Enter the Spoiled Heiress

The camera pans across glittering art deco skyscrapers, the riverside palaces of the super-rich illuminated as if in neon with the credits of the movie that is just beginning. Finally it comes to rest on the opposite bank, where a solitary human figure tends the fire outside a humble hovel. In about 90 seconds, the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey establishes the parameters of its Great Depression world where wealth and poverty live side by side.

Socialite Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) is competing in a scavenger hunt, and her challenge is to find a ‘forgotten man’. She offers the destitute Godfrey (William Powell) five dollars to come with her and be shown off at the Waldorf Ritz Hotel.

02 My Man Godfrey

The proposal offends him. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to take it up with my board of directors,’ he replies sarcastically, advancing on her. ‘And no matter what my board of directors advise, I think you should be spanked.’ She backs away and finds herself falling into an ash pile. It’s a moment lightly adapted from 1101 Park Avenue, the original 1935 novel by Eric Hatch, in which he more actively pushes her into a bush, but doesn’t mention spanking her – that was a detail added for the movie.

In 1930s Hollywood, it was generally acknowledged that rich girls were typically self-indulgent and inconsiderate, and consequently should be spanked. It’s a prospect, and sometimes a spectacle, whose appeal lies primarily in the humbling of the proud, and the context of the Depression, and the vast gulf between the richest and poorest in society, adds the especial relish that is evident in this example of Public Deb publicity from 1940:

Public Deb penniless

But the spoiled heiress in need of a good spanking had become a fixture of movie comedy even before the Wall Street Crash hit in October 1929. A convenient example is Pajamas, a silent released exactly two years and a day earlier, on October 23, 1927, and starring Olive Borden as Angela Wade, the daughter of a millionaire railroad owner:

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Olive had ‘a lingerie personality, for she is nearly always cast in roles calling for bathing suits, deshabille or South Seas negligee’. Or indeed silk pajamas, her attire for most of this particular movie, hence its title. And another newspaper expressed disappointment that, in her previous film, The Joy Girls, her character didn’t receive ‘a sound cinematic spanking for her gold-digging ways’. Well, that was about to be remedied, albeit not for gold-digging.

Pajamas 1927

Angela Wade was advertised as Olive’s first ‘rich girl’ part. She’s not the first spoiled and spanked heiress in the movies, but she’s the earliest to get a spanking that we can actually illustrate. Reports differ as to whether or not it’s a lost film; all I can say is that I’ve never seen it myself, so what I can tell you about it derives from those who did, back in the 1920s.

The story begins on Long Island, as John Weston (Lawrence Gray), owner of a struggling Canadian lumber firm, is motoring towards the stately Wade mansion, where he hopes to hustle up a business deal with wealthy Daniel Wade. Breaking every speed law in the New York statute book, Angela zooms up behind him in her more powerful car and, in an attempt to pass, forces him off the road. The confrontation that follows establishes their respective characters – irresponsible heiress and staid businessman – and comes to a climax when he threatens to spank her. She doesn’t stick around to give him the chance, but jumps into her car and speeds away, just as a motorcycle traffic cop arrives at the scene of the accident.

Weston’s stay chez Wade is cut short when news arrives that means he must return to western Canada at once. Luckily for him, Daniel Wade, being a millionaire, owns a private plane, complete with a pilot on the payroll, and offers his guest the use of it. Unluckily for Weston, this conversation is overheard by Angela, who’s still resentful about the spanking threat and decides to get her own back with a prank: she takes the pilot’s place, not even pausing to get dressed – and flies Weston across the continent still dressed in the eponymous silk pajamas.

They don’t make it: Angela loses control of the plane and they have to bail out; their parachutes deposit them in the treetops, deep in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies. Leaving aside the small matter of Weston’s pressing need to get home, there are three principal areas of damage: the plane is a write-off, Angela’s pajama pants are ripped in the rough landing and an area of her anatomy still covered by that garment becomes, shall we say, somewhat tender. All three casualties may be seen here:

Opinions differed about the spanking: some described it as ‘glorious’, but others complained that the slaps were laid on rather mildly; some spoke of Angela getting ‘the shock of her life’, while others were disappointed that she seemed rather unresponsive. (This was arguably part of a broader reaction to Olive Borden’s acting in general: lovely to look at but not much of a performer, was the consensus.) The studio publicists evidently regarded it as the highlight of the movie,

and they duly produced what was, so far as I know, the first American film poster to feature a spanking scene:

But they seem to have been confused about the scene, in several ways. For one thing, the poster wrongly implies that the spanking happens right after the car crash earlier on. Some reviewers, who obviously hadn’t actually seen the film, were misled into stating that Angela is indeed spanked then and takes her revenge with the plane prank. Others seem to have been expecting such a scene, felt let down when it was only a threat and then were pleasantly surprised when eventually it happened after all.

The publicity also span it as a typical romantic spanking, part of the bumpy progression of two young people towards love and marriage:

‘She learned the meaning of love only after she had been spanked (in her pajamas) by a young hustler to whom her millions meant nothing.’

And, of course, they do end up together. But the scene is arguably more important as the start of a rough life-lesson for a pampered rich girl who is, says Weston, as ornamental as her pajamas, but who is forced to learn basic practicalities now that they are stranded in the wilderness.

Pajamas

So the overall story is about the girl who has everything, and who then has it all taken away from her. And that marks an important change of emphasis from the kind of story that was being told about similarly irresponsible young women only a few years before.

I have argued elsewhere that Hollywood was equivocal about flappers, in a way that the press mostly wasn’t, because a significant section of the movie audience were flappers and might not appreciate the message that such young women, implicitly including themselves, deserved to be spanked. That problem was solved with the spoiled heiress stereotype who began to emerge in the second half of the 1920s, because, although the characters behaved in more or less the same way as screen flappers, they had fewer direct counterparts in real life, and most pertinently, among the moviegoing youth of America. We shall observe the resultant proliferation of heiresses, and their usual fate, in the second part of this article.

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