The three-act operetta Bouche en Coeur opened at the Theatre l’Etoile in Paris on November 14, 1936, and played for 51 performances. ‘Bouche en Coeur’ is the nickname of Gaston, a photographer’s model, played by Robert Burnier. He’s often to be seen smiling out of greetings cards: everybody knows his face, nobody knows who he is. That leads to some difficulties when he’s mistaken for an absconded boxer on the eve of a fight, but let’s not go too deeply into the complexities of the plot…
Well, actually, we can’t do that anyway, because the libretto for Bouche en Coeur, written by Jacques Darrieux and Georges Léglise, doesn’t survive. All we know about the story derives from a handful of contemporary reviews and a few photographs. Luckily this is enough to enable me to introduce you to the blonde manicurist Cricri, played by Janine Roger:
One of the reviews called her ‘as likeable as a clever squirrel and as supple as a rubber doll’. You’ve probably guessed that she gets spanked, and of course you’re right. With no available script, what I can’t tell you is why she gets spanked, only that it’s done by Gaston and that it doesn’t lead to marriage (because his girlfriend is a different character).
But the spanking was a spectacle that several of the critics evidently enjoyed a lot. In fact, they enjoyed it so much that we can piece together an uncommonly detailed description of Janine’s performance in the scene: her face crinkled with discomfort, pleading with her expressive eyes as each slap elicited a sharp little cry with a catch in her voice. And it was also a vigorous performance with her legs capering in the air: one reviewer praised her spontaneity in the scene, another her ‘acrobatic ease’, a comment that will make more sense if we look at a picture.
Obviously they’re holding still for the photographer – there was no high-speed film in the 1930s – but on stage she was leaping about, squirming and flailing. Perhaps it was only right that her spirited performance got such a prominent mention in the reviews. But perhaps it’s also only right that we should spare a thought for Robert Burnier’s feat of strength in lifting and controlling that blonde bundle of energy, and giving her a good spanking too!