Three castaways are stranded on a desert island: Susan, her financier husband Philip and his best friend Henry, who also happens to be her lover. On the island there are two huts: a big hut (sleeps two) and a little hut (sleeps one). Who will sleep in the little hut?
That’s the central issue of the 1947 French farce La Petite Hutte, written by André Roussin (1911-87). In the first act, the answer is obvious, because Philip doesn’t know about the affair… until Henry, frustrated after three weeks of sleeping alone, agrees with Susan that they should come clean, and then agrees with Philip that they should adopt a rota system for the huts (and Susan).
The relationship that really benefits from this arrangement is that of Philip and Susan. In the second act, which takes place during Henry’s week of nocturnal solitude in the little hut, husband and wife have become playful together, even frisky. At one point he gets her to hide her eyes, then pretends that something flew over the island while she wasn’t looking: an elephant. Shortly afterwards she teases him back by calling him to the telephone — and that has consequences…
Roussin drew his scenario from a one-act Catalan play of 1921 by Carles Soldevila, Civilitzats Tanmateix (Still Civilized), which doesn’t feature a spanking scene. Neither, as it happens, does Roussin’s own version, which ran for over a thousand performances in Paris with Suzanne Flon in the role of Susan.
The telephone prank results in a bit of masterful behavior by Philip, and some flirtatious talk by Susan (‘j’aime beaucoup te voir furieux,’ she says – ‘I love to see you furious’). She tries to flee and he grabs her, but what she gets is a passionate embrace, not a spanking. And of course the same thing happens (and doesn’t happen) in the various translations and adaptations that played around the world, notably in South American countries such as Uruguay (1952), Brazil (1953) and Cuba (1959). All except one adaptation, that itself also played all around the world, with productions on five continents…
It’s time to meet Nancy Mitford (1904-73), the woman who put the ‘consequences’ into The Little Hut.
She was the eldest of a legendary brood of six aristocratic sisters who enlivened 1930s high society with gaiety, wit and the widest possible spectrum of political opinions. Nancy published her first novel, Highland Fling, in 1931 and went on to write seven more, the best known of which is Love in a Cold Climate (1949); she is also remembered for her sardonic taxonomy of English speech modes into ‘U and non-U’. A confirmed Francophile, she moved to Paris in 1946 and lived there for the rest of her life. So she was well placed to create a new version of Roussin’s very French play for an English audience.
Efforts to bring La Petite Hutte across the Channel began almost as soon as it was recognized as a success in Paris. The French script was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office on April 27, 1948, but his lordship refused it a license. Evidently the play would need to be adapted rather than just translated, and Nancy Mitford undertook the task soon after finishing Love in a Cold Climate. One thing she did to the play was to add the sequence that gets it into this series.
Philip’s reaction to being called to the non-existent phone is even more masterful than it was in the original:
SUSAN: Now you’re in a bait.
PHILIP: I’m not in a bait at all, I’m very angry indeed.
PHILIP: And you must be punished.
SUSAN: Catch me first.
(They dodge around the mast – he catches her and pretends to slap her bottom.)
SUSAN: Ow! Mercy! (Shrieks) Help – murder
HENRY: What – oh no, it’s too much.
SUSAN: You’re really hurting.
PHILIP: Yes, I mean to.
That is the spanking scene as it appeared in the typescript that was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, and was licensed on June 16, 1950. The action was then developed in rehearsal, so that the version published in 1951 is more precise about the stage action: he puts her across his knee with her head upstage (which means that her bottom is towards the audience), and counts out twelve slaps; Henry, called onstage by Philip to help catch the fleeing Susan, arrives just in time to witness the spanking, but reacts differently to it, sardonically saying ‘Midnight’ upon the stroke of twelve.
Nancy Mitford’s original title for her version was Island Fling, perhaps with a nod to her own literary debut, but eventually they settled for a more literal translation of Roussin’s French title. Initial plans that were laid to produce The Little Hut at the London Globe fell through, but the play was not long delayed by that: on July 24 it opened at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, in a production by the legendary theater director Peter Brook, and toured to Glasgow, Newscastle and Leeds before opening at the Lyric in London on August 23. Robert Morley played Philip and Henry was David Tomlinson (best remembered as the father in Mary Poppins).
To play Susan, Morley proposed 29-year-old American actress Joan Tetzel:
Peter Brook agreed, and here she is in costume for the play:
And with Robert Morley:
It was important that Morley should be comfortable working with Joan Tetzel, and especially that Tetzel should be comfortable with Morley, not least because he was going to spank her every night for however long the play might run, and twice on matinee days. We can tell just how comfortable they felt with one another in the way the spanking was staged, something not specified in the script, nor captured by the stills photographer, but well remembered by those who saw the show.
By this point in the play, the characters had shed some of the formality of their first-act costumes, seen here:
They were now dressed down, shading into undress. Susan was in her black slip, but she had retained her fishnet stockings and high heels. (Remember the title of the original Catalan play: Still Civilized!) When Philip caught her after the chase, they were in the extreme downstage position, as close to the audience as they could get: ‘her bottom was almost over the footlights,’ said one eye-witness. And after he put her across his knee, he lifted her skirt and administered the spanking on the seat of her black lace panties, using the palm and back of his hand alternately!
Morley obviously enjoyed working with Joan Tetzel, though this scene was not necessarily the sole reason. Two decades later, when the Alan Ayckbourn comedy How the Other Half Loves transferred to London, he insisted that she should take over as the female lead, his character’s wife, since the original actress was too young for the role. The actress thus deprived of a job was the divine Elisabeth Sladen, then aged 24, and since turnabout is fair play, I wouldn’t have minded seeing her take over Joan Tetzel’s part in The Little Hut. But I digress…
The play ran for an eye-popping 1261 performances in London, and there were some cast changes during the run: Joan Tetzel was understudied by Doris Duke, who appeared on occasion, and Joyce Redman (best remembered for the erotic eating scene in Tom Jones) took over for a month’s worth of spankings to allow Tetzel a holiday.
Likewise Robert Flemyng stood in for Morley for some time. In 1952 the play was recast with Hugh Sinclair and Diane Hart as Philip and Susan.
They played the roles for the rest of the London season and then for a protracted tour in 1953-5. So it was a production which ran for five years – and that’s a lot of spankings!
One lady who saw the play in London and decided she wanted to be spanked too was the actress Lilli Palmer.
She and her then husband Rex Harrison floated the idea of a US production in 1951, but in the event it wasn’t until 1953 that the play came to Broadway, again directed by Peter Brook, and now starring French actress Anne Vernon as Susan. Robert Morley was asked to play Philip again, but eventually decided not to, and the role went instead to Roland Culver. The spanking scene was essentially the same as in the London version, raised skirt and all, and this time the stills photographer didn’t let us down:
They opened for a week’s tryout in Brighton and then crossed the Atlantic, where the play was a lot less successful than in London, and closed after four weeks.
Incidentally, this wasn’t Roland Culver’s only encounter with a spanking scene. Two decades later, he played the Duke of Omnium in the 1974 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre classic serial The Pallisers. In the later stages of his part, the Duke is bedridden but frisky, and persuades his nurse (Margaret Burnett) to lean over him to fix his pillow.
He’s obviously delighted to have her bottom right under his nose, and proceeds to fondle it.
And when she protests, this turns into a playful spanking…
… though probably with a bit less vigor than the one he gave Anne Vernon in 1953!
Despite what happened on Broadway, The Little Hut wasn’t a complete washout in America. In 1954, a summer stock production toured New England, with Hiram Sherman as Philip and Barbara Bel Geddes (later of Dallas) playing Susan:
The picture, taken from a later scene, shows that in this production the characters remained dressed and ‘civilized’ for much longer, so it looks as if Susan wouldn’t have been quite so uncovered for the spanking as in the Brook production. In contrast, the production that toured the Midwest the following year obviously wanted to capitalize on the physical charms of Veronica Lake:
The cultivation of a sense of raciness may also explain why the title was changed from The Little Hut to The Bamboo Bed during the run. (If you look closely at the playbill cover, you can see it’s a pasteover.) And that suggests this may have featured an especially enjoyable version of the spanking scene – one that, alas, has left no known trace behind itself. And indeed, it was an unlucky production overall: Veronica Lake was taken ill a few weeks in, and Diana Barrymore took over at short notice – but the tour folded early after only five weeks.
In Britain, the play was released for regional repertory performance in 1954, before the end of the post-London tour. Actresses who were spanked in the role of Susan during the 1950s included Pauline Yates (later the wife of Reginald Perrin in the BBC sitcom) at Ipswich in December 1954,
Hy Hazell (whom we shall encounter again in this series, only as spanker rather than recipient) at Douglas, Isle of Man, in June 1955,
Helena de Crespo at Manchester’s Library Theatre in July 1957, with David Mahlowe as Philip,
and film star Felicity Young at Penzance in August 1958.
(We don’t know if any of these productions emulated the skirt-raising of the London production, but if you want to see Felicity Young in black lingerie, a year after her Little Hut appearance, look here.)
The play also continued and extended its world travels. It was produced in Nairobi, Kenya (1954), both Sydney and Melbourne, Australia (1955), Toronto, Canada (1956), and Lilongwe, capital of what was then Nyasaland and is now Malawi (1956). The Melbourne production featured Marsha Hunt as Susan, being spanked by Peter Gray:
All of this activity took place against the background of efforts to turn the play into a movie. Initially it was going to be a British film. In 1953, the legendary mogul Alexander Korda bought the rights, intending to make it a vehicle for George Sanders and his then wife Zsa Zsa Gabor:
The project fell through, for reasons apparently not unconnected with the end of the Sanders-Gabor marriage in 1954, and the following year the rights were acquired by American producers Mark Robson and F. Hugh Herbert. Herbert was also a playwright, whose work included both the stage (1951) and screen (1953) versions of The Moon is Blue, in which a character (played by Donald Cook on Broadway and David Niven in Hollywood) mentions having spanked his wife with a skillet. Now he adapted Nancy Mitford’s script into a screenplay for The Little Hut, keeping in the spanking scene. The script went to the Hays Office, which approved it, spanking scene included. Meanwhile, the movie was cast: Stewart Grainger was to play Philip, and Susan was to be Ava Gardner.
Shooting took place in Rome during the summer of 1956, with reports varying as to whether Ava was spanked whilst wearing black lingerie…
or a grass skirt.
But in October, when the film was in the cutting room, it was reported that the spanking scene had been dropped. And indeed, it’s not there in the film as it was released the following January. The only question is when it was cut out, before shooting or during editing: whether, putting it another way, the spanking was filmed and then cut, or cut and therefore never filmed. And the answer to that is, we just don’t know.
In later years, rumors circulated that the movie lost the scene because Ava Gardner had refused to be spanked, leaving the producers with no option. Well, obviously they did have an option, which is always available when someone doesn’t want to do the job they’ve been hired to do. And there are several other reasons to think it an unlikely story.
Like many women in the middle of the last century, Ava Gardner was not entirely unfamiliar with the prospect of being spanked. She came very close to getting a public spanking in a California bar, apparently in 1955, during an interview with Joe Hyams of Look magazine. He had asked her a slightly near the knuckle question and she punched him, knocking him out of his chair. In his 1973 autobiography, Mislaid in Hollywood, he tells what happened next:
Picking myself up, I jerked Ava from her chair and started to lay her over my knee for a spanking. It was the first time I had touched her, and I was surprised that she was so light, and so soft and feminine. For a moment we were frozen in a tableau. Then I was aware of sounds around us and eyes on us. ‘Don’t ever do that again,’ I said, slowly releasing her. She looked at me then, but instead of being angry she was smiling.
To be unexpectedly OTK in public, fair game for any passing photographer, was arguably a lot more embarrassing for Ava than getting spanked when playing a part in a movie, but she still came up with a smile on her face. She was obviously not a woman with any fundamental objection to spanking, even when the intended target was her own fundament. And while she never got the full OTK treatment on screen, her bottom was manhandled several times in the 1959 Stanley Kramer movie On the Beach, by both hand and oar:
So it seems reasonable to conclude that, whenever and whyever it was that the spanking scene went missing from the film version of The Little Hut, the reason didn’t have anything to do with objections from the intended recipient.
In Britain, amateur productions began in 1956 (the earliest known was at Bury St Edmunds that May), and got a boost from the release of the movie early the following year…
but with the signal difference that these versions would ordinarily have left the spanking scene in! Direct confirmatory evidence only occasionally surfaces, but the production at the Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth, with Pauline Sewell as Susan, gives us an idea of how some companies capitalized on the play’s risqué reputation…
and also how they may occasionally have mishandled the spanking scene, as illustrated here by Dennis Freeman’s Philip:
Maybe that also gives us a sense of how the scene must have been done in the professional production at New York in August 1961, with Ronald Durling as Philip and French actress Denise Darcel as Susan. Here she is:
But not at all as she appeared in The Little Hut, in which, according to the Village Voice theater critic, she wore an evening gown ‘that hides everything but her hair, the soles of her feet, and her obvious pregnancy’ – meaning, one suspects, that OTK was out of the question!
Other notable actresses who were spanked in later professional revivals included (and, once again, this is going to be a lot of spankings):
Eunice Gayson, best known as James Bond’s girlfriend in the first two movies, at Weston-super-Mare in May 1960,
Marie Wilson at Chicago in September 1965,
Elspet Gray in a BBC television version broadcast on October 26, 1966, and sadly subsequently junked,
Imogen Hassall at Canterbury in August 1972,
Geraldine McEwan, the television incarnation of Miss Jean Brodie, in a major London revival at the Duke of York’s Theatre in October 1974, with James Villiers as Philip,
Judy Buxton at Bosham in August 1988,
and, at Kuala Lumpur in April the same year, in a production that went on to tour fifteen other Far East countries, Prunella Gee.
She brought ‘glamorous dizziness’ to the role of Susan, said one critic. Here she is in a later scene that illustrates some of the charms she had to offer when being spanked:
And the production is also notable for the fact that the director, Derek Nimmo, also played Philip – so Prunella was both directed and spanked by the same man!
At the time of writing, the most recent major production in Britain was at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, in April 2010, with Aden Gillett as Philip and Janie Dee as Susan.
In this day and age, one always has to wonder whether, in a revival of a vintage play, a scripted spanking scene will actually make it as far as the stage or be removed in or before rehearsal, and in the case of The Little Hut, anyone choosing to do that could justly argue that they were privileging Roussin over Mitford. Whether that happened at Guildford in 2010 has never been told: nobody who saw the production has ever mentioned the scrumptious Miss Dee getting a spanking, but on the other hand nobody has definitively said it didn’t happen either…
But in the end, for utter certainty, there’s no substitute for photographic evidence, even if it there are other things that doesn’t tell you. For example, I can’t say who played Susan in the 1966 production at the Citadel Theatre in Banff, Canada.
But one thing we do know for sure: she got spanked!