James Reach’s comedy Meet the Duchess is set in Mrs Plop’s Hollywood boarding house, where it seems everyone’s a would-be star, from patrons like Joy January the struggling singer all the way down to Dixie the maid – ‘I has gota distificate fum de Elocution Academy whut says I is de formostes’ colored dramatic actress,’ she says, giving us a clue why this is a play that isn’t going to be revived anytime soon…
It was copyrighted on October 8, 1936, and lasted for a generation of high school performances before changes in Tinseltown made it seem dated. quite apart from other things that were going on in mid-Sixties America. The main plot concerns a casting opportunity for Elsie, a small-town girl who was a success in her high school production of Romeo and Juliet and has come to Hollywood expecting to be discovered. Unemployed press agent Ronnie Ward is trying to sell a screenplay to the mogul Sam Strudel, but is having no luck because one of the characters is a young Frenchwoman; with boneheaded literalness, Strudel has convinced himself that such a part can only be played a French actress, and there isn’t one to be found in Hollywood. And so it is arranged for him to meet, not Elsie Blake but the Duchess Elsie le Blaque. Ronnie enlists the rest of the boarding house as accomplices in the deception by promising that, if Strudel buys the script, every one of them will be cast in the movie.
The budding star that most concerns us is Kewpie Muggles: ‘a little angel out of heaven’ whose devilry her mother puts down to an artistic temperament – for she is, allegedly, ‘a better actress than Shirley Temple’. Yes, it’s another take on the Thirties phenomenon of the Hollywood child star, which Reach later made the theme of his short, pseudonymous play of 1940, Child Wonder. So it’s as well to emphasize from the start that, just like Child Wonder, Meet the Duchess was written for amateur performance by teenagers, one of whom would be expected to ‘age down’ to play the role of the spoiled, temperamental Kewpie. Meaning that, whatever the character’s age might be, the actress will always be old enough for what happens to her:
The senior play at Wells High School, Nevada, on March 29, 1952: Elaine Hill gets a spanking from Kenneth Smith
The first thing Kewpie does onstage is to put a pin into the leg of another of the boarding house guests, an ageing thesp called Gaylord Grant, whose not unreasonable reaction is, ‘What! You little vixen! I’ll – I’ll -‘ The sentence peters out, smothered in a wash of motherly indulgence, and Gaylord laughs off ‘the natural exuberance of her elfish disposition’. And that is only the first moment when Kewpie’s fate is telegraphed. As dinner is served later in the first act, the little darling protests about the menu (she doesn’t like lamb), and Mrs Plop the landlady tells her, ‘If you wuz my brat, you’d get a lamb chop – where it would do you the most good.’
In the middle of the second act, a young man named Erasmus Q. Dinsmore arrives. He claims to be a Harvard professor, but seems touchy whenever people ask him about his identity and credentials. That’s because, secretly, he’s also a Massachusetts millionaire whose checkbook will bring about the play’s happy ending once Sam Strudel turns out to be not quite such a fool as they all take him for. But Professor Dinsmore has something else to bring about first, when he has a disagreeable initial encounter with Kewpie.
KEWPIE: Who’re you?
DINSMORE: And how, may I inquire, does that concern you?
KEWPIE: What’re you doin’ here? This ain’t your house.
DINSMORE: My child, it grieves me to observe that you are sadly lacking in the rudiments of common courtesy.
KEWPIE: Aw, shut up. Think you’re smart, don’t you?
JOY: Good for you, Professor!
DINSMORE: My little angel, have you ever been soundly and thoroughly spanked?
KEWPIE: No I ain’t. Nobody spanks me.
DINSMORE: Just as I thought.
KEWPIE: My Mom won’t let nobody spank me on account of I’m an artist and temperamental.
DINSMORE: A questionable procedure, psychologically.
KEWPIE: Aw, you’re just a nut! Yah, that’s what you are – a nut.
DINSMORE: Since I am not your mother, and since your artistic temperament does not concern me, I have no qualms about performing what I conceive to be my duty.
(Suddenly he grabs her and puts her across his knee.)
KEWPIE: Stop it! Stop it! I’ll tell my Mom! Stop it!
(He proceeds to spank her.)
JOY: Attaboy, Professor! Give her one for me!
DINSMORE: With pleasure.
KEWPIE: Ouch! Don’t! Don’t! Aaawww! (Starts to bawl.)
(Dixie enters and stares at him wide-eyed.)
DIXIE: Lan’ sakes alive! Whut you doin’?
(Dinsmore continues with the spanking.)
DINSMORE: Something that I gather should have been done a long time ago. And now, my child, you will thank me for this some day.
(He lets her up.)
KEWPIE (bawling): Aaawww! I’m gonna tell my Mom, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna tell my Mom!
(Kewpie runs out.)
That’s quite an extended spanking – in fact, a newspaper reviewer called it the highlight of a 1940 production at Irvington High School, New York – and it also impresses those who witness it onstage. Dixie asks Dinsmore if he’s going to become a resident. He says he hopes to. ‘So do I!’ replies Dixie – meaning, of course, that she wants Kewpie kept in line…
And there are indeed some more good spankings in Kewpie’s future. When Strudel visits, she is asked to perform an audition piece for him, but she won’t do it without throwing a tantrum first. Afterwards she is nervous in Dinsmore’s presence and her mother tells her that if he doesn’t spank her – she will do it herself! And the last we see of the awful brat, she is fleeing the stage with Mrs Muggles in hot pursuit…
Gordon Caldwell spanks Kathleen Williams in the production at Marion High School, Indiana, performed on December 13 and 14, 1939