‘I think everyone’s dotty and daffy — but who cares?’ So ends the 1934 farce Dotty and Daffy, whose ultra-complicated plot leads through many a Byzantine curlicue to a climax involving this:
A double spanking for the title characters, Dorothy and Daphne Travers, known as Dotty and Daffy for short.
The Travers household is in such financial difficulties that the servants are planning to leave, but the two daughters of the house have each independently taken steps to remedy this. In one respect the plans are remarkably similar: each of them has forged a letter from their widowed mother. But the two plans are also completely incompatible. The letter fabricated by Daffy was to accept a marriage proposal from Hugh Rand, an old beau of Mrs Travers; Dotty, meanwhile, wrote their rich but man-hating great aunt Hester to let her know that Mrs Travers has come over to her point of view, brought up her daughters accordingly and intends that she herself will never marry again – and, incidentally, would Aunt Hester consider changing her will in their favor?
A third side of the problem then appears: Mrs Travers writes to tell the girls that she has found herself a rich fiancé, Paxton Belmont. The flies in that ointment are Dotty and Daffy – or, more precisely, the inconvenient fact that they are aged 20 and 18 respectively, because Mrs Travers has led Paxton to believe that she herself is only 29 years old. So when they meet their prospective stepfather, and indeed his son Jack, Dotty and Daffy have to dress up as young girls. They do – and behave like terrible brats. For good measure, their boyfriends Jimmie and Freddie – who don’t want the Travers family to become rich beyond their own league – pose as two hitherto unsuspected ruffian sons who terrorize Paxton and assault Jack.
As with any good farce, the plot entails the central characters trying to keep all the various deceptions in play for the various people who need to be convinced. Because Aunt Hester is coming to stay, Dotty and Daffy have to become young women again. And of course there is one more problem: Hugh Rand is also coming, and, hearing tell that he’s a millionaire, Mrs Travers flip-flops. The engagement to Paxton needs to be off, so Dotty and Daffy resume their juvenile identities…
The girls’ campaign of harassment does not go well for them. They pull chairs out from behind Paxton and Jack just as they are sitting down, causing father and son to fall to the ground. And that does it:
DOROTHY: Did de funny man break his backy-wacky?
PAXTON (scrambling to his feet, snarls): I’ll attend to your backy-wacky.
(Paxton grabs Dorothy and Daphne before they realize what he is about.)
PAXTON: You little devils! If I’m going to be your stepfather, I’ll start in with a little opportune chastisement right now!
(Jack gets to his feet.)
PAXTON: Help me, son! Do your duty.
(He shoves Daphne toward Jack, who catches her. Paxton grabs a book from the table, turns the surprised and aghast Dorothy across his knee, and starts to spank her.)
(Jack does the same to Daphne.)
(Both the girls shriek at the top of their lungs. Jimmie rushes on, followed by Freddie and the bewildered Hugh.)
JIMMIE (shouts): What’s going on in here?
DOROTHY: Help! Jimmie, he’s killing me!
DAPHNE (shrieks): Save me, Freddie! Save me!
The junior play at Hendricks High School, Minnesota, in the school year 1955-56
FREDDIE (howls): Spanking our girls!
(Paxton and Jack jump to their feet, spilling the girls on the floor.)
And, scared by the sudden appearance of the two boys, Paxton and Jack run away.
Dotty and Daffy, copyrighted on July 6, 1934, was written by Jay Tobias (1896-1959), a Missourian with over 40 plays to his name. This may have meant, among other things, an occasional chance for him to indulge a few private fantasies. Six years later, in 1940, he wrote Damsels in Distress, which the Chicago Tribune called ‘a farce so screamingly funny that it practically plays itself’, and which builds up to this climax:
In other words, Jay Tobias seems to have had a thing about double spankings!
But one thing play-writing didn’t offer him was untold riches: he lived for most of his life at home with his parents, taking his fraction of the $10 per production his publishers usually charged amateurs for the rights. ‘Am dram’ was big in 1940s America: across the country, there were half a million amateur shows every year, at high schools, churches, youth groups and women’s societies, but playwrights like Tobias had to be prolific to keep that market supplied.
Dotty and Daffy did fairly solid business for twenty years or so: the earliest known production was at Verona High School, Pennsylvania, in February 1935, and it only began to peter out in the mid-1950s. The latest production I’ve managed to trace was in the school year 1968-69 at Fox High School, Oklahoma, with Debbie Smith and Barbara Barnett in the title roles:
Those bloomers illustrate the striking paradox, which we have also seen in productions of Act Your Age, that anxiety about what the girls might accidentally show in their juvenile costumes seems to increase during the very period when everyday teen fashions saw progressively shorter skirts. But perhaps Debbie and Barbara were glad of the extra protection!
One reason they might have needed it is the script’s hint that Paxton spanks Dotty with a book rather than his hand, as seen in the picture at the top of the article. But it is only a hint, and was often disregarded.
There are two practical reasons why the flat of the hand was preferred. The first is that, however beautifully designed for its primary function, a book isn’t very convenient to wield as a spanking implement. And the general reason for using an implement at all, that it makes more of an impact, isn’t there in the theater. You don’t often see a hairbrush spanking in a stage play, because the objective isn’t to hurt the actress but to look spectacular, and you can do that just as well with the hand.
At least the girls can count on their boyfriends to rescue them. Or can they? Because when the junior class at Columbus Grove High School, Ohio, produced the play in the school year 1952-53…
Can’t a girl trust anyone?