You can’t always rely on a title. The 1964 episode of The Dick van Dyke Show entitled ‘How to Spank a Star’ contains an awful lot of talk about how van Dyke intends to spank guest star Lola Albright…
… but the talk never translates into literal action, making the episode a profound disappointment.
All of which is merely by way of preface to saying that Jean de Létraz doesn’t let us down in his 1936 stage comedy entitled La Fessée!
Létraz (1897-1954) wrote more than a hundred plays. The best known outside France was the 1944 farce Moumou, which was adapted into English as Pajama Tops and has been widely produced in England and America (notably in 1966 at St Helen’s, a production which included an early role for Elisabeth Sladen). Another was Adrien, about a bank messenger who invents motorized rollerskates, that was adapted into a movie in 1943. One minor addition in the screen version is a flashback to a marital disagreement over breakfast, between Arlette (Paulette Dubost), daughter of a capitalist who hopes to exploit the invention, and her husband Étienne (Roger Duchesne). Since this involves her slapping his face, it’s only to be expected that what follows is a swift chase around the room and then…
But all of that came later. In 1936, Létraz was riding high on the success of his comedy Bichon, which premiered the year before and is his best known play inside France. While he was pondering what to write next, he found himself in Bourg-en-Bresse in the east of the country, and paid a visit to the town’s picturesque medieval church, the Eglise de Brou, which is known for its 104 misericords.
Misericords are medieval church wood-carvings, often found underneath seats. They provide a counterpoint to the spiritual glories of mainstream church art, representing grotesque figures and trivial scenes of everyday life. It was one of these that caught the playwright’s eye, and his imagination, on his visit to Bourg-en-Bresse. It is traditionally given the title ‘La Correction Maritale’:
Husbands, realized Létraz, have been spanking their wives for centuries. A wife who has never deserved it, he mused, must be a rare phenomenon, and boringly perfect. So maybe his next comedy should be about a wife who does deserve it, and gets it: La Fessée!
The 45-year-old nouveau riche businessman Lucien Pousset has married 30-year-old Hermine, the daughter of an aristocratic nouveau pauvre family, which gives him not only a tiresome mother-in-law but also a snobbish, stubborn, wilful wife. One of things she’s stubborn about is keeping the windows and curtains open. It’s a daily bone of contention between husband and wife, not least because the man who lives across the road, Albert Grésillons, is an amateur photographer who is continually taking snaps of their apartment.
The climax of the first act is an row between Lucien and Hermine which goes round virtually every possible kind of minor marital disagreement, and features many vegetables being thrown about.
Eventually they end up back with the matter of the open window. He’s going to close it. If he does, she says, she will open it again. And if he takes that tone with her, he won’t find her at home when he comes back from work tomorrow. And here’s the climax of the climax:
HERMINE: If you carry on insulting me and my mother, I’ll slap you.
LUCIEN: If you slap me, I’m going to take you under my arm like a naughty little girl. Do you understand me?
HERMINE: I’d like to see what you mean by that!
LUCIEN: I’ll lift up your skirt and spank you.
HERMINE: Spank me? You brute!
(She slaps him and rushes to the far side of the table.)
LUCIEN (after a second’s hesitation): Oh! You little bitch!
(He runs around the table to catch her.)
LUCIEN: I’m going to pull down your panties!
(He has her face to face. She slaps him again and breaks free, but he gets her in front of the window and takes her under his arm. She cries out.)
HERMINE: Help, Mummy! How dare you!
(He lifts her skirt and gives her a spanking.)
LUCIEN: Take that! And that! And that!
HERMINE (gasping with rage): Help, Mummy, help!
LUCIEN: And that! Shut up! And that! And that!
At this moment, Hermine’s mother, Blanche, comes in, having heard the commotion. The first thing she does is to ask if Lucien has gone mad. The next is to rush to the open window. There has been an unexpected disaster, over and above the spanking: Albert Grésillons has just taken another photo – and Hermine was being spanked right by the window!
And there’s worse. Hermine sheepishly admits to her mother that she forgot to put on her panties today: when he lifted her skirt, she was completely ‘sans rien’. Lucien goes across the road to retrieve the picture, but by the time he gets there, Albert has already taken the film to the shop to be developed…
When he later does catch Albert at home, it emerges that Albert has no idea what was in the photo he took: he is severely myopic and only sees his work properly when it comes back from the shop. He is eventually persuaded to try and retrieve the film, but when he telephones, he learns that it has been sent away to be developed offsite, and can’t be retrieved because the workers at the factory are on strike and having a sit-in.
The next twist of the plot concerns some postcards that have begun circulating around Paris, in both color and black-and-white versions. They show a man spanking a woman, with a political caption: ‘The People Chastising the Forces of Reaction’. It’s clearly the picture of Lucien and Hermine that Albert took, though the face of the female figure is not visible – only her bare bottom. Hermine and her mother are furious at the humiliation, especially in the color version, where her bottom is bright red. (‘A red moon rises over an out-of-date world,’ says the caption on that one.) They are also outraged at the affront to the honor of their aristocratic, right-wing family, especially since Hermine has been cast as the reactionary, and bourgeois Lucien as the triumphant worker. So they burst into Albert’s house demanding an explanation. But he has none to offer.
What has happened is that the striking workers developed the film and decided to use the spanking picture for propaganda purposes. And once again, there’s worse to follow: the photo has also been made into a poster for the revolutionary movement and gotten into the newspapers.
And what’s more, a whisper is going round Paris identifying Lucien as the man doing the spanking. He has become… La célébrité malgré lui! But there’s an unwelcome follow-up question: who is it being spanked? Unwilling to humiliate Hermine, Lucien refuses to disclose that information (because the lady is a married woman, he gallantly says), but that won’t stop the reporters from asking. The family needs to concoct a story that will shut them up. And the matter is urgent now that Hermine has started receiving congratulatory telegrams addressed to ‘Comrade Pousset’.
Blanche thinks she has the perfect solution. Lucien should admit to doing something very ‘old France’: he was spanking the maid, Sophie. At one stroke that will identify the owner of the red bottom and nix the photo’s interpretation as propaganda for ‘new France’. The main question is whether Sophie will go along with it. The answer is, only after a very substantial bribe.
Now it’s Sophie’s turn to experience the inconveniences of stardom. She finds herself getting fan mail, mostly from men, some of it political but much that contains more intimate propositions. Meanwhile the state lurches into a revolutionary crisis and the famous spanking image continues to go viral: it is announced that there will be a floral reproduction in the Place de Carrousel by the Louvre. But Hermine’s younger sister, a journalist, comes up with an idea to save the government: new copies are issued, but with a different caption, that changes the meaning of the image. No longer the People and Reaction, it is now identified as Order spanking Anarchy, and Lucien becomes a hero of the political right. But that has an unexpected consequence.
‘You can see that’s not a plebeian bottom,’ says Colette, a friend of the family, who has a request for Lucien. Like every other woman in Parisian high society, she wants to be named as the one getting spanked in the photograph, because it is now a matter of honor and renown: whoever it is will go down in history as a second Charlotte Corday!
Of course, Hermine now demands that the truth should be told, but that cannot be: Lucien gave reporters his word of honor that he was not spanking his wife, and he can’t go back on it. But there is another suitable candidate on hand. A second huge bribe persuades Sophie into ‘abdication’, and the owner of the non-plebeian bottom, the heroine of the affair, is named in a public radio broadcast as none other than… Blanche. Hermine graciously tells the nation how pleased she is to have a mother who is so photogenic and so young-looking, and Blanche says she hopes to do even better next time… And so the curtain falls to the sound of cheering.
La Fessée premiered on December 15, 1936, at the Théâtre de Paris; it played there for a year, later transferring to the Marigny, and ran for more than 400 performances. But there were some serious casting difficulties right at the beginning.
The actress originally due to play Hermine and be spanked nightly through the run was the Algerian film star Alice Field:
But early in the rehearsal period, she landed a film role and withdrew. Her replacement was Mireille Perrey:
Meanwhile, the role of Lucien went to Jean Aquistapace, an operatic baritone who usually worked under his surname alone. Here he is with Mireille in the play:
But during the performance of December 18, just four days into the run, he fell ill: the show had to be stopped and the audience’s money refunded. His understudy, Georges Randax, stepped in to cover for the next ten days. When it became clear that Aquistapace could not return, Lucien had to be recast. The part went initially to movie star Jacques Louvigny, but he soon dropped out and then Georges Randax became Lucien on a permanent basis.
The main beneficiary of all this was Mireille Perrey, who was promoted to top billing. She caused a press sensation: one newspaper called her the most spanked woman in Paris, and another praised her ‘impeccable legs’ in the spanking scene. A reviewer proclaimed that she – as distinct from Hermine, her character – ‘doesn’t deserve a spanking, but a kiss’.
‘J’adore mon role,’ she told reporters. And in particular, something she hadn’t anticipated when she joined the company for her first rehearsal, she adored being spanked. That was just as well, because she continued playing Hermine for several years, not only in Paris but in provincial productions in Lyon (1937) and Monaco (1938). The Paris production stayed in the repertory for the 1937-38 season, and Suzanne Chatellier eventually took over as Hermine. (She previously played the part in a production at Verdun in the fall of 1937.)
The play’s phenomenal success also saw its conquest of other media. In December 1936 and July 1937, performances were broadcast on radio live from the theater, and on November 10, just under eleven months after the premiere, a film version was released. Mireille Perrey once again played Hermine, but Lucien was recast again and was played by Albert Préjean, later best known as Inspector Maigret in the 1940s French film series.
There were a number of changes for the movie, including the surname of the central couple, who are now M. and Mme. Chauchois instead of the Poussets. You’ll notice another significant alteration in this photograph of the key scene:
Hermine Chauchois remembered to put on her panties that day and is allowed to retain them as she is spanked, whereas in the stage version, Hermine Pousset gets a bare-bottom spanking.
Except of course that the actress playing her doesn’t, or at least needn’t. The plot requires the spanking to happen with Hermine’s bottom facing the open window, which is bound to be at the back of the set. So the scene necessarily has to be blocked with the actress’s head towards the audience. Nobody in the auditorium can see her bottom. And that explains a curious incident that amused Mireille Perrey during the play’s publicity photocall in December 1936.
Obviously there was no way they could avoid having a photograph of the incident from which the play takes its title:
But the process of taking that picture was a tacit battle between the actors, who posed the scene as blocked, and the photographers, who kept trying to get them to turn into profile. When she told the story afterwards, Mireille was candid: they wanted to see her bottom, and she wanted to stay decent. You can see who won. But the reason for that may not have been entirely a matter of decency. One other thing had to be concealed for reasons of fidelity to the play: Mireille always wore panties in the spanking scene. In fact, such was the press interest at the time, fashion journalists even tracked down the manufacturer of the lingerie in question. (It was the firm Néamat, of 18, Rue de Marignan, if you really want to know.)
So when the play is performed in a traditional picture-frame theater, the actress can wear anything she likes under her skirt, because the audience will only see her front end as she is spanked. But it wasn’t that easy in a 1977 production starring Marco Pérrin as Lucien and the actress and singer Martine Amarande as Hermine.
The play was back at the Marigny, the second home for its original production back in 1937-38, and now the home of the TV series Au Theâtre ce Soir, which is described in more detail here. As usual, the production ran for a week and was filmed for television on the Saturday, October 22, 1977; it was broadcast on January 27 the following year.
The production was shot with three cameras covering the action from different angles, which presented Amarande with a problem. What you might call the ‘master shot’, presenting the theater audience’s point of view, showed the spanking scene like this:
No problem there. But most of the action was shot by a different camera looking from stage right, so that what the television viewers saw was mainly this:
You can see the solution if you look carefully: flesh-colored pantyhose!
That doesn’t mean that French theater always had a problem with nudity. At around the same time as the original 1936-37 production of La Fessée, actress Christiane Delyne was famously appearing bare-bottomed on the stage of the Palais-Royal a few kilometres away. (One reviewer lauded her ‘impeccable anatomie’.)
She rates a mention, and a photograph, because when La Fessée was revived at the Theatre Antoine in 1943, with Géo Pomel as Lucien, the spanked Hermine was none other than Christiane Delyne.
The play had some international exposure in the more relaxed European countries, notably in 1948 at Frederiksburg in Denmark, with Mogens Davidsen as Lucien and, as Hermine, Astrid Villaume:
Incidentally, the cast also included, in the minor role of one of the Poussets’ servants, the young Dirch Passer, later a figure of no small significance in the history of European movie spanking.
And the play lives on into the twenty-first century, its currency no doubt enhanced by France’s long-running political controversy over plans to make spanking illegal; we’ve already seen examples of some recent amateur performances. And there is ongoing interest in other French-speaking countries too. In May 2014, it was produced at Mont-Dison in Belgium by the Kursaalamalecs theater company, which traditionally publicizes its shows with comical montages combining cartoons and photography. Here’s what they did for La Fessée:
Lucien was played by Miguel Castela, seen there administering the one spanking that’s of no interest to us, and Hermine was Mireille Damoiseau, who is (aptly enough for her character) on the extreme right. The other two ladies being spanked are, at center left, Émilie Weber and, far left, Océane Formatin, who played Sophie, the maidservant who is temporarily persuaded to ‘take the rap’ and pretend she was rapped. Océane looks so pretty that I for one would have gladly seen her taking it for real, but here’s Mireille Damoiseau’s performance at the key moment:
In the play, the concluding radio broadcast is introduced with spiel to the effect that spanking is a great French tradition. With the coming legal changes, that won’t be true for much longer, but let’s hope it has no impact on the continuing stage life of Létraz’s La Fessée.