Passing the Baton (and the Hairbrush)

18-year-old Betty Brent (Velma Connor) and her kid brother are orphaned in a forest fire that might have taken their lives too if it weren’t for a heroic rescue by rancher Bill Bradley (Art Acord). That’s the opening action of the 1926 silent Western The Scrappin’ Kid, which means Bill winds up in loco parentis to Betty and the kid.

01 The Scrappin Kid

This lands him with certain parental obligations to discharge, thankfully not involving the one on the right.

It’s not altogether dissimilar to the scenario of Saddle Tramp (1950), in which cowboy Chuck Conner (Joel McCrea) takes in 19-year-old Della (Wanda Hendrix), who’s on the run from her abusive uncle. The studio publicists duly chose to represent the relationship like this:

34 1950 Saddle Tramp 2

Of course, there is a more conventional way of entering a paternal relationship with a teenage girl. Our example is a story in the December 1949 issue of Campus Romances, in which Jean, daughter of a widowed college lecturer, starts off resenting her mother’s romance with Richard Thompson, then finds herself fantasizing about marrying him.

‘That man’s old enough to be your father,’ her boyfriend tells her, and indeed he is destined to be her stepfather. He takes on one of the standard paternal functions just a little early:

10 Campus Romances Nov 1949

This takes care to ignore the problematic conflict of interests we identified last week, and which are efficiently summed up in this spicy cartoon by Jack Cole (1914-58),

where the regular spankings she’ll be getting from him as her stepfather are overtly a substitute for the different kind of sexual attention she’d be receiving as his wife. In contrast, the two films artfully skirt round the difficulty by never fixing the parental relationship in legal terms, so that Bill can ultimately marry Betty and Chuck, Della. Spanking smoothly flips over from being a fatherly duty to a courtship ritual.

It’s not usually so seamless, partly because it’s unusual and undesirable for the two functions to be fulfilled by one and the same person, and partly because the cases we’ve seen so far all have one thing in common: there is only one man in the equation, because the father is absent or dead. When both father and prospective husband are both present, however, there needs to be some kind of transfer of responsibility, which often specifically involves the distinctive fatherly privilege of spanking.

A good example of a clean, straightforward transfer is a storyline that ran for the first three months of 1950 in William Dyer’s newspaper strip The Adventures of Patsy. Forget the under-age actress heroine Patsy, whose relevance to our theme is limited to an important statement about the need for the father ‘to take a firm hand’. Our main object of interest is Rosetta Blaine, daughter of a wealthy rancher from Alhombre (no state specified, but obviously Texas), who’s on a trip out east (no city specified, but obviously New York) in the hope of finding a suitable man. Just when she’s about to give up and go home, Mr Blaine turns on the television and tunes in to Station TVIX. Rosetta immediately falls head over heels in love with the young man on the screen, the singing cowboy Jed Nevada.

But Jed declines Blaine’s offer of money and a managerial job in return for becoming his son-in-law, insisting that he’s not for sale. Rosetta sees a way around that obstacle, and persuades her father to buy the station and all its assets – which include Jed’s contract.

TVIX is moved lock, stock and barrel to Alhombre, where Blaine plans to launch the firstest television service in the west, with Jed as the star attraction – even though he’s not a real cowboy (he’s even allergic to horses) and Jed Nevada is only his stage name (he was christened, less heroically, Wilber Peachtree). Rosetta continues her efforts to attract his attention, including staging a drowning incident in the swimming pool that forces him to dive in and rescue her, damaging his beloved guitar in the process. She then admits the ruse:

‘Are you going to be angry with me?’ We’ll explore the implications of that later on! For now, suffice to say that Jed doesn’t get angry, whatever that might entail, and Rosetta’s ongoing blandishments don’t arouse a flicker of interest from him. Infuriated, she decides to throw it all over and marches into the television studio demanding that her father sell the station just as it’s about to make its inaugural broadcast.

There follows a spectacularly destructive tantrum,

which is what prompts the aforementioned recommendation that Blaine should ‘take a firm hand’. And that is exactly what he does:

Jed then arrives for work to hear Rosetta making dire threats to expose him and make the station a laughingstock. Blaine encourages him to deal with her in an appropriately manly fashion:

The upshot is that she goes out and pays some roughnecks to break into the studio and assault Jed during the broadcast. He sees them off, and his fighting prowess ensures that the new station is a success. Unfortunately it’s only a one-night success, because the studio equipment is trashed and Blaine winds up bankrupt. Rosetta finds the unaccustomed grace to feel ashamed of herself, and Jed’s affections are activated, too: he gets rich quick after a lucky break with one of his songs, and offers to solve Blaine’s financial problems, so long as he also gets to marry Rosetta – reversing the original, insulting offer that offended him in the first place.

This is a fairly standard example of a spoiled heiress romance, made striking by the double spanking scene which acts as the fulcrum for the transfer we’re talking about: the father does his paternal duty, then the future fiancé does the very same thing, with at least the tacit approval of the father, even if it does involve a slight misunderstanding of the word spunk. That is, broadly speaking, how spanking typically works in a courtship scenario: father and husband are distinct roles and relationships, but (in the social norms of the middle of the last century) they both involve a responsibility for the young woman that must pass from one to the other as she goes from daughter to wife. But it doesn’t usually involve more than one spanking!

There are other instances where the trajectory is the same but the route slightly different, like the film Head of the Family (1928) or the stage play Billy’s Goat (1937), where the initial transfer is one of surrogacy: the father invites the young man into the household to deputize for him, which escalates to the spanking of the daughter, and love and marriage come afterwards.

Billy’s Goat: Bucky Jones spanks Jean Lanigan in the 1950 production at Stamford Central School, New York

And sometimes, of course, the baton doesn’t pass at all. Step forward, Yvonne Velvebilt, title character of ‘The Case of the Arrogant Heiress’, a Little Al of the Secret Service story of 1951.

She is kidnapped by gangsters, and Little Al is tasked to restore her to her doting and extremely wealthy parents. And though this isn’t a fake kidnapping, she doesn’t seem to be taking her escape all that seriously.

‘You spoiled brat!’ he tells her. ‘If I wasn’t on the job, I’d…’ And we know what lies beneath that ellipsis! As it is, the priority is to get her out of the crooks’ clutches, whatever it takes.

When they are out and safe, all Al wants to do is be rid of the tiresome Yvonne, but unfortunately for him, he’s ordered to complete the mission by taking her home – not a straightforward undertaking because she wants to go out clubbing. At least once she is delivered, he can consider himself ‘off the job’. And when Yvonne proves herself so ungrateful as to slap his face, events take their natural course: ‘That did it, gal! I’m going to make up for what Papa didn’t do long ago.’

15 Little Al 5

What’s interesting here is the role of the father, taken in relation to the transfer I’ve been describing. Al pointedly doesn’t fall in love with Yvonne, who, after all, is a brat so awful that only a parent could love her; on the contrary, he wants nothing so much as to hand her back to Papa and get out of there. So he isn’t taking over a duty that has hitherto belonged to Mr Velvebilt; he’s doing something the overindulgent Velvebilt has never done before, but now recognizes the need for. The story ends with the clear implication that Yvonne is going to be spanked again, by her father – so it’s another case of a double spanking marking a passing of the baton, albeit this time from a public servant in temporary charge of the girl, back to her permanent legal guardian.

It’s not always easy for a parent to hand over the responsibility for a cherished child. Throughout history, some daughters have found (or imagined) their fathers to be so obstructive that they chose to elope, not always successfully. In 1913, a failed elopement in Chicago ended with the father forcefully asserting himself:

And a hundred years on, in a franker, more liberal era when spanking is typically regarded as less a fatherly privilege, more a kinky game, paternal discomfort hasn’t gone away. In 2013, the movie Peeples, about an awkward family visit, included a scene in which Grace Peeples looks out her old school uniform and role-plays with her boyfriend Wade:

(Craig Robinson later said that what persuaded him to play Wade was the fact that he would get to spank Kerry Washington!)

The awkwardness at this point lies in the fact that it’s taking place under her parents’ roof, and just as her father (David Alan Grier) is arriving home late. So there’s an anguished moment as he passes the window and looks in to see what is happening to his ‘little girl’:

It’s a perennial source of fatherly discomfort, but one thing is certain: you can’t keep a growing girl innocent forever. That backfires on Grandpappy Wustler in a 1951 sequence of Ferd Johnson’s Texas Slim newspaper strip, when he does everything he can to discourage his unnamed granddaughter from associating with boys.

So when Slim tries to pay a call on their neighboring ranch, his welcome is a bullet through his Stetson, fired not by Grandpappy but Miss Wustler herself. So he sneaks up on her as she’s reloading and…

17 Texas Slim 1951

So we’re given another juxtaposition, with the paternal (or, here, grandpaternal) spanking relegated to allusion rather than on-page action; but the point here is that not all spankings are alike, which empirically belies what she has been led to believe about boys.

Some other girls are a little more knowing about the difference:

I know I deserve a spanking, Pa, but can’t Clem do it?

Take this bit of friction from a 1977 Star Trek comic book, between Scotty and Dr McCoy’s estranged daughter Barbara:

Spanking expresses two distinct things according to context: disapproval, when it’s literally ‘father talk’, but sexual interest when the ‘fatherliness’ is metaphorical. And, crucially, Barbara McCoy knows enough of the world to understand the difference. In this case, it’s not clear that Scotty does intend anything other than a rebuke, and even if the ‘indirect pass’ was only a mistaken inference, she doesn’t reciprocate the interest. (She gets her own back by excluding Scott from the landing party she’s aboard the Enterprise to lead.) But with the right metaphorical ‘father’, some girls seem quite content with it:

And that, of course, is why Rosetta Blaine wanted to make Jed Nevada angry with her!

But the phenomenon may not be entirely because of the difference between that kind of spanking and a paternal one, but because of the overlap – at least if we’re to believe the dubious romantic advice proffered by Killer Diller in a 1957 Beetle Bailey strip:

(Reason not to be too sure: Diller’s girlfriend turns up at the end, and she looks like, let us say, the last one off the shelf!)

And if all goes according to plan, the baton will be formally, finally passed on at the wedding. But before that, it’s not unknown for a mother to seize one last opportunity at the hen night, while the bride’s bottom is still within the parental purview:

And afterwards, it’s all down to hubby!

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