One indication of the perceived importance of a movie spanking scene is the number of pictures the studio photographers troubled to take of it, both during the making of the film and afterwards in the publicity shoot. For all their especial interest to us, most such scenes are relatively minor incidents in the overall development of the plot, and they don’t rate heavy coverage for publicity purposes. If the publicity department recognized the scene’s individual appeal, there might be three or four photos available, but – in an era when photography was a slower, more complicated business than the ‘point and click’ digital world of today – they would only spend longer on one particular scene if it was deemed especially momentous.
That’s why at least seven pictures were taken of the spanking in Look for the Silver Lining: it marks a major turning point in the life and career of the central character. And when the spanking is the climax of the story, the payoff everyone’s waiting for… Well, count ’em:
Everyone had perhaps been waiting a lot longer for this than the roughly two hours McLintock! runs before it reaches the second, climactic spanking scene with Maureen O’Hara. It was something audiences had arguably been waiting more than a decade to see…
For a purist like me, the fact is that Maureen O’Hara was spanked, in the strictest sense of the word, in only one film, which was made in 1963, and McLintock! was that film. So what are we to make of this statement in Edith Kermit Roosevelt’s August 1952 article on the recent screen spanking spate?
‘Poor Maureen O’Hara. There’s hardly been a film in the last two years where she hasn’t been spanked.’
The following April, Maureen gave an interview to the legendary gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, whose write-up stated:
‘Miss O’Hara has been roundly and soundly spanked in awkward places by such stalwarts as Errol Flynn, Macdonald Carey, Jeff Chandler and others of similar heavy-handed stature.’
So let’s investigate this a little. Maureen’s film with Errol Flynn was Against All Flags, which was released in February 1953, a few months before the interview. Flynn plays Hawke, an English officer sent undercover to infiltrate a pirate colony on Madagascar. Miss O’Hara is one of the pirates,
‘Spitfire’ Stevens, whose nickname helps to indicate the kind of romantic relationship that’s going to develop between them: she refuses his advances, then makes advances of her own and gets offended when he in turn appears less eager than both of them obviously feel.
She gets even more offended when he goes on a pirate mission that results in the capture of a shipload of young Indian ladies – rather pale young Indian ladies, it must be said – and also some heroic life-saving: Hawke rescues their Princess from a fiery death after the pirates, having seized the booty, decide to burn and sink the ship on which she’s still hiding. The Princess duly falls for him and spends the rest of the movie airheadedly asking him to kiss her. All the captured women are auctioned as prospective pirate wives, and Hawke bids for the Princess – not, in fact, because he wants to marry her, but to keep her out of dastardly pirate clutches lest her royal father should take reprisals against the English in India. Spitfire gets the wrong idea and outbids him in order to ensure that he remains a bachelor.
Feeling like a woman scorned, she decides to give up on her life of piracy and offers Hawke her ship if, in return, he will take her to Brazil, after which he can go off pirating until he’s eventually hanged for it (an event she says she looks forward to witnessing). The conversation leads up to this exchange:
SPITFIRE: I can defend my own self-respect, and if any man dares to damage it, I’ll shoot the eyes out of his head. Both of them, Brian Hawke, both of them!
HAWKE: I’ll accept the venture, ma’am, but I’m warning you: you draw one more pistol, and you’re going to find yourself across my knee.
A spanking threat in a film script may be the equivalent of showing a loaded gun: something that, in principle, you don’t do unless you plan to show it going off later. The trouble is, it may alternatively be just a cute bit of friction on the rocky road of romance, and in the case of Hawke and Spitfire, that seems to be the case: there’s no obvious moment later in the film when the metaphorical gun might go off, or, to return to the literal, when the pistol might be drawn and the spitfire spanked.
Maybe there was a deleted or alternative sequence in which that happened, but if so, it was cut out a second time when the screenplay was remade, only lightly adapted, as The King’s Pirate (1967), with Flynn and O’Hara’s roles, complete with spanking threat, taken by Doug McClure and Jill St John. There was one welcome change in the remake: whereas Flynn carried the Princess to safety decorously in his arms, Doug McClure was rougher, not only slinging Mary Ann Mobley over his shoulder but also smacking her bottom as he went!
So the fact is that Maureen O’Hara was not spanked by Errol Flynn on screen in Against All Flags, and was probably not spanked in a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. Sheilah Graham’s statement to the contrary is hard to account for, except as the outcome of a process of Chinese whispers that somehow turned words into actions, a mere threat into an actual spanking.
That sort of explanation starts to wear a little thin when we turn to Maureen’s film with Macdonald Carey, Comanche Territory (1950), in which he plays legendary Western hero Jim Bowie and she is fiery Irish beauty Katie Howard.
When he rides into the town of Crooked Tongue, he accidentally causes her to lose a bet. She takes this badly and draws a gun on him, but he refuses to draw his own. ‘Sorry, ma’am,’ he tells her. ‘Back in Louisiana, when we meet any pretty ladies, we make love to ’em, we kiss ’em, spank ’em on occasion, but we never go around shooting ’em.’
He goes to the local bank to deposit a draft, and discovers that Katie owns the bank. She refuses to honor the draft, seems pleased when he tells her that means he’s effectively broke, and finally insults the State of Louisiana. Whereupon he tells her:
‘I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never had a bank president across my knee for a good spanking. That’s a pleasure I shall look forward to.’
Maybe we can look forward to it too?
At this point, let’s introduce three other contemporary witnesses to reinforce what Sheilah Graham said. A 1950 press review described the character of Katie as ‘an early 1800s sagebrush hoyden who, with enthusiasm, smokes a pipe, gets spanked by her leading man and horsewhips a troublemaker’. The following year, another journalist, writing about the next film on our agenda, began developing the theme that Maureen O’Hara was having a run of bad luck in the sore bottom department: ‘Just one year ago, Maureen received a spanking at the hands of leading man Macdonald Carey in Comanche Territory.’ And in 1952, Edith Kermit Roosevelt offered this vivid description of one of the many recent films in which, according to her, the actress had been spanked:
‘Macdonald Carey used these caveman tactics in Comanche Territory. Maureen was a bit temperamental. She had a habit of slashing her beaus with a horsewhip. Mac took the red-haired Irish beauty across his buckskin lap and gave her a paddling.’
Back to the film now, where the scene is a barroom brawl involving both Katie and Bowie. In the course of it, she finds herself with her head stuck under a table, and calls for someone to get her out. ‘I promised myself this pleasure, Miss Bank President,’ says Bowie – and kicks her in the rear twice.
Well, no, you didn’t promise yourself that pleasure, Mr Bowie. And according to four reporters, at least one of whom had surely seen the film, the pleasure he did anticipate did come to pass. Given the way the relationship between the two characters develops, it could only be in the brawl scene. So are we dealing with journalists whose command of the English language was so tenuous that they thought kicking a lady in the ass can be properly described as spanking her? Did they doze off during that part of the picture and infer what had happened from the earlier threat? Or did they see an alternate version of the film in which, instead of winding up beneath the table, Katie lands across Bowie’s knee?
A few scraps of context might support that last possibility. Comanche Territory was made by some of the same personnel who were responsible for Cave of Outlaws the following year, in which, as we recently saw, there is also a slight possibility that a spanking scene was filmed but removed from the final edit. Of course, two mutually reinforcing hypotheses don’t constitute evidence, but we’re on slightly more solid ground when we notice that the author of Comanche Territory was Oscar Brodney, whose other screenplays included She Wrote the Book (1946)…
and Captain Lightfoot (1955):
A spanking threat might be consistent with his track record, but an actual spanking scene would be even more so…
But for something coming just a little closer to solidity, let’s turn to the third movie mentioned by Sheilah Graham, the one costarring Jeff Chandler: Flame of Araby (1951). It’s an ‘Eastern’, set in a version of Tunisia that looks remarkably like California. Jeff Chandler plays Tamerlane, a Bedouin chief who starts the movie on a quest to trap a fabled wild black stallion. He loses the horse when a young lady named Tanya (guess who?) gets caught up in the stampede and he feels obliged to rescue her instead. She tells him that he will be richly rewarded for saving her life.
‘It is you who will be richly rewarded,’ he retorts, then dismounts, bends her over and gives her three flicks across the bottom with his whip.
Now, you’ll infer from what I said earlier that I don’t count that as, strictly speaking, a spanking. Maybe I’m just disappointed because, when I first heard that the film featured a scene in which Maureen O’Hara, in Arabian Nights costume, was spanked, I imagined something more like this:
(That’s Gloria Grahame being spanked by Turhan Bey in Prisoners of the Casbah, 1953.)
Maybe I’m onto a loser there, considering the aftermath that resonates down the film. ‘After the courting,’ remarks one of Tamerlane’s men, ‘she’ll have little mind to sit on a horse, master.’ But he graciously declines to deprive her of her mount, and she gets back into the saddle with little apparent discomfort. It then emerges that, despite her red hair and pronounced Irish accent, Tanya is an Arab princess: a search party arrives to summon her to her royal father’s deathbed. She tells Tamerlane to claim his reward at the palace, and rides away. ‘So you courted the seat of a princess, master,’ says one of his men. ‘And she would reward you for it,’ adds another, smirking about the tale he will have to tell back at their encampment.
What’s noticeable is that the characters are pointedly not using the word spanking, but are using a different word, courting, that nevertheless carries effectively the same meaning. This continues in later scenes. The Bedouins do go to the city, but only to trade, not to claim any rich reward. After they get dangerously caught up in local politics, however, Tamerlane decides he must go to the palace after all. His sidekick reminds him that ‘in the palace is a princess who does not sit because of the courting you gave her’. (And thereupon the scene immediately changes to Princess Tanya, sitting down, still without any sign of discomfort.) And later she goes to the desert in search of the black stallion, needing it to win a race that will determine who gets to choose her husband. She’s stopped by the Bedouins, who are also looking for the stallion, and gets haughty with them:
TANYA: Let me go! I am the Princess Tanya.
BEDOUIN: Who was royally courted by our noble master.
After some banter they let her pass, and one remarks to the other, ‘If she meets our master, I vow she’ll not be sitting in her saddle when she returns.’
The point is that what happened to Tanya at the start of the movie is represented as being both a spanking and not a spanking: substitute spank for court and the lines still bear exactly the same meaning, but nevertheless a definite choice has been made to avoid calling it a spanking, and indeed to avoid staging it in a way that would make it unambiguously that. That’s why it’s done with a whip and isn’t done OTK – so the things I find most disappointing about it seem to be central to the way the film-makers wanted to define the scene. How it was talked about by reporters and moviegoers was, of course, another matter…
So I may have to grant you that there is a case, if you stretch a point, for saying that Maureen O’Hara was spanked on screen once before the grand finale to McLintock! But even factoring in the Flame of Araby ‘courting’, that still offers only a tendentious factual basis for those early Fifties claims that Maureen was getting spanked a lot: one swallow doesn’t make a summer even if one spanking may make a hot bottom.
So should we conclude that Edith Kermit Roosevelt and Sheilah Graham were guilty of exaggeration and hyperbole, or maybe of just not checking their facts well enough? The problem with that is that Sheilah Graham asked Maureen straight out how she felt about having to be spanked in so many of her films, and Maureen replied:
‘The distressing thing about these movie spankings is that a girl knows there’s no way to fake them. The he-man doing the job cannot pull his punch, because the camera will see it. It’s a real discomfort, but it doesn’t last too long and, after all, the pay is good.’
She’s obviously talking about more than one film, and she surely wasn’t referring primarily to the few flicks of the whip in Flame of Araby, which look quite perfunctory onscreen for all the subsequent talk about the effect on Princess Tanya’s ability to sit down. So her answer might reinforce the hypothesis that there was an alternative version of Comanche Territory in which the spanking threat reached fruition. It might also mean there are other titles lurking in Maureen’s filmography that feature currently unknown spanking scenes. But before we start looking, we must bear in mind that it might also mean something a lot less exciting.
Many years later, Maureen had this to say about the film she made immediately before McLintock!:
‘Henry Fonda gave me a spanking during a scene in Spencer’s Mountain.’
This resulted in a claim, in Aubrey Malone’s 2013 biography of the actress, that Fonda ‘put her over his knee’, which isn’t an unreasonable interpretation of her words. On the other hand, it also isn’t unreasonable to expect a biographer to actually watch his subject’s work, and if he had troubled to watch Spencer’s Mountain he would have seen:
She’s bending over to see to the washing, and he gives her an affectionate and rather theatrical smack on the bottom, with a swinging underarm delivery that ensures his hand goes under her skirt and lands directly on, we assume, the seat of her panties. The moment was later recreated in the publicity studio…
and in a painting for the Italian poster:
‘Daddy spanked Momma!’ says one of the kids. But he doesn’t put her over his knee. Which all goes to show that neither the scriptwriter nor the leading lady used the word spanking with the kind of exactitude that we might have found helpful. So maybe there is, after all, no rich seam of early Fifties Maureen O’Hara screen spankings waiting to be discovered. And maybe in McLintock! she had it coming in more ways than one.
Postscript (July 2017): Since this article was written, a little more information has come to light about Comanche Territory.
When The Bowie Knife – as it was originally entitled – was in pre-production, in August 1949, the movie gossip columnist Harrison Carroll reported:
‘I hear Universal will garb Maureen O’Hara in a pair of asbestos panties before she gets spanked by Macdonald Carey in her new film.’
That’s interesting for two reasons. It shows the mind of the same anonymous publicity man who later promulgated a very similar story about Alexis Smith in Cave of Outlaws. And it also tells us that, even before the movie was made, there was an expectation among Hollywood-watchers that it would feature a spanking scene.
That might account for the confident assertions about the inclusion of such a scene made by the various reviewers I quoted in the article. In other words, it might tip our interpretation of the evidence in the direction of hype, misunderstanding and poor journalism (or, if you like, ‘fake news’):
But now read what Maureen O’Hara herself told journalists when the movie was released:
‘I actually get to smoke a pipe. And I get spanked by my leading man and horsewhip a trouble-maker.’
It really does sound more and more as if there really was an alternate version of that kick-in-the-bustle scene, doesn’t it?