There is a widely quoted essay on The Taming of the Shrew, written in 1991 by university professor Lynda E. Boose, which makes passing reference to what she calls ‘woman-battering’ in the stage history of the play. The example given is the 1967 Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie, ‘to which’, says Professor Boose, dripping with obvious disdain, ‘director Franco Zeffirelli added a spanking scene’. Which only goes to show that the learned professor was more interested in the detection and denunciation of misogyny than she was in getting her facts right. Had she taken the trouble to actually watch the film she was rebuking, she would have seen a lot of boisterous rough-and-tumble, but something she would certainly not have seen was a spanking scene.
But it’s just possible that, in an alternative universe, she might have done…
When Zeffirelli first considered making a film version of Shrew, in 1964, he thought of it as a vehicle for Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Both of them, incidentally, doled out on-screen whackings in the course of their respective careers: Loren to Eleonora Brown in Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women (1960)…
and Mastroianni to Sydne Rome in Roman Polanski’s What? (1972).
But the two Italian stars were only a first notion, never a real prospect. As soon as Zeffirelli began serious discussions about the film as a practical project, it was pointed out to him that, to give it credibility in the world market, he needed to cast less parochially. He soon thought of ‘the Burtons’, the Sixties’ golden celebrity couple who were less than a year into their first, notoriously tempestuous marriage. Here was a dream combination of Richard Burton’s Shakespearean expertise and Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood star quality. So Zeffirelli went to see them in Ireland, where they were having a break before starting work on The Sandpiper for Vincente Minnelli. He arrived in the middle of an improbable matrimonial spat over a rampant bush baby. Burton, eager to get back to classical acting, needed little persuasion to consider playing Petruchio, whereas Taylor, wary of moving outside her comfort zone, only started to show an interest in being Kate after Zeffirelli succeeded in pacifying the bush baby…
This was about a month before the Burtons’ first wedding anniversary, which fell during the making of The Sandpiper, and which Vincente Minnelli marked with a screening of his old 1950 comedy, Father of the Bride – apparently, as we have seen elsewhere, in a ‘director’s cut’ featuring a scene, absent from the release print, in which Elizabeth Taylor was spanked by Spencer Tracy.
The story goes that this was one of Richard Burton’s favorite scenes in the movie. And the anecdote gains in piquancy when you consider that he and his wife were considering the Shrew project at that very time.
In due course, Burton and Taylor not only decided to say ‘yes’ to Zeffirelli but also put up most of the money to fund the film. And so in the spring of 1966 they went to Rome to begin work on what the publicists later dubbed ‘the motion picture they were made for’. And that’s where we reach the crucial question: did the shooting schedule include a spanking scene?
The movie’s souvenir brochure is unequivocal in its answer:
The role of the tempestuous shrew, Katherina, is not only one of the most difficult acting assignments Elizabeth Taylor has done to date, but definitely the most physically exhausting of her entire career. During the filming of The Taming of the Shrew, the lovely Miss Taylor was pommeled, pounded, kicked, slapped, spanked and generally knocked about by her husband Richard Burton, who was only doing his duty as the bawdy Veronese gentleman who woos, wins, weds and finally domesticates the fiery Katherina.
There it is in black and white: during the making of the film, Elizabeth Taylor was spanked. And lest we should doubt the brochure’s word, here’s a teaser ad published while the movie was in production, indicating clearly that just such a scene was going to be a key element of the publicity:
Except that, by the time the movie was released, fifty years ago in March 1967, the spanking was gone, and the publicity department had decided to push scenes that are in the film.
With no OTK on offer, the central image of ‘taming’ had to be OTS instead.
But, armed with the information that a spanking scene was intended and was shot, it’s easy enough to see where it would have been. As usual with Shrew spanking, our attention turns to the wooing scene.
The film reorganizes Shakespeare’s scene into a busy, escalating sequence of physical comedy. It begins as Petruchio comes to talk privately with Kate, and finds her petulantly throwing things about the room. The first stage of courtship is interrupted when she sneaks away, so that Petruchio has to play hide-and-seek. Having gotten away, she rolls joyously in a wool-pile, but then he tracks her down. She does her best to stop him getting into the room, and eventually assaults him – whereupon he threatens retaliation. And that’s when the stakes become apparent.
The scene now develops into a full-blown chase, with Kate trying not only to get away but also to impede his pursuit. She climbs a ladder, and before attempting to follow he pauses a moment and rubs his hands together with the look of a man recognizing a challenge. It’s also the look of a man who knows exactly what he’s going to give the lady when he catches her.
Kate pulls the ladder up after herself, but she reckons without his persistence and athleticism. As he swings across on a rope, her face shows clearly that she knows exactly what’s in store for her if she’s caught:
The chase continues up to the top of the house and across the rooftop, where Petruchio catches her…
But the tiles give way and they fall together through the roof, landing back in the wool-pile, which is the film’s equivalent of the mud slide in McLintock!
And it’s at this point that the action becomes very slightly disjointed: Kate gets away again, but her escape attempts are now half-hearted in a way that isn’t entirely explained by the suggestion that she’s tired out after a strenuous chase. The sequence has clearly set itself up in terms of unwelcome consequences for Kate if she’s caught, perhaps involving the hands that Petruchio rubbed together so vigorously. But when it reaches the climax… there is no climax. It’s almost as if we are watching an alternative take. Which, in view of the available information that a spanking was both intended and performed, we probably are.
So it turns out that, quite fortuitously, Professor Boose was right to say that Zeffirelli ‘added a spanking scene’ to The Taming of the Shrew. What she omitted to add is that he then cut it out again…