Him Tarzan, Her… Spanked?

There’s an online essay about the Tarzan franchise that claims the series was popular with women in part because of the complete absence of spanking scenes:

Women also fell for Tarzan because of what he didn’t do – namely, hit Jane. Throughout the narrative, Tarzan is never violent toward women. In that era, some courts were still upholding a man’s right to beat his wife. And in multiple films during Tarzan’s most popular period, men would slap or spank their wives, often to rein in female “hysteria” or put women in their place. But “savage” Tarzan never raises a hand to Jane.

I have no particular quarrel with the rest of the essay, but this passage contains one mistaken statement and one questionable assumption. The latter is the supposition that women are universally averse to spanking scenes, which is arguably not so even today, and certainly can’t be simplistically projected onto the attitudes of a few generations back. In other words, the essayist is claiming that what some women feel now, all women have always felt.

But these sinister processes of oppressive generalization about gender and mendacious misrepresentation of history, are a subject for another time. What I want to address today is the part of the above statement that is straightforwardly untrue, and we’ll begin the demonstration with a simple question-and-answer session.

Did the creator of Tarzan, or others involved in the Tarzan franchise, avoid or even dislike spanking scenarios? NO.

Does Tarzan ever spank Jane onscreen? NO.

Is Jane ever spanked in a Tarzan movie? NEARLY.

Does Tarzan ever spank any other female character? YES.

A mixed bag of a situation, then, even with the stark absolutes of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – which just weren’t precise enough for that important third question. We’ll bring out all the nuances and complexities better if we go into detail, starting with the first question, about the various people who brought Tarzan into being.

Pride of place in any such roster must go to the prolific pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), who created the character in his 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes, and wrote a further 25 books about him over the following quarter-century; the last was published in 1947.

In the whole of that large canon, there’s only one, fairly oblique reference to M/F spanking, in Tarzan and the Lion Man (1934), in which a party of filmmakers come to Africa to make a jungle picture in authentic surroundings. At one point, the producer catches the leading actor coming out of the tent occupied by the leading actress, Naomi Madison, who also happens to be his girlfriend; the miscreant claims he was only looking for her stunt double, Rhonda Terry.

‘You came right out after Rhonda went in, you dirty, sneakin’ skunk; and now you listen to me. You lay off Naomi. She’s my girl. If I ever find you monkeyin’ around her again I’ll kill you. Do you get that?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Rhonda looked at Naomi and winked. ‘Papa cross; papa spank,’ she said.

‘My God! he’ll kill me,’ shuddered Naomi.

And since that’s the only approach to the subject, it follows that, in the novels, Tarzan never spanks anyone or even thinks of doing so. That’s not necessarily because Burroughs imagines the character as a chivalrous respecter of women, and it’s certainly not because the author himself is averse to the subject of spanking. There are a couple more spanking threats in another strand of his output, his science fiction novels, whose human heroes find themselves unexpectedly stranded on other planets in the solar system and embroiled in their wars and politics. In the ‘Mars’ series (ten novels, 1912-41), John Carter acclimatizes well enough to get married and have a daughter, who grows up to be the spoiled Princess Tara of Helium.

But he also retains much of his heritage as a Virginian. So when, in The Chessmen of Mars (1922), Tara patronizes him, calling him just that, a ‘proper old Virginian’, he replies: ‘In Virginia you would be turned over your father’s knee and spanked.’

That’s no more than banter, though several Burroughs fans have happily imagined such a scene, but things are a little more serious for Princess Duare in the ‘Venus’ series (five books, 1932-46).

In Lost on Venus (1935), she insists on walking into danger alongside the hero and first-person narrator, Carson Napier, in spite of his instructions to the contrary, and tells him that a woman of her class is ‘not accustomed to being ordered about’. Napier replies, ‘If there were not more pressing matters to occupy me, I would spank you.’ Her response: ‘She looked at me, horrified; then she stamped one little foot in rage and commenced to cry.’

All of this starts to explain why, in the books, Tarzan doesn’t spank. All three of the Burroughs spanking threats, to Naomi, Tara and Duare, are made by men who are geographically and culturally displaced: an American in the African jungle, a Virginian on Mars, an Anglo-American on Venus. Burroughs treats spanking as the practice of a particular culture, something the U.S. characters bring with them into other environments and alien worlds; he doesn’t treat it as a universal constant in the way that, for instance, the online essayist takes it for granted that women of all eras will necessarily dislike the subject. So that means it’s simply outside the character range of Tarzan the ape man, who was raised in the jungle and initially knows nothing of Western civilization.

So Burroughs didn’t stand entirely aloof from the spanking trope; he just didn’t make much use of it. And what about the people who brought Tarzan to the screen? There have been many movies about the character, but for the time being let’s stick to his most popular and successful run in the main MGM/RKO series. Cyril Hume (1900-55) wrote the screenplays for four of them up to 1952, including the first, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). He was also the scriptwriter of Flying Down to Rio (1933), starring Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio:

Tarzan the Ape Man also had the benefit of additional dialog by Ivor Novello (1893-1951), who often (as I have shown elsewhere) wrote piquant little spanking references into his scripts, before writing his first actual spanking scene in Full House (1935).

20 Spanking

And the film was directed by W. S. Van Dyke (1889-1943), who also directed Forsaking All Others (1934), starring Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and a hairbrush:


Van Dyke was also the director of Laughing Boy (1934), whose cast included Lupe Velez, the notoriously mischievous Mexican actress who coincidentally had just married ‘Tarzan’, in his offscreen persona of Johnny Weissmuller. And here is what Van Dyke did after one piece of notorious Velez mischief too many:

The second film, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), was co-written by James Kevin McGuinness (1893-1950), whose other credits include When Strangers Marry (1933) with its two spanking scenes, and Howard Emmett Rogers (1890-1971), whose script for Libeled Lady (1936) included a spanking scene that didn’t make it into production, and whose script for Stronger Than Desire (1939) had better fortune:

Four of the films, from 1936 to 1942, were directed by Richard Thorpe (1896-1991), who went on to direct The Thin Man Goes Home (1944):


Helping out Thorpe on his first Tarzan film, and the third of the series, Tarzan Escapes (1936), was the Oscar-winning William Wellman (1896-1985), who went on to direct The Great Man’s Lady (1942), in which Barbara Stanwyck is spanked offscreen by Thurston Hall, and Across the Wide Missouri (1951), in which Maria Elena Marqués is spanked onscreen by Clark Gable:

(He was also a scriptwriter who wrote at least one spanking scene that didn’t make it to the screen – which will be a topic for another time.)

Skipping over the fourth in the series, which introduced a somewhat unwelcome element to the world of Tarzan, we reach Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), which again had more than one screenwriter. One was Paul Gangelin (1898-1961), who later became a prolific scriptwriter for TV Westerns, and was responsible for ‘Doublecross Valley’, the 1950 episode of The Gene Autry Show in which Gail Davis is spanked:


The other Secret Treasure author was Myles Connolly (1897-1964). He went on to co-write the sixth movie, Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), followed in short order by the screenplay for Between Us Girls (also 1942), another movie whose spanking scene went missing in action, though not before a publicity still had been taken:

12 Diana Barymore Between us Girls S

The other half of the New York Adventure writing team was William R. Lipman (1894-1951), who had previously written the story for Yours for the Asking (1936), in which Dolores Costello is spanked:

John Jacoby (1904-63), who co-wrote three of the films from 1945 to 1952, had previously helped out on Between Us Girls, and also wrote the screenplay for Champagne for Caesar (1950), in which Celeste Holm is spanked offscreen while Vincent Price listens enthusiastically on the telephone. He later went back to Germany and wrote the story for Die Halbzarte (1959), in which Carlos Thompson spanks Romy Schneider:

Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), screenwriter for Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), was also responsible for Shady Lady (1945):

52 Shady Lady

And Francis Swann (1913-83), who wrote Tarzan and the Jungle Queen (1951), did so not long after writing Belle of Old Mexico (1950), which featured the second of three spanking scenes for Estelita Rodriguez:

08 Belle of Old Mexico

If we move to the front of the camera and consider the regular cast, we must begin with the disappointing observation that, so far as we know, neither of the original Tarzan and Jane pairing, the incomparable Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, ever participated in a spanking scene. But both their successors did. Lex Barker, who took over as Tarzan in 1949 and played him in five pictures, also starred, between the fourth and fifth, in the Western Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952), in which he finds himself in the position of having to put an ‘old Indian custom’ into practice on Helen Westcott:

As for the second Jane, who starred in five pictures (1945-49), she was none other than Brenda Joyce…

who was spectacularly spanked in Public Deb No. 1 (1940)…

and may also have been spanked in the original issue of The Rains Came (1939), which now only survives in cut-down form.

The point I’m making, perhaps at inordinate length, is that the Tarzan films didn’t exist in some sealed bubble of enlightened modern thinking about gender politics: they were enmeshed in a culture where spanking scenes were a routinely available and acceptable element in a story; and many of the people who were key to making the films had also participated directly in that dimension of mid-20th-century culture in other work they undertook before, between and after their professional encounters with the ape man. We should think about the Tarzan series in continuum, rather than in contrast, with these other movies in which women are spanked. The basis for the supposed contrast is the absence of spanking scenes from the Tarzan movies of this period; but since there are lots and lots of movies of that era which don’t include spanking scenes, so what?

It’s perhaps more useful to talk about the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, and by way of introduction, here are some scenes between Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan:

Of course, he’s not spanking her. They are examples of a piece of business that often happens in the early series entries (all of these come from Tarzan and His Mate), in which Jane dives out of a tree and Tarzan catches her, resulting in some pleasant Faux-TK imagery. So it’s actually the opposite of a non-consensual spanking scene where the girl is held in a similar position to prevent her getting away: it shows just how much Jane can trust Tarzan with her very life.

This is a couple with a lot of gently sexual playfulness between them, as may be illustrated by this scene from Tarzan Escapes in which Tarzan picks her up by the ankles and walks her round like a wheelbarrow, then drops her to the floor.

She protests, but giggles too. Then there’s the famous scene in Tarzan and His Mate when Jane, dressed up in a ball gown supplied by the relatives who have come to fetch her back to civilization, gets pushed into the river by Tarzan. In the process, her dress catches on a tree branch and is ripped right off, whereupon there follows a four-minute underwater love scene in which Tarzan is wearing his loincloth and Jane is wearing nothing at all.

That’s not Maureen O’Sullivan, by the way; Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim did the swimming (and showed her bare bottom) on her behalf.

Now, this sort of relationship could easily have included a bit of spanking, not for serious disciplinary purposes but just as part of the lovers’ horseplay. And though it’s generally futile to speculate reasons why any particular film does not include a spanking scene (as I said before, many just don’t), in the case of Tarzan and Jane there are two inhibiting factors. The first is that the earliest films are faithful to Burroughs in a number of ways. The core of Tarzan of the Apes as a love story is that Jane abandons the world of her upbringing to find romance with the ape man, which also entails losing the trappings of civilization, such as modesty in dress.

Incidentally, this remains a feature of some more recent versions, such as Tarzan and the Lost City (1998), which includes a rather charming scene with Jane (Jane March) sitting unselfconsciously in the trees with Tarzan, in nothing but her camisole and bloomers:

The 1932 film establishes another element in an early scene which raises the tantalizing possibility that Jane might be spanked by her father (it’s discussed in more detail here). Just as in Burroughs, spanking belongs culturally to the ‘civilized’ visitors to Africa, making it one kind of innocent fun that she and Tarzan can’t have in their jungle love-life.

The second inhibition is that unwelcome addition to the franchise in the fourth film, Tarzan Finds a Son (1939). It is at this point that the series turns away from the romantic Burroughs vision of Tarzan the noble savage, and starts to deal instead with American family life, complete with a tree-house full of jungle versions of contemporary domestic appliances. And with the arrival of Boy, the Tarzan-Jane dynamic changes from that of lovers to mom and dad, with the inevitable reduction of opportunities for M/F spanking scenarios or indeed any other kind of lovers’ game.

One thing that survives unchanged is the high level of Tarzan’s testosterone.

It’s also evident in the syndicated newspaper comic strip that ran from 1929 to 1972,

and in the 2006 Phil Collins musical, illustrated here in a publicity shot for the German production with Anton Zetterholm:

Of course, some Tarzan and Jane cosplays also make much of his masculinity:

The arrival of role-playing brings us on to Charles Henderson’s novel, Jungle Rules (2006), about a murder investigation during the Vietnam War.

In the relevant scene, a group of officers find themselves overhearing some fun and games next door:

‘Oh, Tarzan!’ the female sighed, and moaned. ‘Oh, oh, please, oh! Tarzan so bad. Bad to Jane. Oh, oh, oh, so bad.’

Then came a bang on the wall, and a thud on the floor.

‘Jane bad girl. Jane need spanking,’ the man spoke, and the sound of a hand slapping skin followed. ‘Ouch, Wayne! That’s too hard, honey,’ the woman said.

‘Umgawa!’ the man answered, and the sound of a hand slapping skin came again.

‘Damn it, Tarzan! Jane not going to play if you spank so hard!’ the woman’s voice cried back.

So at least some people find it conceivable for Tarzan to spank Jane, even if it’s only a bit of bedroom playfulness, and even though it never happens in the books or films. But, as I indicated earlier, there is a Tarzan movie where Jane is nearly spanked, albeit not by Tarzan. So which of the many Janes comes within a hair’s breadth of that fate?

It’s not Maureen O’ Sullivan.

It’s not Brenda Joyce.

It’s not Vanessa Brown.

It’s not Virginia Huston.

It’s not Dorothy Hart.

It’s not Joyce MacKenzie.

It’s not Vera Miles.

It’s not Eve Brent, resplendent in her non-jungle panties here.

And after Eve, the franchise did away with the character of Jane, before turning into the Ron Ely television series and then fizzling out. Tarzan returned to the big screen in 1981 with a remake of Tarzan the Ape Man, starring Bo Derek as Jane. And, yes, Bo, it’s you…

This is not among the best of the Tarzan movies, but what is distinctive about it is its overt emphasis on the sexual dimension of the relationship between Tarzan and Jane. Cynics might say that’s because it’s just using the story as a soft porn vehicle for Bo and her body, and it’s certainly true that she gets the main emphasis on the film poster, with the actor who plays Tarzan, Miles O’Keeffe, relegated to the lowest possible billing:

But you could also argue that a Jane-centered version is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the story – though the precise ins and outs of that story won’t detain us, because we only need to head straight to the end of the film. Jane has been rescued from the evil Ivory King and his tribe of savages, and has had a deathbed reconciliation with her estranged father, and now she and Tarzan can get on with a simple life of sexual hedonism in the company of their simian friend O.J. the orangutan. And that’s the final scene: the scantily clad Tarzan and Jane, and the unclad but furry O.J., cavorting innocently around on the sand, while the end credits roll. In the course of this, bizarrely, O.J. maneuvers the bare-bottomed Jane into a certain position face down across his lap.

A mix to another shot means we don’t see whether O.J. achieves what we have in mind, but in any event, chalk one up to jungle instinct, in spite of Burroughs!

So that leaves us with our final question: does Tarzan ever spank a woman? Back to the newspaper comic strip we go, for a 1953 story entitled ‘Tarzan and the Insect Men’, scripted by Dick Van Buren and drawn by Bob Lubbers (1922-2017). This is a story about a white huntress, Betty Cole, who shoots animals both indiscriminately and inefficiently, leaving many of them wounded and dangerous. She’s so bad at it that her native bearer abandons her, unwilling to risk death at the claws of one of her victims, and Tarzan has to rescue her from a lion she has failed to finish off.

He administers a regretful coup de grace to the big cat, smashes Betty’s rifle against a rock and gives Betty herself a stern talking-to. She doesn’t appreciate this:

33 1953

And Tarzan doesn’t appreciate that:

34 195335 1953

Faced with the prospect of being left alone by Tarzan, Betty apologises, and so, we are told, ‘Through ill-fated circumstance he was now responsible for this spoiled socialite.’ The story that ensues presents the disciplining of a spoiled heiress on a trek through the wild, along the same lines as Leslie Charteris’ Saint story, ‘The Golden Journey’: Tarzan makes her do her share of the carrying and chores, which she resents so much that she wanders off at night and gets abducted by the insect men. He has to rescue her from slavery…

36 1953

… then delivers her to her ship home, declining her parting offer of a romantic relationship.

Well, that’s definitive – unless you’re reading the strip in the 2002 reprint, that is. For that version, the one most commonly seen online now, has been censored. Spot the difference:

37 2002 censored38 2002 censored

Three words are altered, so that Tarzan only ‘prepares’ to and ‘almost’ spanks Betty, with ‘a deserved thrashing’ changed to the inelegant ‘a deserved spank’ to make room for that added ‘almost’. The first picture has also lost the ‘impact lines’ above her bottom, so that the ‘movement lines’ around his arm can be interpreted as showing it traveling upward rather than coming down. So in this version, Tarzan reaches the very brink of spanking her, but draws back at the last moment. The intervention saves his honor, from the point of view of some modern sensibilities, but only at the cost of lying about what was originally there in the strip that is being otherwise lovingly revived for contemporary ape man enthusiasts half a century on.

But even so, there is a Tarzan movie in which he puts his constant companion across his knee and spanks her. It’s one from outside the main MGM series, Tarzan the Fearless (1933), starring Buster Crabbe, seen here with Jacqueline Wells:

She plays anthropologist’s daughter and damsel in distress Mary Brooks, who needs a lot of rescuing by Tarzan in the course of the movie, but doesn’t find herself over his knee. Nor does Jane, for the simple reason that the character doesn’t appear in the film. So who is the lady who gets spanked? Unfortunately, it’s Cheeta.

3 thoughts on “Him Tarzan, Her… Spanked?

  1. sweetspot444 says:

    A most remarkable piece of writing very thorough and enjoyable. You had me at ‘papa spank’ a little phrase most famous as the first words Batman ever addresses to Catwoman [known simply as The Cat in Batman #1 Spring 1940] but a turn of phrase that probably goes back to the 19th century and was already popular in various media of the day [vaudeville, burlesques, sheet music] in the early years of the 20th century.
    I had wondered for some time now if you had more specific information as to why the 2002 version of Betty Cole’s spanking differed from the original – something like impute from an over-protective Burroughs estate – but the idea of an overly cautious editor bending to the will of supposed modern ‘sensibilities’ is as good a reason as any.
    I try not to get overly fixated on why or why not a particular movie, TV show, stage play or comic series doesn’t contain a spanking – although that’s hard given my natural slant towards seeing spanking around every corner. The reasons as you have often noted can be as varied as they are complex. There seems to be a lot of spanking going on in the mainstream but the reality is – also as you note in this very post – that spanking takes place in a very small minority of productions of one kind or another. I can just say thank you for digging up so many of the mainstream presentations that do have a spanking scene.


  2. jimc says:

    This was indeed one of your most detailed pieces that I have seen. I always thought that Tarzan did spank Jane at least I had that impression in one of the movies where Jane seems very subdued in one thing when she has given permission for the hunters to get the ivory and then seems like a whole new demeanor when she comes back. I really enjoyed all the different spankings that you came up with this article. I did enjoy the dive as it does look like she is over his knee and the swimming scene was great. I really had forgotten Bo Derek’s position in Tarzan and thought it was a great ending shot. Thank you for such excellent research and also the way you have put it together it was really an outstanding piece. Have a great day.


  3. Lars Christian Steenberg says:

    It is certainly true that if a lot of women had not liked spanking scenes in Hollywood comedies they would not have been there. Spanking the woman you love plays an important part in a film such as Forsaking All Others, and of course many women liked that movie – including the way Clark Gable dealt with Joan Crawford, and judging from the way she handed him the hairbrush in the last scene she also liked it.

    Nowadays there is a very big subgenre of spanking novels and movies, because it is too much against modern standards to be in mainstream movies. So no doubt many women still like the idea of a man being strong and determined enough to put them over his knees if they do something to deserve it – or deiberately taunts him to play the old mating game of taming and submitting.


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