The Curious Case of the Asbestos Pants

In recent weeks we have encountered many ‘not-quite’ cases of movie spanking scenes, but the strangest of them all must be the 1951 Western Cave of Outlaws. It comes to our attention because of a paragraph in the ‘trivia’ section of its Internet Movie Database entry:

‘Alexis Smith spent several hours in wardrobe being fitted for a pair of asbestos pants, as the film called for leading man Macdonald Carey to turn the actress over his knee and give her one of the hardest spankings ever administered to a female screen player.’

The paragraph’s provenance is unknown, though it reads as if it was written for a 1950s fan magazine rather than in the age of the internet. Some of its oddities are obvious at a glance, but let’s defer discussion of them until we’ve familiarized ourselves with the movie itself.

Macdonald Carey plays ex-outlaw Pete Carver, who has just been released from jail after serving fifteen years, but is nevertheless reputed to have access to a fortune. That’s because he’s the son of a train robber, who hid the heist’s proceeds (as it happens, in the eponymous outlaw cave) before being murdered. The loot was never found, and it’s generally believed that Carver knows its hiding place. Stolen money though it is, everyone wants a piece of it – which means Carver’s credit is good everywhere.

cave-of-outlaws-alexis-smith

The most attractive fly around the honeypot is Liz Trent (Alexis Smith), who asks Carver to invest in the Copper Bend Clarion, a bankrupt newspaper owned by her missing husband. He agrees, though it seems he’s more interested in her than he is in the Clarion.

cave-of-outlaws-1

Now we have to face up to three facts. The first is the now familiar one that there is no spanking scene in the available print of the movie, nor any obvious sign that one has been removed. The second is that the film as it stands offers only relatively limited spanking opportunities: there’s a scene where he kisses her and she slaps him, and another where she insists on following him to the cave and gets herself into jeopardy, but nothing to motivate or justify ‘one of the hardest spankings’ in the history of the cinema. And thirdly, throughout the picture Liz wears a series of fashionable 1890s dresses, but never a pair of pants, not even in the cave scenes.

cave-of-outlaws

So the online blogger who wrote in 2011 that the film was ‘less notable for acting than for the asbestos britches Smith had to be outfitted for’, had obviously never seen it!

So what are we to make of that IMDB trivia item which was obviously the source of the blogger’s information? Is it a mistake, a lie, a fantasy, or evidence of a deleted scene?

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider exactly what it might mean. Obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. Asbestos was a mineral used in the last century for insulation and fireproofing, until it was found to be a major health hazard. A sound spanking might have given Alexis Smith a very hot bottom, but she wasn’t at any risk of catching fire! The phrase ‘asbestos pants’ was simply being used as a witty way of saying that she was given some padding.

That wasn’t the regular practise with movie spanking scenes. We get a sense of the usual attitude in a report from the set of Our Wife (1941), on the day they filmed the climactic scene with Ellen Drew:

our-wife-lobby-card

‘Miss Drew, unfortunately, could not wear any geography books where they’d do the most good. A movie actress has got to have smooth-looking hips, even when she’s being spanked, and padding is out.’

That’s relevant to the case of Alexis Smith ten years later, in two ways, both of them tending to enhance the credibility of what seems at face value to be a less than plausible tale. Firstly, it establishes that padding an actress for a spanking scene was an unusual procedure, and therefore worthy of comment. And secondly, it underlines that this wasn’t just a matter of stuffing in some foam rubber willy-nilly. Maintaining the usual rear aspect of Alexis…

alexis-smith

… would indeed have been a job that required several hours’ work in wardrobe as she was fitted for the special pants that would render her bottom, though not flame-proof, hopefully spank-proof.

But what kind of ‘pants’? Assuming for the sake of argument that there was a deleted spanking scene, she might have worn pants in the American sense of the word, but that would be completely inconsistent with everything else she wears in the rest of the movie. So it’s possible that wardrobe might have supplied her with a pair of pants in the British sense, which might be less confusingly called panties, to be worn underneath her dress during the scene in question. But if that was the case, fitting them would hardly have required the several hours claimed, since they only needed to absorb the impact, not actually look good on screen.

That leaves a third possibility, which we’ll come to after giving some thought to another of the anecdote’s peculiarities. Since wardrobe precautions were being taken in advance, the spanking must have been expected to be unusually hard. But who deliberately plans such a thing? The script for a spanking scene (in any medium) will obviously say that the girl is spanked, and it may also specify that she is spanked hard, but one thing it won’t indicate is that she gets ‘one of the hardest spankings ever administered to a female screen player’. How the scene is realized, and how spectacular a spanking it is, is up to the director. But the director wouldn’t plan it in terms of its actual intensity, either, because his concern is how it will look in the footage, not how it might feel on a particular square foot (or less) of the actress’s body. The only reason to anticipate extraordinary discomfort would be if there was something out of the ordinary about the way Macdonald Carey had been directed to administer the spanking.

And that would certainly explain the counter-measures, if the ‘pants’ in question were both worn under her dress and seen on screen. In other words, the spanking could have rated as, and been expected to be, one of the hardest ever if it was given with her skirt raised, on the seat of a pair of period bloomers that, therefore, had to be carefully designed and painstakingly fitted to be both attractive and protective. And since, in 1951, a skirt-up spanking, with the target area in view, was unprecedented in recent American cinema, that would in turn explain why the studio then had second thoughts and completely expunged the scene from the release print.

It’s an appealing thought, and though it may seem unlikely, it’s not altogether fanciful. To begin to explain why, here’s a moment from a Western made the year before Cave of Outlaws by the same studio, Universal-International, the same producer, the same art director and the same star.

comanche-territory-can-can

The film is Comanche Territory (1950), and we’ll deal with its main claim on our attention another time. What matters for now is that it establishes that there was no necessary aversion to showing on screen certain feminine garments that are not ordinarily visible, so long as they were shown in circumstances where it would be considered normal for the lady’s skirt to be lifted. Dancing the can-can is one such circumstance. And a spanking might well have been another, even though as a rule it didn’t happen in the movies.

There were a handful of raised-skirt spankings in later television Westerns, including this memorable one given to Susan Oliver in Wagon Train (1960),

wagon-train-1960

and this more obscure example from Death Valley Days (1969), with Valerie de Camp:

death-valley-days-1969

But the example that may have the most significance for my argument is one I’ve never seen, and unfortunately can’t show you a picture of. It’s a 1960 episode of Tales of Wells Fargo entitled ‘A Study in Petticoats’, featuring Diane Jergens (also sometimes identified as Whitney Blake, but now definitively shown to be Diane). Here she is in a glamor pose:

This series seems to have staged the spanking scene a little differently from the other two. Both Susan Oliver and Valerie de Camp were spanked, with skirts up, on their petticoats. Just to confirm that, here’s the reverse angle on the Wagon Train spanking:

wagon-train-reverse-angle

But the skirt-up spanking in ‘A Study in Petticoats’, as reported by those who saw it in the early 1960s, conspicuously didn’t involve petticoats: Diane Jergens was spanked on the seat of her bloomers.

One enthusiast described this as ‘the longest and most thorough spanking’ he had ever seen on television, which may sound just a little familiar. And it’s noticeable how difficult it is to obtain information about this particular Wells Fargo episode: it was omitted from repeat runs, wasn’t included in the ‘best of’ DVD collection and even the most basic details about it are absent from the standard online sources; it’s not even listed in Diane Jergens’ filmography. It’s almost as if someone were trying to write it out of history…

Could it possibly be that, of all the many Western spankings, this was one that was thought to have gone too far? And if so, could it be that a similar scene with Alexis Smith was correspondingly erased from Cave of Outlaws before it was released?

Of course, I’ve thrown an enormous amount of tendentious reasoning at this case in order to reach that tentative conclusion, and the outcome is even heavier on hypothesis than usual. Did Alexis Smith get a spectacular bloomers spanking in 1951? We shall probably never know, and it remains a strong possibility that I’ve been wasting my time and yours chasing a hare started by a fantasist on IMDB – in which case, shame on them!

6 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Asbestos Pants

  1. DJ says:

    Asbestos pants – is probably not a euphemism for padding or literal in any sense. I know at least one US girl who has used this expression – she means it as a response to the expression ‘gonna set your ass on fire.’

    It implies a figurative or literal spanking was threatened or given – sadly off screen it would seem.

    Great work 🙂

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  2. Marco Gunherdt says:

    The ” Tales of Wells Fargo” episode is “A Study in Petticoats” Season 5 Episode 5. Whitney Blake was the female lead. Diane Jergens was the spankee.

    My recollection is that Jergens was madly in love with Dale Robertson and making a nuisance of her self pursuing him around town.

    Robertson leaves a building through an alley way(?) perhaps in an attempt to avoid her. He is confronted by her adult brothers who demand to know his intentions toward their sister.

    Robertson answers to the effect “this” as he sits on a barrel, turns Jergens over his knee, raises her skirt and petticoats, and begins to spank her on the seat of her bloomers.

    A chagrined Jergens is seen rubbing her bottom. One of the brothers asks “Why didn’t we think of that”.

    Encore West on US cable should be replaying the episode the first week of April.
    The video will remain on-line for some time after.

    I can find out how good my memory.

    Marco

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    • Harry says:

      Thank you for this, Marco. My information comes from an account written in the early 1970s by someone who saw the program when it was shown in Britain ten years earlier. It tallies very closely with what you describe, but names Whitney Blake as the recipient of the spanking. I have also seen listings naming Diane Jergens, but gave them less credence since they also got the name of the episode wrong – and since this sort of series usually only had room for one guest female, I didn’t consider the possibility that both ladies were in the episode. It’s quite possible that my source simply noted down the wrong actress’s name when it came up in the credits. If that proves to be the case then I’ll adjust the article accordingly – it won’t affect the basic point being argued since the episode also doesn’t feature on Diane Jergens’ filmography. It is good that the episode is about to resurface though it remains to be seen whether it will be viewable by those of us who don’t have the misfortune to be currently living in the USA.

      Addendum: And now that photos have emerged, the identification of Diane Jergens is confirmed. I’ve amended the article accordingly.

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  3. ‘Alexis Smith spent several hours in wardrobe being fitted for a pair of asbestos pants, as the film called for leading man Macdonald Carey to turn the actress over his knee and give her one of the hardest spankings ever administered to a female screen player.’

    Abilene Reporter December 30,1951

    [“Cave of the Outlaws” at the Majestic – Thursday, Friday and Saturday, was filmed at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It’s another Technicolor production.

    The story is about a cave full of gold which everybody is after and it has about everybody in the picture playing a “heavy” – except for Alexis Smith who is a stand-in newspaper editor in the town.

    Miss Smith had to be fitted for a pair of asbestos panties for the filming of “Cave of the Outlaws.” Macdonald Carey in one scene, turns her over his knee and gives her one of the hardest spankings ever administered to a female via the silver screen.]

    The above is not necessarily the original but predates the 2011 copy by sixty years. The copy from the Texas newspaper changes the name of the movie, adds local show dates and other information and also includes the word asbestos while changing other wording.

    Coincidently I found this a few days ago and tried to send the clipping to you via email but couldn’t find your email address on the site. Anyway, Your research is as always thorough and nothing about this news item changes your major premises. I viewed the movie at a 72 minute length and would say that the tone of the film and the circumstances of each scene would seem to preclude there having been a spanking. If there was, the available cut is one heck of an excellent editing job. Against a spanking would be that Carey spends a good deal of screen time with a hurt arm. Before that point though I can see where he would be motivated to spank the young newspaper woman, I just don’t see where it would fit in. If the Abilene newspaper took this information from a publicity sheet it’s odd that the studio didn’t know the name of their own movie. At some stage of the production process it seems that there was a spanking or going to be a spanking in this movie but perhaps the publicity drum got out in front of the final cut.

    As for A Study in Petticoats…Season 5 Episode 5 of Tales of Wells Fargo should be running on Starz Westerns in early April perhaps on the 4th or 5th.

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    • Harry says:

      That’s really interesting, thank you. ‘Panties’ rather than ‘pants’, then! And cued by you I’ve found another one in the Evening Review (East Liverpool, Ohio) for January 14, 1952:

      Alexis Fitted For Asbestos Panties
      Alexis Smith spent several hours in the Universal-International wardrobe department recently being fitted for a pair of asbestos pants. This strange move was made necessary because a scene in the Technicolor Western “Cave Of Outlaws”, which opens Tuesday at the Columbia Theatre, called for leading man Macdonald Carey to turn the actress over his knee and give her one of the hardest spankings ever administered to a feminine screen player.

      More or less the same wording recurs, which seems to confirm that we are dealing with reports sourced from a single publicity press release. Minor variations of wording (such as the Texas paper getting the title wrong) are probably attributable to the intervention of individual journalists.

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  4. jimc says:

    There is great talk over at Chross’s site about a lost spanking in Tales of Wells Fargo supposed to play in April and it has a different actress listed.as to why it is not in Whitney Blake’s filmography. Another thought on Commanche Terriorty is Macdonald Carey is supposed to threaten Maureen O’Hara with a spanking in the movie, but does not. As far as the hardest spanking several come to mind like She Wrote The Book; or some of the other ones that have been mentioned in some other articles. Thanks for a great article. Have a great day.
    Jim

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