet voice!’ The crowd like it too!
The sore-bottomed Princess retires in disarray. Honza is now entitled to both her and half the kingdom, but he settles for a chest of gold instead, leaving him free to marry Marjanka. And home he goes … unfortunately losing all the gold en route!
This is not one of the traditional Czech fairytales, but it does feature a traditional fairytale character, Honza – the equivalent of the English ‘Idle Jack’ – and a number of classic fairytale motifs. The story was specially devised for the film by scriptwriter Oldrich Kautsky (1906-80) in collaboration with the director, Borivoj Zeman (1912-91). Zeman’s track record in the fairytale genre included The Proud Princess (1952) and The Incredibly Sad Princess (1968), so a story about a spanked Princess was perhaps a natural next step. But the objective with Honza Malem Kralem was also to extend the genre’s boundaries by making a family musical that would be a vehicle for a current pop star – a bit like the Elvis or Cliff Richard movies of the early Sixties.
And this is where things started to come unstuck. In the movie as it was made, the role of Honza is played by the pop star Jiri Korn, who was so obviously cast for his musical ability alone that whenever he isn’t singing his dialog has been dubbed by the stage actor Michal Pavlata. But the intended casting had the actor and satirical stand-up comedian Ludek Sobota down to play Honza – a performer who could sing, but wasn’t primarily known as a singer. The part intended for a pop star was, rather bizarrely, the silent Princess, and the star to whom it was offered was Hana Zagorova. Here she is:
But these castings didn’t work out. Sobota was deemed politically unacceptable (remember, Czechoslovakia, as it then was, was a Soviet bloc country), and Hana Zagorova turned down the role of the Princess. It’s tempting to imagine that might have been because she didn’t want to be spanked, but the simple truth is that she was booked on a foreign tour and wasn’t available on the filming dates. It’s also tempting to imagine that the casting changes caused a rethink of the script, because as well as going from an actor to a pop star to play Honza, the Princess went the other way, from pop star to actress. Who knows, maybe the Princess was originally supposed to sing as she was spanked!
Here’s the actress who ultimately landed the part, 29-year-old Jorga Kotrbova:
She had already played two fairytale heroines on television, the title roles in The Princess and the Pea (1971) and Goldilocks (1973), but in the cinema her luck had run out: she was going to be playing a part that one critic memorably called ‘the only fairytale Princess to have her uncovered bottom shown to the audience’.
In the summer of 1976, the film unit gathered at picturesque Krivoklat Castle in Central Bohemia to shoot the courtyard scenes, including, most importantly, the spanking that gives the story its climax and allows Honza to keep his head. It was now that Jiri Korn, not yet a very experienced actor, took an important decision: he wasn’t going to fake the spanking – he would do it for real!
This was a surprise for Jorga Kotrbova as shooting got underway, and it is fair to say that it was not a welcome one. She took it like a professional, then complained once she was back upright… but the director was pleased with the authenticity of the scene and ignored her objections.
Her complaint wasn’t futile, because of the way films are made: she had been spanked once, but she was going to be spanked again… and again! There may have been an initial rehearsal without the cameras running – and then the scene would be played through repeatedly for however many camera angles were required to assemble the whole sequence. Films are almost always made with only one camera: each shot is set and lit separately, with a fresh performance of the scene each time. Some movie spankings are done in a single shot, so that the actual performance only has to be given once unless retakes are required. But the Honza spanking is uncommonly long: it lasts for around 50 seconds of screen time, and there are a total of 46 audible smacks (with more drowned out by the music). By any standards it’s a very sound spanking for the Princess; but what made it an even more formidable ordeal for Jorga Kotrbova was the need to break it up into multiple shots taken from different angles.
The spanking is carried out across thirteen different shots. Seven of them are cutaways to the various people watching the spanking. Two more are reaction shots of the Princess’s upper half. In both cases, there was no need for any spanking during the shooting: the sound of the smacks would have been dubbed on by the foley artist in post-production and probably wouldn’t have involved any actual bottom-smacking.
It’s also worth noticing one detail of the second cutaway shot of the protesting Princess.
The piece of white cloth seen to the right of the frame is the top of her skirt – but in the ‘down’ position. This will be clearer if you compare the publicity photo taken from the reverse angle:
So not only was Jorga not being spanked as she acted her heart out for the cutaway – she didn’t even have her bloomers on show!
That leaves four shots in which the ‘business end’ of the spanking is onscreen, with a total of twenty smacks shown, and, no doubt, some more in the offcuts that would have been removed in editing. Now let’s look at them in detail.
First Honza puts the Princess over his knee.
That’s a lovely layered skirt. In fact, it’s still in existence, proudly displayed in a Czech museum:
But those layers are going to dull the impact. There’s nothing for it:
The first smack lands.
Honza pulls the skirts up further, giving himself an even less obstructed target…
… and as his hand falls a second time, we cut away to the other end of the Princess, to be shown how little she likes it, and then to her father, whose opinion is somewhat different.
Now we cut to a high shot taken from the castle walls, putting the spanking more clearly into its public context:
This is obviously a completely different camera setup, with a bearded guard standing roughly where the camera would have been to take the first shot of the sequence. What’s perhaps not quite so obvious is that the Princess’s position has changed slightly: she’s not so far forward over Honza’s knee, so that her right foot can just reach the ground.
We cut away again to the figure of Death, who sees how this is going to turn out: Honza will not be hers today, and off she goes with a musical sting. And then another cut returns our attention to a different sort of sting, this time in close-up:
For this shot, the aptly named cinematographer, Ivan Slapeta, had the camera mounted on a dolly and pulled backward like a miniature railway train, so that the shot gradually widens:
This is the most extended of the spanking shots, with nine smacks administered, and it is followed by the most extended run of cutaways, taking in the crowd, the Princess protesting and the King continuing to enjoy the spectacle. Finally the King decides it’s time to intervene, and hands over his orb to a minion. We cut back to Honza as the very last smack lands:
He reaches over to pull the Princess off his knee:
Notice here that her right foot doesn’t reach the ground, unlike in the long shot!
Her skirt begins to right itself, but her hair is in disarray.
And that’s a petulant Princess properly punished!
There’s one more thing to notice about the three ground-level spanking shots. The extended middle one begins at this position…
… and tracks out to this closing position:
This is almost identical to the opening position when we come back to see the end of the spanking:
It’s pretty clear that these are actually the same shot split in two in the cutting room, to serve as both the middle and the end of the spanking, with perhaps only a few frames excised in between. Now compare the start of the spanking:
The framing of the shot reveals that this is a completely different camera setup; even the light has changed. So although there are four shots of the spanking itself, including the one from a high angle, there were actually only three setups to be done. Which means that Jorga Kotrbova was spanked at least three times – plus retakes.
One thing that’s pleasing about the sequence is the attention to detail in the Princess’s costume, from her golden shoes right up to the little gravity-defying coronet that stays on her head throughout the spanking…
… and only gets displaced when she is finally released:
And who can forget those rich girl’s polka-dot bloomers?
But take a closer look, paying especial attention to the color.
Jorga’s modern bikini panties can be seen underneath!
Honza Malem Kralem was released in Czechoslovakia on the first day of July 1977, and it came out in East Germany in time for Christmas the following year. But politics limited its circulation to the totalitarian side of the Iron Curtain, and after its initial run it disappeared for about a decade, until Czech television revived it as seasonal viewing in the 1980s. It has since become a national favorite, and is now released on DVD in both the Czech Republic and Germany; the Czech edition has the original soundtrack, but the dubbed German disc has a better print.
And one thing we know about the Czechs is that, in common with England and America, they enjoy turning beloved movies into stage plays, sometimes in multiple versions. The earliest stage Honza I know of was a school production in Prague in 1988. But here, like Honza himself, we hit three complications…
Honza Malem Kralem is a family-friendly movie in a genre that is deemed especially suitable for children, so the various stage versions have often been treated as children’s plays – which sometimes means not only for very young audiences but very young performers too. Enough said about that!
Rest assured, it is sometimes performed by adult casts, and occasionally even by puppets. (There was a marionette version at Chrudim in 2015, and another as far afield as Mexico in 2008. I have no idea how they did the spanking!) Here are the key characters, albeit regrettably not at the key moment, in a version adapted by Misa Kocurova (the reward on offer is to become Mayor rather than King) for an amateur production in 2007 in the town of Rychvald:
And here’s a Slovak production in Oponice in December 2014:
The more recent production features a mixed-age cast, but both Princesses are certainly old enough for what’s coming to them!
But whoever’s performing, it’s usually low-end theater, often amateur, municipal or community-based, and rarely commercial – and that’s great for the communities concerned, but makes it uncommonly difficult for historians (whether of theater or spanking) to track down the productions. And even when they are tracked down, the third complication kicks in: production photography tends to be sporadic, and rarely if ever covers the play’s climactic moment.
The spanking is such a central part of the story that one can’t imagine it being omitted: the Princess has certainly been played by adult actresses, and presumably they have all been spanked. But the disappointing fact is that I can’t show you even a single photograph of the spanking in any stage production.
The search goes on… and in the meantime – enjoy the movie!
Update (2017): And for some spectacular research results, go here.