This is bound to be the most disappointing phase of our ongoing investigation of the Hollywood films that narrowly failed to deliver a spanking scene. If sometimes, as we have already seen, there is evidence to show that such a scene was planned, and even shot, but later dropped, there are also many cases where the ‘evidence’ boils down to nothing more than the vagaries of misunderstanding and misreporting.
We begin and end today with the glamorous, tragic Carole Lombard,
who was famously threatened with a spanking by Clark Gable, her future husband, when they first met. In 1937, she starred alongside Fredric March in the sardonic, satirical screwball comedy Nothing Sacred.
March plays Wally Cook, a newspaper reporter assigned to cover the story of Hazel Flagg (Lombard), who is thought to have the then topical and always terminal ailment of radium poisoning. The newspaper wants to get a sob story out of her bravery, and in return offers to ensure that her last weeks of life are spent in luxury. Hazel discovers that she is not dying after all, just before Cook arrives with the proposition, but she keeps quiet about her good health and enjoys the high life.
In 1938, a US local newspaper told its expectant readers about the film:
‘Comedy business includes the famous spanking scene in which March administers punishment, only to be knocked out when the girl fights back.’
And that only goes to show that the reviewer hadn’t seen the film!
A spanking scene does enter the realms of possibility when Hazel starts to feel guilty and, facing the inevitability of exposure, tries to fake her own suicide by jumping off a pier. Cook fishes her out and tells her, ‘Either you give me your word of honor you won’t do that again or I’ll spank your little…’, and she cuts in before he actually names the target area.
But even when he discovers that she is faking her illness, she doesn’t get her little bottom spanked. With an eminent doctor on the way to examine her, he helps her to simulate symptoms by having a fist fight with her, culminating in a knockout blow to the jaw.
That is the famous scene, not least because punching a woman was so taboo that it was shocking – which is why women usually got their little bottoms spanked instead. So the reviewer who told his readers about ‘the famous spanking scene’ had completely misunderstood whatever he had heard about it, leaving us with a reference to a spanking scene that never existed.
Misunderstandings happened easily in those days because there were fewer opportunities for reporters to actually see the film they were writing about before it came to town: they had to rely on what they had heard, and sometimes they didn’t hear correctly. They also had to make inferences from whatever publicity material was available, as we can see happening in this Texas paper’s puff for Good Girls Go to Paris:
Joan Blondell plays Jenny Swanson, a waitress in a campus tearoom who’s obsessed with the idea of going to Paris, which was still an attractive idea when the picture was released in June 1939, but probably seemed less and less appealing as the ensuing months went by. She thinks she can get there by dating a college boy with a rich father who will pay her to leave him alone; in other words, she’s a gold-digging blackmailer. Melvyn Douglas plays Ronald Brooke, an English college professor who tries to persuade her that good girls also go to Paris, and throughout the film his role is to be constantly reproving her for her lies and deceptions.
This relationship was represented metaphorically in the posed publicity stills:
But there is absolutely no hint, anywhere in the entire movie, of even the remotest possibility that Jenny might get a spanking, even though you might well think she often deserves one. In the scene where she is supposedly ‘going to be spanked’, Professor Brooke has come in from riding, carrying a horsewhip, but he doesn’t raise it to her as seen in the photograph, and he’s trying to help her out by arranging an honorable way out of her current tangled web (with which she ungratefully declines to cooperate).
At least we can say that Joan Blondell did appear in a spanking scene two years later, in Three Girls About Town (1941). But she was on the giving side of the equation:
(The girl receiving is Janet Blair.)
Just as people heard wrong and inferred wrong before seeing a film, so likewise, after it had run its course and disappeared into the recent past, sometimes they remembered wrong. When McLintock! came out in 1963, the London Times reviewer commented:
‘Anyone who enjoyed John Wayne giving Maureen O’Hara a good spanking in The Quiet Man will appreciate renewed acquaintance with the spectacle; and some, since this is the Old West, which Hollywood directors can deal with, instead of Old Ireland, with which on the whole they can’t, will enjoy it even more the second time round.’
But since there isn’t a spanking scene in the 1952 movie, there never was a first time round!
Similar memory problems afflicted the author of a syndicated newspaper article written in 1941 as part of the heavy publicity effort given to the closing scene of Our Wife, in which Ellen Drew is spanked by Melvyn Douglas.
The article stated that Douglas had previously spanked Claire Dodd in the 1938 screwball thriller Fast Company, in which he plays the hero, antiquarian book dealer Joel Sloane, who makes a fair slice of his living solving stolen-book cases for insurance companies, and she plays Julia Thorne, secretary of a murdered bookseller who is acting as a fence for stolen books, and who turns out to be the murderer.
Sloane doesn’t spank her in the film, and nor does anyone else. The closest we get is in the final scene where she confesses to the murder. Sloane advances on her and she says, ‘You wouldn’t!’ – which sounds as if it might be a spanking buildup, but isn’t, for two reasons. Firstly, murder is a little too serious a matter to be dealt with by such means. And secondly, about halfway through the picture, and before most of his scenes with Julia, Sloane was the object of a botched murder attempt which ended with him taking the bullet in the rear end, after which there is much comedy about his inability to sit down – meaning that he also literally can’t spank Julia.
Once again we can console our disappointment with the knowledge that Claire Dodd didn’t escape entirely scot-free. She had a spanking awaiting her three years down the line:
In fact, that scene was very recent at the time of the 1941 article that caused all the confusion: In the Navy was filmed in April that year and released in May, just three months before Our Wife.
The opportunities for error increase immeasurably as we move forward by generations, rather than years. Take this passage from the Wild West historian Jeremy Agnew’s 2014 book, The Creation of the Cowboy Hero: Fiction, Film and Fact:
‘Another erotic theme that showed up in Westerns was the hero spanking the heroine, which provided sexual titillation in the taming of a tomboy and focused on her bottom. Spanking heroines appeared in Gold Mine in the Sky (1938) with Gene Autry, Outlaws of the Desert (1941) with William Boyd, The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1958) in which Audie Murphy spanks Kathryn Grant. In True Grit (1969), La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) spanks Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) until Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) tells him to stop because he’s enjoying it too much. McLintock! (1963) had two spanking scenes. Katherine McLintock is spanked by G.W. McLintock with a small coal shovel. In a previous part of the movie McLintock’s daughter Becky (Stefanie Powers) is spanked in a similar fashion by her fiancé, Devlin Warren (Patrick Wayne).’
Impressive knowledge for a non-spanko ‘layman’? Well, possibly not if you put it alongside this passage from Jon Tuska’s 1985 academic study, The American West in Film:
‘The heroine in Will Cook’s novel, The Peacemakers (1961), kisses Lieutenant Jim Gary and then whispers, ‘You’ve always felt that a good lick across the britches would have done wonders for me. And of course you were right.’ Spanking heroines was a precedent long established in ‘B’ Westerns such as Gold Mine in the Sky (Republic, 1938) starring Gene Autry or Outlaws of the Desert (Paramount, 1941) starring William Boyd, before Audie Murphy spanked Kathryn Grant in The Guns of Fort Petticoat (Columbia, 1958) or John Wayne ritualized spanking Maureen O’Hara into an erotic fantasy in McLintock! (United Artists, 1963).’
My point here is that two sources of information aren’t always better than one, because most of what Jeremy Agnew ‘knew’ about Western screen spanking, he only knew because he’d read it in Jon Tuska’s book. And what about Tuska?
Well, McLintock!, check, obviously. The Guns of Fort Petticoat, check.
Outlaws of the Desert, check, though not with William Boyd doing the spanking.
Gold Mine in the Sky?
There really should be a spanking scene in Gold Mine in the Sky. Carol Hughes plays Cody Langham, a spoiled heiress who inherits all that her father has left in the world after her madcap life of free spending – namely, his ranch in Wyoming. But the terms of the will put her under the authority of the ranch foreman, Gene Autry, until she marries a man he approves of. She gets into several scrapes, including faking her own kidnapping, but her relationship with Autry develops through the movie in a way that means she never actually has a critical moment of confrontation with him, just occasional friction and misunderstanding. Which means in turn that Carol Hughes is never offered up for any of that ‘sexual titillation focused on her bottom’ that Agnew mentioned. And that is, it must be said, a great pity:
So Jon Tuska hadn’t actually seen Gold Mine in the Sky any more than Jeremy Agnew had, though admittedly he was working in the infancy of home video, when bespoke access to very old movies can’t have been easy. In all likelihood he was working with only a plot summary and this publicity still of Autry and Hughes:
In fact, it’s not a still for Gold Mine in the Sky at all, but their later picture, Under Fiesta Stars (1941), which has a similar story and a similar role for Carol, and again doesn’t feature any spanking. Never mind, Gene Autry did spank Barbara Pepper onscreen in The Sagebrush Troubadour (1935):
And also in the publicity still, taken during the filming but with, as you can see, a somewhat different set-up:
He went on to spank Adele Mara in Twilight on the Rio Grande (1947)…
… and Gail Davis in ‘Doublecross Valley’, a 1950 episode of his television series called, naturally enough, The Gene Autry Show:
So there’s no shortage of Gene Autry spanking scenes to enjoy. But anyone claiming that one of them features in Gold Mine in the Sky is only circulating Chinese whispers, not genuine information about the film.
But even seeing a film didn’t always guarantee accurate reporting. Nor being in it, for that matter. In 1940, Ann Sheridan, who had been spanked in The Footloose Heiress three years earlier,
was asked about the scene in her new film, Torrid Zone, in which she was spanked by James Cagney. The correct response was, ‘What scene in which I was spanked by James Cagney?’, but that wasn’t what Ann said. Instead, she wisecracked, ‘That’s better than being kissed by a Harvard man.’
In the movie, she’s Lee Donley, a smart-mouthed American singer being deported from a banana republic. She escapes from the boat and Cagney’s character, Nick Butler, gives her refuge and plays cards with him; she cleans him out, and afterwards he learns from the chief of police that she’s a card cheat. So when he next meets her, he demands the money back.
She insists that she hasn’t got it. And the outcome is this:
Some reporters described this as Nick putting her in position to spank her, and others claimed that he actually does spank her. Neither is right. What he actually says is, referring to the money, ‘Do you want me to turn you upside down and shake it out of you?’ And in the photo he’s doing just that (and, yes, this method does enable him to retrieve the wad of notes).
So we can’t always trust the evidence of people’s eyes. And we also can’t always trust the words they use to describe what happened: terminology can be inexact. For instance, here’s Joan Crawford describing a moment of joy she experienced at a preview screening of her 1933 backstage musical, Dancing Lady, which she attended with her co-star and future husband Franchot Tone:
‘The biggest thrill I’ve had in years was that night of the preview of Dancing Lady. You know that scene where Clark Gable spanked me and I said “Thank you”? The first time we did it I said that unconsciously and the director asked me to leave it in. At the preview they laughed! That’s the first time an audience has ever laughed at me that way. I can’t tell you what it did to me. I wanted to get up and cheer. I whispered to Franchot over and over again, “They laughed!“’
In the film, Joan plays dancer Janie Barlow, who’s trying to get a break. Gable plays Patch Gallagher, the stage director who reluctantly gives her the break. Among the things she gives us are the following pleasant sights:
But what he gives her is only:
‘Thank you’? Well, let’s not be ungrateful, but the fact is, that’s not a spanking, just a smack on the bottom. He also throws a basketball at the same part of her in a later scene, then advances with the intention of making further manual contact, which she evades by sitting down.
And, of course, he did have something a little more drastic in store for her in their next but one picture together, Forsaking All Others (1934), involving a wire-backed hairbrush:
So the word ‘spanking’ doesn’t always mean spanking, and actions that look something like spanking aren’t necessarily the thing itself. But sometimes interpretation is genuinely difficult, and that’s where we come back to Carole Lombard.
A few years after the event, a newspaper said that Carole was spanked in her 1937 screwball comedy True Confession. That isn’t literally true – but it’s a bit less untrue than some of the other statements we’ve been considering today.
Carole plays Helen Bartlett, a compulsive liar who habitually puts her tongue in her cheek just before she tells a lie – a bit like crossing her fingers.
Her husband Ken (Fred MacMurray) is a struggling lawyer obsessed with honesty. She gets caught up by chance in a murder case, and lies her way into the dock to give Ken the career opportunity he needs: winning a high-profile capital trial, and saving her from the electric chair.
It’s at the end of the movie that we need to be paying attention. Ken discovers that none of it was true: Helen didn’t kill the victim after all, even in self-defense. So he decides to leave her. She follows him out and gets him to come back by telling him she’s pregnant. But that’s a lie too. Ken sees red. ‘I’m going to make one last attempt to teach you not to lie,’ he says, then picks her up, slings her over his shoulder and begins carrying her towards the house. ‘Ken,’ she says, ‘I think I’ve told my last one.’
In the draft script, the scene was set indoors rather than out, and Ken carries Helen upstairs. The Hays Office read into this the implication that he intended to do something to her that would retroactively make the pregnancy lie come true, and so objected to the ending. The director, Wesley Ruggles, objected to the objection, claiming that the Office had inferred something indelicate that wasn’t actually there. He was probably being disingenuous, but the studio was instructed that ‘the scene should be handled to indicate that Ken was going to spank his wife’. Ruggles presumably had to stick to the story that this is what was intended all along.
And that means that, although Carole Lombard does not get spanked in the film, her character, Helen Bartlett, does get spanked immediately after the end of the film.
But with some movies, the evidence pointing towards a possible spanking scene isn’t even this securely interpretable. Next week, we’ll look at a selection of these cases, that can’t be definitively called one way or the other.