In 1918, a troupe of French actors performed Le Médecin Malgré Lui in Cincinnati, and one element of the production amazed the local reviewer:
Sganarelle, the doctor, actually turns his plump little saucy wife over his knee and gives her a real spanking. Can anyone picture this on the American stage? Our actresses, no doubt, would send in a two weeks’ notice at the first rehearsal with a feeling that their dignity had been injured by so arbitrary a bit of stage business.
And, as we have seen, that was exactly what happened seventeen years earlier when Agnes Lane chose to resign rather than be spanked in Don Caesar de Bazan.
But as we also know, American mainstream culture was moving the other way: onstage, and in the new emergent media of movies and later radio and television, the middle decades of the twentieth century were a great era of spanking scenes. So far as I know, the first straw in the wind involved these two actresses:
On the left, Julia Marlowe; on the right, Florence Roberts. Both played the title role in the Irish playwright James Bernard Fagan’s historical romance Gloria, Miss Marlowe on a tour of the east coast in 1907-8, and Miss Roberts on the west coast in 1910 and in the midwest in 1914.
The play is set in Renaissance Italy, and its leading character is Madonna Gloria Capponi, an aristocratic coquette who holds that ‘If there be any better sport than hunting wild boars, it is deceiving men.’ The victims of her deception include two of her more ardent suitors, and it involves a cruel practical joke: to one of them, the gluttonous braggart Captain Bambazone, she administers an unpleasant and incapacitating but non-lethal mixture, and persuades him that he has been poisoned, Borgia-style; then she tells the other, the upstanding Englishman Sir Philip Lilley, that his rival is dead by her hand, and gets him to take charge of the body (actually the carcass of a wild boar in a sack) and bury it in secret. To add to the jest, she procures some officers to accuse her of Bambazone’s murder, and Sir Philip gallantly makes a false confession to protect her. Luckily for him, the hoax is discovered when the body is exhumed, and his response is to cut a switch and administer a sound spanking.
She swears vengeance and, with the help of the recovered Bambazone, has him ambushed and tied to a post, all ready for her to repay him in kind, with interest – whereupon she finds herself unable to raise the whip against him, because despite all her expressed inclinations and all her vindictive fury, she loves him. She falls into his arms and declares, ‘Though I hate you, I will marry you,’ and with that the curtain falls.
There were two reasons why Julia Marlowe did not withdraw her services out of a sense of injured dignity. One was that she was herself the producer, and Gloria was her own choice of play as part of a mainly Shakespearean season designed to show off her thespian talents. And the second reason, which also applied to Florence Roberts, was that the spanking takes place entirely offstage. After Sir Philip’s discomfiture, Gloria exits laughing at him, leaving him fuming in speechless indignation; having armed himself, he stalks off after her, and spanking and screams are heard from ‘off’; then she rushes back in a hysterical rage and he follows, still carrying the switch, which is now broken after what was evidently heavy use. The character of Gloria may be humiliated, but the actress didn’t have to share in it, just perform the part skilfully.
But once it became more common for spankings to take place onstage or onscreen, rather than discreetly hidden away in the theatrical equivalent of the woodshed, some actresses began to find it a little more challenging to maintain the distinction between themselves and their characters. Ellen Drew explained as much in a newspaper article she wrote (or had written for her by the publicity department) about her misgivings over the much hyped spanking scene in Our Wife.
The fundamental problem wasn’t to do with the pain of bring spanked, but the indignity:
My imagination started to work. I saw thousands of people sitting in theaters seeing Melvyn [Douglas] put me across his knee. I thought of Ellen Drew, all dressed up, trying to look as well as possible and suddenly to be publicly placed in a position that nobody could assume gracefully. I remembered once when a star complained that the director photographed the back of her head. I thought how lucky she was in comparison to me. The back of her head, indeed.
And indeed, the very last shot of the film has the camera zoom in on an area somewhat lower than the back of her head as the spanking continues, with a suggestively curvy ‘THE END’ caption fading up over it:
The director, John M. Stahl, talked her round by stressing that ‘Ellen Drew was positively not going to be spanked. It was a girl named Babe Marvin.’ At first, she demurred:
But, Mr Stahl, that’s my body draped awkwardly across Melvyn’s knee, and my legs kicking about.
Stahl instantly retorted that ‘the audience knows that Ellen Drew could not possibly be awkward. That’s why they will think of you only as Babe Marvin.’ And while that may seem a trifle glib, at least it made the key point of principle.
Other actresses were much more comfortable with playing characters who were spanked, and didn’t need to be told the distinction between the performer and the part. Take Betty Bronson, for instance.
She’s best known to history as J. M. Barrie’s choice to play the title role in the first screen version of Peter Pan (1924), but we know her also for playing the title role in the Elinor Glyn silent comedy Ritzy (1927), which is sadly now a lost film. Ritzy is the nickname of steel heiress Roslyn Brown, who is determined to marry a Duke and to that end gets her father to take her on a trip to England. Also aboard the ocean liner is Harrington Smith, the Duke of Westborough (James Hall), who’s traveling incognito as plain ‘Mr Smith’, which is inevitably an insuperable impediment to Ritzy allowing herself to fall in love with him.
To teach her a lesson, ‘Mr Smith’ arranges for his friend Algy to pose as the Duke and give her the rough edge of his tongue – which Ritzy capriciously interprets as ‘a romantic proposal’. ‘Mr Smith’ then interrupts her fantasies about becoming the Duchess of Westborough, and spanks her for being such a snob. It doesn’t have any immediate good effect, just makes her determined to go to the bad when she arrives in England – a course of action at which she fails absurdly and ends up having to be rescued by the Duke.
James Hall later commented on making the film:
‘In one scene I had to turn her over my knee and spank her. I gave her a good spanking – more than she had coming, but she couldn’t do anything about it while the camera was on us.’
But afterwards, Betty Bronson had no complaints about her character being spanked. On the contrary, she mentioned it as the highlight of the picture in a form letter she sent out in response to her fan mail:
I’m a ritzy little girl who needs a good spanking and gets it!
It’s occasionally said that some actresses actively enjoyed being spanked and chose their roles accordingly when the opportunity arose: Dany Robin, for instance, spanked in Scheidungsgrund Liebe (1960),
or Sophie Desmarets, spanked twice in Demain, Nous Divorçons (1951),
or Lucille Ball, spanked four times in I Love Lucy (1951-54),
at least twice in its radio predecessor My Favorite Husband (1948)
and even, by Lionel Barrymore, at a fancy dress party for her 33rd birthday in 1944:
Whether the claim is true or not, their private lives are none of our business, but one thing that is indisputable is that some actresses had good professional reasons to be enthusiastic about appearing in a spanking scene: it was an acting challenge, and it would get them noticed.
We’ve already seen how the lovely Sharon Tate was disappointed when she was told that her spanking scene was going to be dropped from Dance of the Vampires (1967).
She wanted the scene to be left in the film, as ultimately it was, not just because she’d already had the trouble and discomfort of being spanked while making it, but because it was a prominent element of her role. And she wasn’t the only one to feel that way.
Angie Dickinson, who played Dr Kildare’s fiancée in the 1960s medical soap, was similarly pleased with a scene in the episode ‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’, which aired in March 1965, when Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) wants to plan their honeymoon, but she refuses to be serious about it:
So he put me across his knee and spanked me. It had everything, but we were running long so it had to come out.
She was sorry the cut had to be made, she told the press, because it was such a good scene. The spanking may have been undignified for her character, Carol Tredman, but it was something that Angie Dickinson was proud of.
And in the same vein, here’s Linda Evans giving a publicity interview, later in 1965, about the various aspects of her regular role in The Big Valley that she found especially enjoyable:
‘I ride a horse and I attack men and I hit people with my whip and I get spanked.’
Yes: that was one of the pleasures of the part for her! (You can read more about the episode here.) So most indications so far point towards the conclusion that actresses positively liked appearing in spanking scenes.
But it’s impossible to generalize. Another soap actress, Eileen Fulton, who played ‘superbitch’ Lisa McColl in As the World Turns for an astonishing fifty years (1960-2010),
was due to be spanked in a 1983 episode after throwing a cake in her screen husband’s face. The other actor was Robert Horton, who already had a screen spanking pedigree thanks to an impressive scene in Wagon Train (1960):
He was also sought for the role of Fred in a 1963 Pittsburgh production of Kiss Me Kate (with Howard Keel as the alternative option), but the show fell through. And his spanking career continued to falter in 1983, because Eileen Fulton declined to do the scene; according to one account, she ‘stormed off the set, refusing to be spanked’. According to her own account, she told the producers, ‘I will not allow this kind of abuse. Throwing a cake is one thing, spanking is another.’ And faced with that obduracy, they changed the script so that the caked Horton caked her back.
And lest anyone infer that this is simply a sign of how times changed between the 1960s and the 1980s, let’s take a final example from the present century. Nowadays spanking scenes are fewer and farther between, because people are so much touchier about the subject, but it still gets talked about in the theater from time to time. A case in point is a Virginia production of Little Women in which Holly Anne Williams played Amy March:
One reviewer overheard a slightly startling assessment of the character from a nearby seat, and repeated it in her own admiring account of the actress’s performance:
As the youngest sister, Amy, Holly Williams does spoiled insolence so well that a woman in the audience whispered, “She needs a good spanking.”
But the actress wasn’t in the least embarrassed or offended by the backhanded compliment to the effect that she should be spanked. On the contrary, she proudly posted the quote on her website.