Further Out of the Caves

Last week we saw how, in the early decades of the last century, the caveman became associated with the practice of courtship by spanking. It proved a very long-lived reputation. In the July 1969 edition of the Archie-clone comic book Date with Debbi, for example, there is a story entitled ‘The Cave-Man Cometh’, in which the teen heroine Debbi Anderson wishes her boyfriend Buddy could be more of a caveman. But when she gets her wish, she resents his domineering ways and his lack of any conversation beyond the word ‘Oog’, and ends up breaking a broom over his head. The consequences of that are:

And it seems cavemen spank their women even in very recent times. Here’s a Flintstones routine from a 2016 edition of Strictly Come Dancing, the British version of Dancing with the Stars:

But how much is that really about cavemen anyway? The Flintstones is much more about American domestic life in the 1950s, and the ‘spanking’ dance move is the one the French call tam-tam fesses,

which occurs in a wide range of non-prehistoric contexts. And it’s also not uncommon for dance show Charlestons to feature a bit of bottom-smacking as part of the general goofiness of the dance, or perhaps a nod to its period of origin, the 1920s. And since the Twenties was also the decade when the caveman spanker first fully emerged, we seem about to go round in circles.

So let’s take a quick detour into prehistory, or rather to prehistory as seen in the 1940s, the heyday of cartoonist V. T. Hamlin’s newspaper comic strip Alley Oop, whose titular hero is a time-traveling caveman. He has the expected ideas about how to deal with female misbehavior, as expressed in this panel from 1947:

20 Alley Oop 1947

Eighteen months later, in April 1949, the strip featured a full-scale spanking scene when Oop visits the Kingdom of Lem and gets embroiled in an unsuccessful attempt by Princess Zee to seize power from her father, King Wur. Once order is restored, the word around the caves is that the Princess will use her daughterly wiles and go unpunished. But the word around the caves is mistaken, and the Princess gets what the strapline calls ‘some hand psychology’:

21 Alley Oop 1949

22 Alley Oop 1949

What’s noticeable here is that all the relevant participants in these situations are cave people, but the situations themselves are not ‘caveman spankings’ as such. Alley Oop says he’s going to spank the blonde girl Neetah for lying and causing trouble, while the brunette who stops him is his girlfriend Ooola. And the reason she does it becomes clear in the panels that follow:

23 Alley Oop 1947

In contrast, Oop himself, after the spanking moment has passed, seems rather chivalrous:

24 Alley Oop 1947

As for Princess Zee, what she gets is certainly the mother and father of a good spanking, but she gets it from her father as a straightforward act of parental discipline. You could run the same stories with contemporary characters and the spanking situations would remain pretty much unchanged.

Hold that thought while we go back to the 1920s, to look at a silent movie that couldn’t have a more relevant title: The Cave Man (1926).

25 The Cave Man 1926

The title role is taken by Matt Moore, and his relevant co-stars are Phyllis Haver and Marie Prevost.

And you think if that sounds promising, you’re right: it’s a film whose only major disappointment lies in the lack of available visual representations of the scenes in question. Yes, I did say scenes.

The movie is adapted from Gelett Burgess’ 1911 stage play of the same title, which was itself a dramatization of his novel Lady Mechante (1909) – both of which, it may be worth pointing out, came before Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1913. Matt Moore plays Mike Smagg, and he isn’t a caveman – he’s a coalman. He finds half of a hundred-dollar bill in the street, along with a note promising to hand over the other half, so long as the finder is a man and claims it from Myra Gaylord, played by Marie Prevost. She’s the character who in the play and novel was named Lady Mechante, meaning Lady Naughty: a spoiled rich girl who’s bored with the sophisticates of her own set, and hopes by this tactic to find a more interesting kind of man. She’s taken with Mike’s uncouth ways, gives him a makeover and introduces him to her society friends as an eccentric visitor from Britain.

One of those friends is Dolly Van Dream, played by Phyllis Haver, and she too takes a fancy to Mike. The attention goes to his head: he lords it over his coworkers at the coal yard, while Dolly’s mother (Hedda Hopper) encourages matrimony. This excites jealousy in Myra, who is also falling in love with him, but won’t admit it to herself. When he kisses her roughly, she resents it, and spitefully tells him that Dolly wouldn’t have him if she knew who he really is. He bets her otherwise, and tells Dolly, but she fails this test of love and he loses his wager. Humiliated, he gets drunk, seeks out Dolly and angrily puts her across his knee. One sound spanking later, he confronts Myra, and she too is spanked, then thrown over his shoulder and carried off – to the nearest church, to get married.

That’s an account of the story pieced together from contemporary reviews, but as six of the film’s seven reels survive in the Library of Congress collection, it may eventually be possible to see it for ourselves. One thing is certain: despite the title and despite the poster, there is no caveman in the film. It’s just a metaphor for what Mike is and how he behaves.

So in Alley Oop we have cave people behaving like contemporary people, and in the film we have a modern man behaving like a caveman. There’s something out of alignment here, and the explanation lies in something I said earlier about The Flintstones: that it’s actually a comedy about the 1950s, which happens to be set in prehistory.

‘Spanking belongs to the caveman age,’ declared a Chicago judge, ruling for the wife in a 1959 divorce case. That’s one thing he was wrong about: caveman scenarios are almost never really about primeval man, and almost always about projecting aspects of the modern world into the far distant past. So it’s relevant that all of the so-called ‘caveman spankings’ in these early films take place in contemporary settings: winning your loved one by spanking her ‘like a caveman’ is a form of modern sexual behavior that has nothing to do with anything that might actually have happened in the Stone Age, not least because there was never any real evidence about that to begin with.

The point is made wittily in this 1966 cartoon by George Webster Crenshaw (1917-2007):

Even the cavegirl thinks of spanking as something done by a less civilised people, the ‘Backwoods Tribe’! And that brings us back to the supposition we started with last week: ‘As she is a primitive, she would surely accept a spanking.’ It’s mistaken to imagine that there ever was a ‘Golden Age’ when spanking young women was a a universally accepted practice, just as it is mistaken to assume that it’s the norm today. Cavemen probably didn’t do it in the first place, and later they just took the rap for aspects of human character that were hard to reconcile with the twentieth century’s sense of what it meant to be civilised. So there’s no fundamental difference between spanking a primitive and spanking a modern girl, or, in the terms I originally set out, between spanking Leela and spanking Sarah Jane Smith.

30 Leela31 Sarah

Whether she accepts it or not will have nothing to do with her culture, and everything to do with her personal inclination. The same as always…

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