In 1963, the great Hollywood director Frank Capra stepped down from an assignment to make a John Wayne movie, Circus World, after a serious disagreement about the script. Wayne had demanded that his personal screenwriter, James Edward Grant (1905-66), should be brought in to do a rewrite. Grant told Capra that nothing very sophisticated was required:
‘All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank, and a collection of jerks he can smash in the face every five minutes. In between, you fill in with gags, flags and chases. That’s all you need.’
The studio backed Wayne and Grant, so Capra left the production.
The movie’s story concerns circus star Matt Masters (Wayne), who’s trying to find the long-lost love of his life, Lili, and hopes that the presence of her daughter in his circus tour of Europe will bring her out of hiding. Grant’s remark to Capra raises the intriguing possibility that there may have been an interim version of the script featuring a spanking for the ‘hoity-toity’ Lili, played by Rita Hayworth.
But this is something we’re unlikely ever to know for sure, and it’s not my main point. We’ll get closer to that point if I observe that some of the broad patterns of the story aren’t entirely unreminiscent of those in McLintock!, which only happened to be the project that both James Edward Grant and John Wayne worked on immediately before Circus World.
And the one before that was…
And that means Grant may have had some justification for the simplistic formula for success that he presented so vulgarly to Frank Capra. Though perhaps it would be pushing things too far to draw any definite connection between the facts that the final version of Circus World (a) doesn’t have a spanking scene, and (b) was a major box office flop.
Now, Grant wrote a lot of Wayne movies before Donovan’s Reef, none of them with spanking scenes. In fact, there aren’t any other Wayne movies with spanking scenes, scripted by James Edward Grant or anyone else (unless you count 1969’s True Grit, in which, ironically, Wayne’s character intervenes to put a stop to the spanking of the annoying teenage heroine). So you might think it surprising that, for many years, John Wayne had the reputation of being a prolific movie spanker. When he died in 1979, the French journal Paris-Match illustrated his obituary with a full-page spanking photo from McLintock! Such scenes were exactly what people expected to find in his 162 movies, even though there was nothing of the sort to be found in any but two of them.
No doubt the reason for this was, in part, that Donovan’s Reef and McLintock!, released respectively in June and December 1963, were the end of an era: the last of the prominent mainstream movie spankings, before public taste turned and cinema spanking moved underground into kink and exploitation. So these two spanking scenes had an afterlife, as the movies were periodically rerun on screens both big and small, but they had no major successors: they were therefore the scenes many people were likely to think of first when they looked back on the age just passed. The fact that they were both Wayne movies set up the memory to play tricks – abetted by Frank Capra’s recollection of Grant’s crass remark, which he recounted in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title. The standard content of a Wayne movie was now reputed to be fighting and spanking.
The most concrete illustration of that legend in practice comes in the 1980 series of the long-running British sketch show, The Two Ronnies. The series was built around comedians Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, the latter of whom also wrote, under a pseudonym, many of the sketches; his contributions included a regular spoof adventure serial, which for 1980 was entitled The Worm That Turned.
Although well remembered, this is not one of the best of the Ronnies’ serials. It’s set in a dystopian future where traditional gender roles are reversed, and the theme is handled with a mean-spiritedness that some, like me, will find off-putting. Others may enjoy the simple pleasure of the leggy totalitarian police force in their PVC hotpants.
They weren’t always shown as entirely efficient…
And getting closer to the point, few people reading this are likely to object to one particular scene in the second episode, first broadcast on November 8, 1980…
In the course of the story, the Ronnies become radicalized counter-revolutionaries trying to escape across the border to the masculine paradise of Wales, but it all starts in a very small way: they run a chauvinist film club where downtrodden men gather for secret showings of the manly movies of yesteryear. At the screening featured in the story, the offering is a John Wayne film.
Ronnie Barker’s script says nothing at all about what’s shown in the John Wayne film and how the audience reacts, no doubt because he knew that could only be decided once they’d sourced the appropriate footage. Much black-and-white material showing cowboys, horses, gunplay and the big country duly appears in the extracts shown. But it proved harder to facilitate another bright idea. Since it’s a Wayne movie, thought somebody, wouldn’t it be fun to show the men cheering with delight as the Duke gives some ornery femme a spanking? It surely would. Could they find a clearable Wayne movie where he does that? They surely couldn’t!
But bright ideas, once thought of, are hard to let go. If they couldn’t find a suitable spanking scene, they’d just have to make their own, when The Worm That Turned was filmed on location in Gloucestershire during the summer of 1980. And so it was that one of the dreaded secret police, the hatless blonde third from the left here…
… volunteered to change out of her tiny shorts, into vaguely ‘Western’ attire, and be put across a big man’s knee. It did get her a close-up:
And the price of that close-up was paid by her other end, now encased in tight denim: eight onscreen slaps in the footage used in the final edit, which happens to be more than are seen to land in either McLintock! or Donovan’s Reef. Plus, of course, the usual rehearsals, offcuts and possible retakes!
She’s squirming a lot, isn’t she? There’s a reason for that…
The soundtrack includes twelve clear smacks (covering both the main shot and the close-up) but no dialog at all: nothing like ‘How dare you?’ or ‘Stop!’ or even ‘Ouch!’ All the girl’s reactions are conveyed by the squirm, the way she moves her body as she is spanked. There’s a reason for that…
And the reason is that, if she had to say any lines, she’d also have to be paid more! And with no dialog, the BBC was able to save money another way, too, by shooting the sequence without sound. The slapping noises were dubbed on afterwards by a foley artist, which is why they go slightly out of synch at one point. Not that this in any way undermines the enjoyable evidence of our eyes: this is a pretty girl being spanked!
And so: notch another one up to John Wayne – posthumously!