In the Hollywood studios from the Thirties to the Fifties and beyond, there were broadly two types of stills photography. One took place during a movie’s principal photography, on the set and usually between takes: the pictures document the scenes as they are in the process of being shot for the movie itself. But our subject today is the other type, when the actors did a separate photocall for publicity purposes, maybe weeks or even months after filming had wrapped.
You can tell publicity shoot pics of this era at a glance: the actors are usually shown in an uncluttered environment, often with a white background that can be easily cropped out should the image be selected for use on the film poster. They may reenact scenes from the movie, but equally they may just strike some cute poses. And if it’s a two-actor shoot centring on the male and female stars, one of the cute poses they might be asked to strike was…
There are various early examples of on-set spanking shots, like this attractive one from Spring is Here (1930):
Whereas in the publicity studio…
The earliest known studio (rather than on-set) spanking publicity shot is for On the Level (1930), with Victor McLaglen and Fifi D’Orsay:
This was soon followed by The Bachelor Father (1931), with C. Aubrey Smith and Marion Davies:
For the next thirty years or so, all the major studios did them. The latest American example I’ve seen is from 1964, by which time a lot of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output was for the small screen.
And in Europe the tradition seems to have died out only a little later:
And the participants weren’t just B-listers destined for places only in the footnotes of cinema history. Here’s the legendary W. C. Fields with Nurse Gracie Allen in the publicity shoot for International House (1933):
And here’s Joanne Woodward, just two years before her Oscar-winning performance in The Three Faces of Eve, being spanked by Van Heflin for Count Three and Pray (1955):
As I said before, sometimes the picture is a restaging of a scene from the film, meaning that the actress had to go across her costar’s knee a second time. Here’s an example from that quintessential spanking movie, McLintock! (1963):
The climactic spanking scene in Our Wife (1941) took two separate publicity sessions to do it justice. First Melvyn Douglas had Ellen Drew to himself, producing what must be some of the most attractive of all spanking film stills:
Notice how they’ve rumpled the back of her dress in the next picture, as if to suggest that some spanking has been taking place:
Now we move to a second session on another day, with a complete change of clothes and even a new hairdo for Ellen. Our two stars are joined by Ruth Hussey to handle Stage 2 of the spanking, just as she did on screen:
But sometimes the publicity version looks nothing like the movie scene. Here’s Frontier Gal on set:
And on screen:
Whereas in the publicity photographer’s studio, they had Yvonne de Carlo wearing her saloon gal’s dress instead of her frontier buckskins…
… which meant a completely new version of the spanking:
Sometimes the spanking scene is recreated with amendments that reflect additional elements of the film. Take, for instance, Stronger Than Desire (1939). Walter Pidgeon plays Tyler Flagg, a defense attorney who saves publicity-seeking New York socialite Barbara Winter (Rita Johnson) from conviction on a manslaughter charge. But Barbara falls for him and pursues him onto the train to Boston as he’s traveling to see his next client. Flagg, who has been obliged to leave his wife and daughter in New York, is not amused. He elicits from her that she embarked on her career of ‘mischief’ at the age of fifteen. ‘And didn’t it occur to anyone to start beating you then? Didn’t anyone think it would be a good idea to curb your animal instincts by brute force?’ No, they didn’t – so the responsibility falls on him. ‘The pleasure is all mine, Miss Winter.’
Which just goes to show that he’s wrong: actually some of the pleasure is ours…
The scene was photographed on set, differently posed to get a full-face shot of both actors, plus, for added risqué impact, a little more satin petticoat than was exposed on screen:
Now, here’s the rub: despite what we are likely to remember it for, Stronger Than Desire isn’t really a film about the taming of a spoiled rich girl by her upright, incorruptible lawyer. In fact, Rita Johnson is the bottom-billed player – by which I don’t mean that she gets billed because of what the lawyer does to her bottom! And Pidgeon doesn’t have top billing, either: that goes to Virginia Bruce, playing Flagg’s wife Elizabeth.
The story of the movie is about how Elizabeth, feeling neglected because her husband is so busy at work, sees another man and ends up involved in a murder case herself. Barbara Winter is there to underline that Flagg is, nevertheless, a faithful husband, and the way he proves it when Barbara offers herself to him is to spank her. It’s a spanking that’s not supposed to be in any way romantic, even if its effect is to make Barbara kiss him.
But when the publicists got to work in the photographic studio, they used all three actors to pose a new version of the spanking scene:
This turns the focus back onto the marital relationship at the center of the story, by showing Elizabeth intervening to restrain her husband from temptation – so in spanking Barbara, Flagg seems to be playing around rather than rejecting her offer as in the movie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie story had reasserted itself by the time the photo was used in publicity material…
…though one unintended side-effect of this is that, in some of the ads, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s Virginia Bruce who gets spanked!
And that’s not the only example of a spanking publicity still that completely rethought the original scene. Here’s Allan Jones spanking Susanna Foster, playing reform school teenager Toodles LaVerne in There’s Magic in Music (1941):
That was on set, and Jones was being assisted by Lynne Overman (who also took Paulette Goddard across his knee in North West Mounted Police the year before). But in the publicity studio, they had Margaret Lindsay instead.
One thing they unfortunately didn’t have was a chair for Allan Jones to sit on!
These are examples where the photo is representing, however tenuously, a scene from the film. But often the publicity spanking has nothing to do with anything that actually happens in the movie, just part of the run of ‘normal’ situations you might find happening between a man and a woman. In Behave Yourself! (1951), Shelley Winters behaved herself well enough not to be turned over screen husband Farley Granger’s knee, but things were different at the publicity shoot:
Likewise there were certain situations and relationships that may not have led to a spanking on screen, but lent themselves naturally to one when the photographer was trying to find distinctive poses to show what the movie was about. Take Dear Ruth (1947), in which Ruth’s younger sister Miriam (Mona Freeman) has been using her name in correspondence with a soldier pen-friend – just like in the stage play Act Your Age, in fact. Viewers of the movie might well ponder the same question as has been occasionally asked about Act Your Age: why doesn’t the mendacious letter-writer get what she deserves? I can’t answer for the film itself, but at least the publicists knew what they were doing when they called Mona and her screen father, Edward Arnold, for a session in the photography studio. Because what do fathers do to naughty daughters?
The answer was so obvious, in fact, that when they made the second sequel, Dear Brat (1951), in which the incorrigible Miriam sets up a prisoners’ aid society in her family’s name and foolishly hires a crook as a gardener, the publicists gave the brat the same treatment a second time:
This was another one where the picture they shot turned out to be not quite what was wanted after all – but they didn’t have a second spanking shot that was exactly what they did want. So for the movie poster they made an attractive composite version from other elements to give Mona a new smiling face and a pair of kicking legs.
Can you spot where they got her legs from?
(If you need a hint, tear your eyes away from the spanking and look down and to the left…)
When an actual father is unavailable, a surrogate will do. In Saddle Tramp (1950), cowboy Joel McCrea finds himself in loco parentis to runaway Wanda Hendrix:
Other family relationships are available. In Broadway Rhythm (1944), George Murphy plays a producer who feels betrayed when his father mounts a rival show starring his sister, played by Gloria de Haven:
And romance often means spanking too, even in the green woods of merrie olde England. Here’s Cornel Wilde as the son of Robin Hood in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946). Luckily for his prospects, Anita Louise is not playing the daughter of Maid Marian:
Spanking is romantic not just because it was an acceptable substitute for sex in a more repressed era, but also (stop thinking about sex now) because it represented the transfer of paternal responsibilities to a girl’s husband. That’s why brides traditionally meet the fate of Joan Leslie at the hands of Robert Hutton in Janie Gets Married (1946):
And there can be institutional contexts for spanking too, notably in the educational sector. A wave of campus comedies in the Thirties meant a line of starlets needing to be admitted to college sororities, which inevitably entailed the risk of…
That’s Florence Lake paddling Mary Carlisle in a publicity shot for The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1933), named after the popular romantic song. Though since Mary’s character is an egregious, incorrigible flirt, what she really deserves is:
I don’t think frat boys like Jack Oakie are supposed to get involved in paddling coeds, but when it’s Mary Kornman in College Humor (1933), the publicity men obviously didn’t worry themselves about plausibility:
… whereas sometimes they were, very plausibly, remedying an omission in the movie itself. In I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947), June Haver played a conniving showgirl:
She should have been…
And in Under Fiesta Stars (1941), Gene Autry acquired a troublesome business partner in Carol Hughes…
… but neglected to do the obvious thing with her:
At the very least, the pictures are generally well posed, because in the photographic studio (unlike in a real spanking) there’s the time to get it right, and (also unlike in a real spanking) both parties are cooperating:
So there’s no need for the photographer to settle for a mere smacking, though that did happen in the case of Hazard (1948), with Paulette Goddard and Macdonald Carey:
Never mind, Paulette already had an admirable OTK track record, including not only onscreen spankings in the aforementioned North West Mounted Police (1940) and then Reap the Wild Wind (1942), but also, most recently, a publicity session for Suddenly It’s Spring (1947), also starring Fred MacMurray:
At their best, the photos are also witty. Here’s a sequence featuring Kirk Douglas and Laraine Day as boss and secretary in My Dear Secretary (1948). The movie features a lot of powerplay about the secretary keeping the boss in line:
And the publicity set mimics this, along with the movie’s romantic plot, by addressing the issue of what’s the best way for her to take dictation:
And when Red Skelton played the title role in The Fuller Brush Man (1948), maybe it was obvious that he would be shown giving his lady clients a demonstration of his wares:
Sometimes the photos form a sequence with a little story of their own, in which the spanking forms the payoff. Our example features Dennis O’Keefe and Florence Rice in Vacation from Love (1938):
Of course, these pictures were shot specifically to publicize the movie, and, as we have seen, sometimes they ended up feeding directly into the publicity material. Here are Van Johnson and June Allyson in Too Young To Kiss (1951):
And if she’s too young to kiss, what’s to be done with her?
And what’s to be done with the resultant publicity photo?
And in this case the studio shot also became the basis for a new piece of poster artwork for the Danish market:
But none of this has anything but a tenuous connection with the spanking scene itself, which took place beside a swimming pool, with June wearing pajamas and a dressing gown:
What this reflects is the way publicity considerations trump fidelity to what was actually shot, a point that may be even better illustrated by the case of Professional Sweetheart (1933), with Ginger Rogers – just before she made her name partnered with Fred Astaire – playing a singer, branded as a ‘purity girl’. Her costar Norman Foster is a priggish boyfriend selected for her solely for publicity reasons, who is surprised to discover that she doesn’t want to be pure and scandalized when she takes to dancing around in her underwear. His disappointment is expressed thus:
So Ginger is spanked whilst wearing a slip and stockings, which was somewhat racy (it’s a pre-Code picture). But earlier in the movie she also wears an even racier outfit:
She even dances in it:
And she wore it again for the publicity session with Norman:
What will he do with her?
Well, maybe. But first…
And that’s why it was inevitable that sometimes the publicity material seemed to promise a spanking scene that was nowhere to be found in the movie itself. Shirley Temple did not get the hairbrush across the knees of Walter Abel in Kiss and Tell (1945)…
… despite what is suggested in the lovingly rendered publicity artwork…
… and in various other more direct uses of the pictures:
Likewise, in Hit Parade of 1943, the relationship between songwriter Susan Hayward and John Carroll, the composer she ghosts for, may have had its ups and downs…
… but on screen the downs didn’t include…
… despite what the lobby cards outside the movie theaters seemed to promise!
We can see this process over and over again as we track the spoor of some of these non-spanking movies through the years. Posters promised…
Lobby cards promised…
Press advertisements promised…
In fact, the studios’ pressbooks, issued to impresarios, actively encouraged such promises!
Fan magazines promised…
Celebrity gossip features promised…
Decades later, home video covers promised…
Hell, the stars even signed photographs of scenes they were never in!
And that’s why older spanking enthusiasts tended to dislike publicity stills: they were understandably annoyed at being enticed to watch a movie on the basis of, in effect, false advertising – though you might hope they could find something to enjoy about the movie even without a spanking! But nowadays, knowing already which of the pictures do and don’t represent the movie accurately, we shouldn’t feel at all gypped: we can simply enjoy them as attractive spanking images in their own right which – let’s face it – we wouldn’t have if the studio publicists had been more accurate about the movie they were promoting.
In fact, sometimes I wish they could have done it more often. Here’s one of the studio publicity shots for The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marilyn Monroe:
So near and yet so far!
So what it all seems to boil down to is that the Hollywood studios knew that a hint of spanking would help sell their movies. But there is another intriguing possibility.
Here’s Elizabeth Taylor in the publicity shoot for Father of the Bride (1950):
And here she is with Spencer Tracy, who isn’t quite done with the responsibilities of fatherhood:
Once again, those two images don’t correspond to any scene to be found in the movie. But a decade and a half later, the director, Vincente Minnelli, found himself working with Elizabeth Taylor again. The project was The Sandpiper, Taylor’s co-star was her husband, the great Richard Burton, and it was around the time of the first anniversary of their first wedding. Minnelli arranged a special screening of Father of the Bride – and, according to the press, Burton ‘absolutely fell about when he saw the segment in which Mrs Burton is soundly spanked – old-fashioned style – by Spencer Tracy’. Over-imaginative newspaper reporting, perhaps? Or could it be a scene that was deleted from the release print of the film, but still remained in the director’s copy?
Maybe those spanking publicity stills for non-spanking movies weren’t frauds after all. Maybe, instead, they are clues to what happened in unseen earlier versions!
Acknowledgement: Some of the spanking images featured here were discovered by Richard Windsor, whose website features many more.