The Unexpected Rarity of the Screen Hairbrush

The hairbrush: a standard piece of domestic dressing-table equipment that bore another, completely separate cultural connotation in the last century. And in view of its near-ubiquity as a spanking implement in life, art and even erotica, it is striking how few mainstream movie spanking scenes involve the use of the brush. There are just seven known onscreen brush spankings, most of which I’m going to mention in more detail later; the others were administered to Sally O’Neil in Don’t (1925), Maxine Doyle in Taming the Wild (1936) and Katherine Moore in Juke Joint (1947). Likewise, the hairbrush is almost never used in onstage spankings, with the exception of The Glorified Brat (1949) and the truncated spanking in No Pansies for Mr Standish (1942) which was ultimately censored altogether. And as we shall see, there are two reasons for that.

Another of those seven movies was the 1927 silent version of McFadden’s Flats, with Edna Murphy:

According to a contemporary trade paper, the film’s particular points of appeal included ‘an incident of a father slapping a grown daughter across his knee’, so when the movie came up for a sound remake in 1935, Betty Furness might well have had a few doubts about taking the equivalent role.

But in the event, the new version only subjected her to the threat of a hairbrush spanking, not the spanking itself.

Off-the-rails teenager Jill Bradley (Joan Evans) comes closer to the brink in the 1951 melodrama On the Loose, when her father (Melvyn Douglas) decides it’s time for a dose of the hairbrush:

He even gets as far as starting to put her across his knee,

but she manages to get free and escapes unspanked.

And when a hairbrush spanking does happen, the director will sometimes contrive to keep the actress out of harm’s way. In Champagne for Caesar (1950), when Beauregard Bottomley (Ronald Colman) is having a potentially expensive run of good luck on a quiz show, the television company engages Flame O’Neil (Celeste Holm) to discover his general knowledge weaknesses and ensure that he loses. Once he finds out, he goes to her apartment, where she’s in the middle of a telephone conversation with the show’s sponsor (Vincent Price). He goes straight to her dressing table, picks up her hairbrush and advances on her, full of silent masculine menace…

whereupon we cut away to the other end of the open phone line as Vincent Price enthusiastically overplays his reactions to the sounds of spanking and screaming coming down the wire. We return to the apartment just in time to see Beauregard putting down the brush and Flame rubbing what is currently the hottest part of her anatomy.

He picks up the phone receiver and tells the other end, ‘Miss O’Neil is having Bottomley trouble,’ which would also be true if it were one syllable shorter – as we see when she expresses a preference not to sit down, and later does so unthinkingly and instantly regrets it. It’s a piquant little spanking scene, but the pity of it is that the cause of her ‘bottom trouble’ happens entirely offscreen.

It’s the same in the 1939 musical First Love, a version of the Cinderella story with Deanna Durbin in the lead and Helen Parrish filling the ‘ugly sister’ role as the spoiled, snobbish, selfish Barbara Clinton.

At the climax of the story, Barbara causes a domestic crisis by firing all the servants, whereupon her father (Eugene Pallette) drags her off for what an early review calls ‘the spanking she needed all the time’.

As they disappear into the next room, George the departing butler opens his suitcase, takes out a hairbrush and hands it to his erstwhile employer, who proceeds to put it to good and noisy use – behind closed doors. He then returns the brush, broken beyond repair, and promises to pay for it. (‘Oh no, sir, this one’s on me,’ replies George.)

It has evidently been a real scorcher of a spanking, but apart from the sounds emanating from behind the doors it’s left entirely to our imagination, which may perhaps be usefully abetted by the following:

Continuing in the same vein, among the tribulations of nightclub singer Val Stevenson, played by Rosemary Lane in All by Myself (1943),

was what one paper coyly called ‘the application of a hairbrush to the traditional place of punishment’, for reasons too complicated to describe, and once again offscreen. At least in this case the spanking made it into the publicity materials, though oddly enough the hairbrush didn’t.

03 All By Myself

Not that Hollywood had any aversion to hairbrush spanking in its posed publicity photographs:

The obvious difference is that these were still images: the brushes were never (to borrow a publicity phrase for the first one, Kiss and Tell) going to ‘sweep SMACK! across’ the actresses’ nether regions as they would have to if these had been onscreen spanking scenes.

Some of this will start coming together if we look at another movie in which hairbrush spanking plays an especially significant part: the early screwball comedy Forsaking All Others (1934). The story concerns a choice for Mary Clay (Joan Crawford) between two prospective husbands.

She is engaged to one childhood friend, Dillon Todd (Robert Montgomery), and is loved by another, Jeff Williams (Clark Gable). Dillon jilts her for an old flame the night before the wedding, which ought to leave Jeff in pole position – except that Mary continues to hold out for Dillon, even now he is married to another woman. And that has certain consequences, as the British fan magazine Picturegoer Weekly explained:

Forsaking all Others signifies that the screen spanking season is now open again – Mr Clark Gable employing a hairbrush to express his disapproval of Miss Crawford’s conduct. It is not every movie queen who would offer her sacred person as a target for Mr Gable’s more he-mannish performances as a wielder of a hairbrush.

The same journal later published a short story version of the film by Marjory Williams, which presented the spanking scene like this:

Shame at having slapped Jeff’s face faded before the physical sensation of being whipped up and laid across his knee. Shep, on request, produced an enamel-backed brush from the dressing table. It was a gay affair, part of Paula’s present on Mary’s ‘twenty-first’, and never intended for the trouncing at which it assisted. Tingling mentally and bodily, the sufferer seized her gauntlets and left the house.

This makes two substantive changes to what happens in the movie, in which Jeff lifts Mary up to spank her instead of putting her over his knee, and the brush Shep produces isn’t enamel-backed. He vainly tries to dissuade Jeff from using it, pointing out that the back has a decorative pattern in raised wire.

It’s going to hurt her more than the smooth enamel back of the Picturegoer version!

The scene got a lot of press comment, partly because, as Picturegoer had intimated, Joan Crawford was one of the biggest stars ever to be spanked on the silver screen. The trade paper Daily Film Renter told exhibitors:

Some of the most outstanding delights offered by this production include the spectacle of Mr Gable administering corporal punishment to Miss Crawford with the back of a hairbrush!

The New Yorker’s readers learned that:

Forsaking All Others consists largely of pranks, and you may see Miss Crawford being spanked with a hairbrush by Clark Gable.

And in London, the Evening Standard promised:

If you want to see Joan Crawford soundly beaten with a hairbrush by Clark Gable, go and see Forsaking All Others.

And the spanking isn’t just a passing moment in the love story. Late on, Jeff again threatens Mary with ‘the hairbrush treatment’, and once everything is resolved at the end, with Jeff and Mary together and headed for a shipboard wedding, their complete and unconditional reconciliation is shown when Jeff is walking down the corridor and Mary’s hand shoots out of her cabin, holding a hairbrush:

From Jeff’s point of view, we see her turn it to show the back – which is evidently going to be the business end in their relationship.

It’s an act of voluntary submission, effectively an acceptance that she’s going to be spanked again, when appropriate, and with her own hairbrush too! But it’s also relevant that this isn’t the wire-backed brush from before: if Mary’s side of the marital compromise is to be spanked, then it seems Jeff’s quid pro quo will be to moderate the severity with which he spanks.

So the hairbrush is an ongoing leitmotif in their love story, a physical correlative for the process of their coming together, making it fitting that a major star should submit herself to it and apt that the spanking should get a mention in all those various publications. Except that they were wrong about one significant point. Forsaking All Others is not one of my seven onscreen hairbrush spankings. It’s not a spectacle, and we don’t see it: the camera pans away before it starts, averting its and our gaze, so that we hear the smacks and Mary’s screams, but all we actually see is Shep’s dismayed reaction. In effect, it’s yet another offscreen hairbrush spanking.

The common factor is underlined in the broken brush of First Love, the wire backing of Forsaking All Others and, in Champagne for Caesar, the way the merest touch of Flame’s troubled bottom onto a chair is enough to launch her straight back to an upright position. These are spankings that really hurt. That might seem to be a general truth about all spankings, but it’s particularly and more intensely true about spankings administered with an implement harder and less flexible than the human hand. And while the point of a spanking is to bring a little salutary and temporary pain into a naughty girl’s life, there isn’t (or at least, isn’t usually) the same objective in respect of the actress who plays her: she is just doing her job. So the harder the spanking, the more incentive there is to protect the performer, resulting in a tendency for Hollywood hairbrush spankings to be only threatened, or aborted, or happen offscreen.

But what about those seven onscreen hairbrush scenes? Well, in some cases the actresses were simply asked to be stoical, which was normal practice in making a non-hairbrush Hollywood spanking scene. That’s the essence of Olivia de Havilland’s  experience in the comedy Hard to Get (1938), in which her heroic endurance under the hairbrush…

was followed by a disappointing final edit, with no such scene in the finished movie – which means it’s also possible this story might be nothing more than an apocryphal invention of the publicity department. However, there’s no doubt that Mai Zetterling had to brace herself in The Romantic Age (1949), because (as I have discussed elsewhere) there are overwhelming dramatic reasons for her character to be shown getting the comeuppance of all comeuppances at the end of the picture:

And even then it cuts to a staged silhouette while the spanking is in progress:

We find an alternative, and slyer, approach in the remaining two onscreen brush spankings, which are unusual in that the brushes in question were designed for use in the bath rather than the dressing room.

In the 1951 ‘Eastern’ The Prince who was a Thief, we encounter the mischievous sneak-thief Tina (Piper Laurie), who has an appealing, sinuous technique of stealthy wriggling with her bottom upraised:

This enables her to purloin a pearl of great price, but she is captured by the title character, the royal-born robber Julna (Tony Curtis).

Fearful that she might get the traditional Koranic punishment for thieves (rather than the spanking she deserves), she tries to wriggle away, but Julna catches her at the last moment and lays plans to use her distinctive personal flexibility in a daring treasury robbery. But first she needs to be cleaned up, so he goes to the market to buy soap and an especially sturdy scrubbing brush. Cut to Tina naked in the bath, undergoing vigorous cleaning at the hands of Mirza (Betty Garde) and protesting furiously. This results in the somewhat splashy use of the aforementioned scrubbing brush to spank Tina’s bare bottom.

Once again, there’s an important distinction to be drawn between the character and the actress playing her: close inspection of this on-set photo will reveal that, unlike her character Tina, Piper Laurie was wearing her panties when the scene was shot.

And that’s not the only way they mitigated the full impact of the spanking. The principle may be observed in this 1957 Bill Ward cartoon:

She means, of course, that Marie is falling foul of the back of the hairbrush, the side that’s not used for brushing hair. But look again at how Mirza spanks Tina: with the bristle side! That’s why, when Julna buys the brush in the previous scene, such care is taken to establish that it has ‘bristles like iron’, which he tests by whacking it firmly against the palm of his hand:

So we can imagine that the bristle side isn’t a soft option for Tina’s rear end, whilst in reality the prop brush doesn’t have such hard bristles, making it easier on Piper Laurie than if Mirza had used the back.

The British wartime ghost story The Halfway House (1944) uses the same trick, but takes no particular trouble to set it up.

31 Halfway House

Squadron Leader French (Richard Bird) and his estranged wife Jill (Valerie White) both find themselves staying at the haunted inn of the title and both want to have a bath, which puts them in competition for a limited supply of hot water. Jill is luxuriating in the suds when he comes to the door, so she covers herself up with a bathrobe for the confrontation. She thinks she wins by defiantly running yet more hot water for herself, but what that provokes means that, on the contrary, it’s he who comes off as the winner:

He does it with the bath brush – and once again, he minimizes the discomfort to his co-star by using the softer side:

All of this establishes the first reason why hairbrush spankings, frequent in life, were relatively rare in the movies: it was harder on the actress than a hand-spanking.

The second reason is not so much practical as dramatic. Hairbrushes are most often found in the home, or else in a performer’s dressing room, like that of the singer Bessie Buxhom in this 1936 episode of the newspaper strip Apple Mary:

They are not usually found in Russian-themed restaurants in New York City, or indeed on the counters of grocers’ shops in the north of England, which is why they seem incongruous in the publicity drawing for Public Deb No. 1 and the bottom-smacking incident in The Flaxton Boys. So spanking scenes involving the use of a hairbrush can only plausibly take place in a limited range of settings, mainly domestic, and that rules it out for a substantial tranche of the movie spanking canon.

But there’s a question going begging here: why rule it in? Yes, there are occasional scenes, such as in The Romantic Age, where it’s dramatically satisfying for the spanking to be as condign as possible within the limitations of what was acceptable in a movie. But for the most part, if a spanking is dramatically desirable, why not just do it by the most convenient and versatile implement of all, the flat of the human hand? That takes us into a whole other dimension of the issue, that will occupy us next time.

8 thoughts on “The Unexpected Rarity of the Screen Hairbrush

      • Danny says:

        Note the smiley face on my post. I like that Doctors scene though because patently consensual spankees are a big turn on for me.

        If I may refer here to the KMK thread, it occurs to me that a way forward is to make it clear that Lilli welcomes the attention Fred pays to her errant derriere, enjoys the spanking itself, and later relishes the effect (“I can’t sit down”–yum!). A recent professional production I saw (in my home town) almost got it right as far as I am concerned. The flaw was the spanking itself, which was staged as a dark act of violence. It need not be, it can be played as it was originally intended (in my opinion) i.e. as a flaunting of the only item of the adult-hetero repertoire that could be openly staged at the time. A close reading of the script reveals a stark culture gap between the bohemian acting couple and the hypocrisy of conformist America (as represented by Harrison Howell).

        Of course, dark acts of violence may be the attraction for other parties. Funishment or punishment, take your pick.

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      • Harry says:

        Yes, indeed.

        As for KMK, I agree that dark violence is completely the wrong way to spin it, and you’re completely right about the bohemianism versus conformism dimension of the script. But the problem comes if as a culture we box ourselves into fetish (however mild or obliquely presented) as the only other option. Part of it is because, on both sides of this debate, people tend to focus on the spanking as an isolated event in itself: it is the thing we most enjoy, and the thing the ‘wokesters’ find most objectionable, and neither group pays enough attention to its place in the wider context of the play as a whole. I don’t believe Lilli should overtly enjoy being spanked at the time it is happening, or immediately afterwards, or why would she be walking out? (If she likes it that much, the Frederic C. Graham company could surely do a little script-doctoring so that it happens every time…) That’s not incompatible with playing her as coming to realize later on that she enjoyed it, which not only makes the character more richly complex but also isn’t incompatible with a female empowerment approach to the show.

        A lot here to talk about, and it all feeds into a series I’m currently writing that will run later this year or early next.

        (Yes, I sometimes work a long way ahead. In connection with which, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank the people who recently tipped me off about a couple mainstream scenes, which I’m now researching, and which will get the full treatment here during the summer.)

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  1. Jimc says:

    I really enjoy your pictures and commentary on this subject. For a reason that will become apparent after I tell you I thought spanking with a hairbrush was the way spankings were supposed to be given (Public Deb #1 was the very first spanking that I remember and while I may have seen others that is the one I say started my spanking journey) so all of the pics you used were all favorites of mine esp. fuller brush man and if course public deb #1. thanks for sharing and have a great day. Really all of the movies that you used in this article are among my all time favorites.
    Jim

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  2. Petruchio says:

    Re: Mai Zetterling. The scene in The Romantic Age obviously made an impact on her, because she later directed a film called Night Games that featured another spanking scene, set, I seem to recall, in a railway station. The film as a whole was so raunchy that Shirley Temple, by then an adult, resigned from the board of the film festival that was showing it.

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    • Harry says:

      Alas, what you say contains a fundamental error of fact. It is true to say that Mai Zetterling was memorably spanked in a movie at the end of the 1940s, and then co-wrote and directed a movie with a memorable spanking scene in the 1960s. But the latter movie was not Night Games (1966): it was Flickorna (a.k.a. The Girls) from two years later, a film I shall probably write about at length in due course. It follows that what you say about the sadly right-wing adult Shirley Temple resigning in protest over Night Games, although true, is irrelevant.

      As for whether there is a direct causal connection to be drawn between the incidence of spanking in the two films, whether she wrote a spanking scene in Flickorna because she had previously been spanked in The Romantic Age: well, how rare do you think spankings (and spanking scenes) were in the middle decades of the last century? (Answer: not very.)

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  3. Danny Lucas says:

    Decades ago, when I was a pretty young man. I attracted the attention of Adrienne Corri. It was only years later that I registered the fact that she played a fellow-pupil of Arlette, in The Romantic Age. I cherished that spanking scene, back in the days before VCRs etc. If only, I could go back and talk to Adrienne about her recollections of the movie!

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