Spanked for Nothing

Our subject today is a minor movie mystery.

Hard to Get (1938) is a standard Depression-era comedy about a cross-class romance between a self-willed rich girl and a working man. In this particular example of the genre, she is Maggie Richards, daughter of an oil tycoon, and he is Bill Davis, a gas station manager whose establishment she visits when her borrowed car proves to be low on fuel. She is played by Olivia de Havilland, who was later threatened with a spanking by Errol Flynn in Dodge City (1939).


He is Dick Powell, who later spanked Claire Dodd in In the Navy (1941).


The car’s gas tank is not the only thing about Maggie that’s depleted: when Bill presents the bill for $3.48, she doesn’t have the cash to pay. Disbelieving her story of a rich father, he won’t extend credit and offers her the choice of working off the debt or going to jail. She tries to drive away, so he lifts her bodily out of the car and forcibly carries her over to the motel chalets that need cleaning – her job for the day.


The sequence featured heavily in the movie’s publicity.


But here’s the first oddity:


In fact, there is absolutely no walloping in the scene, either on screen or as portrayed in the photograph. It is separately posed from the rest of the stills sequence on the poster, with Maggie’s head going a different way, but even if he had the inclination to spank her, he couldn’t: he doesn’t have a free hand.

Even so, there is walloping of a sort coming up, shortly after Maggie has been put to work, when Bill leaves the room for a moment. He returns to find her trying to escape through the window, and she gets a whack with a broom across her departing part.


Then he sets her straight back to her chores. Ten chalets later, she returns home dirty and resentful, and the main plot of the movie is about her efforts to get even and how she progressively falls in love with him, interlaced with his efforts to sell an innovative business proposition to her father. There’s a moment we should pause over, when she tells her father all about her chalet-cleaning ordeal. She wants him to use his position in the oil company to have Bill fired. He refuses:

‘It appears to me that this young man did exactly what your mother and I should have done years ago – used a broom on you.’

And there’s the second oddity. The remark just doesn’t ring true: the thing that traditionally ‘should have been done years ago’ by the parents of a spoiled heiress has nothing at all to do with a broom, though it might involve the back of a hairbrush.

We might conclude that the father’s line was simply a not very successful attempt at drollery, were it not for two other pieces of material connected with this movie. First, there is the one-line summary of the story offered by the press (and, therefore, supplied by the Warner Brothers publicity department) at the time of the premiere:

‘Small-time salesman cuts up rough with heiress, puts her across his knee and spanks sense into her.’

At this point it’s worth saying quite definitively that there is no scene in the movie in which Bill spanks Maggie: the only assault on her posterior is that single whack with the broom.

Again, we might conclude that this was just bad, inaccurate reporting, were it not for another, quite separate piece of testimony that Olivia de Havilland was indeed spanked during the making of the film. In fact, she was spanked a lot, because this was one of those uncomfortable occasions when the spanking scene just couldn’t be done in a single take. Far from it:


This can’t all have been brazen lies – can it?

Such a definite statement that there was a spanking scene, even though in fact there isn’t one, can’t reasonably be explained away as merely an honest mistake. But it’s also hard to believe that someone concocted a deliberate, elaborate falsehood, rather than publicize the movie for what it actually was. It’s much more likely that the spanking was filmed, at tedious and uncomfortable length, after which the movie underwent a last-minute alteration and was released in a different version in which Maggie gets the broom treatment instead – wrong-footing the publicity department which had put a few too many of its eggs into the basket of a spanking scene.

In other words, Olivia de Havilland was spanked for nothing!

How plausible is that hypothesis? And was Olivia the only one? That’s the cue for a longer and fuller investigation – beginning next week!

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