The Three Corners

The early history of movie spanking could be described as a series of corners turned. The first of them involved this lady:

She’s Doris Kenyon, and she started her acting career in 1915 at the age of eighteen. Her second film, The Pawn of Fate (1916), is a sentimental tale of simple Normandy folk, Pierre and Marcine Dufrene, seen here with his father:

Pawn of Fate a

They encounter André Lesar, a sophisticated city dilettante who persuades them, deceitfully, that Pierre (George Beban) is a gifted folk artist and should come to Paris to develop his talent and be appreciated. The reality is that Pierre has no talent and is derided, but that’s incidental to Lesar: what he actually has in mind is the seduction of Marcine, a plan that puts the marriage in dire peril but ultimately fails.

But what matters to us is the opening sequence depicting the couple’s idyllic country life before Lesar arrives to complicate it. As it’s a lost film represented by only a few surviving still photographs, we are dependent on, and indebted to, the contemporary reviewer in Variety who described in specific terms how their marital bliss was portrayed:

‘Marcine is young and full of life, and when she disobeys, Pierre lays her across his lap and spanks her.’

And this contains the glimmer of something that seems to have been new in the movies. Up to this point, Hollywood spankings, in so far as they existed at all, had been fundamentally disciplinary, the means whereby authority, whether actual or merely claimed, asserted itself on misbehaving young women – and, of course, that remained an option throughout the long subsequent life of the spanking scene. Most such scenarios are intergenerational, and since George Beban was nearly a quarter-century older than Doris Kenyon, you could argue that this remained the case in The Pawn of Fate. But this wasn’t a father spanking his daughter; it was a husband spanking his wife – and that was the novelty.

This is still at some level disciplinary, as most mainstream spankings are: the reviewer tells us explicitly that Marcine is spanked for disobedience. But it is presented in the larger context of a normal, happy married life, not some kind of climactic moment of retribution for headstrong youth. And when movie spanking really started to take off in the 1920s, scriptwriters found just as many opportunities, if not more, in stories about spirited young couples as in scenarios involving naughty flappers and their exasperated parents. We could illustrate that with many a familiar example, from Don’t Doubt Your Husband to Exchange of Wives, but let’s have a lesser known case, that of Beth Darlington being spanked in the 1925 comedy short, Almost a Husband:

In a nutshell, movie spanking developed a romantic dimension – and that was the first corner turned.

From there it wasn’t far to the next corner. A movie that will take us some of the way there is Her Big Night (1926), starring Laura La Plante as shopgirl Frances Norcross, who is paid to impersonate film star Daphne Dix (also played by Laura La Plante). But when Allan Dix (John Roche) catches Frances with another man, he mistakes her for Daphne and takes husbandly reprisals:

This was a more risqué scenario than anything seen previously on screen, with the outraged husband spanking not his own wife but another man’s fiancée. The picture was duly publicized with a series of suggestive slogans:

Her Big Night 1927

‘Would you let a man spank your Sweetheart for $1,000?’

Not to mention the fuller and more excitable:

‘Oh! Oh! Oh! What a night! Claimed by two husbands. Spanked by one of them. Chased by her sweetheart. Persecuted by newspaper reporters.’

And, addressed to one particular sector of the potential audience:

‘GIRLS – Have you been spanked lately? In Her Big Night, Laura gets spanked by a husband she never saw before in all her life.’

It was starting to be openly acknowledged that, if spanking scenes could be romantic, they could also be sexy. And if in that respect Frances’ long evening gown seems perhaps a little chaste, the studio artist who sketched the scene for the newspaper ads made a pertinent adaptation of his own:

But that doesn’t quite take us round the corner. Spanked women in the movies generally wore skirts, and they were generally of fashionable length for everyday informal wear, so all the sketch does is take us back to where things usually were when formal evening dress wasn’t part of the scenario. But the following year, 1927, saw some startling innovations.

In The Loves of Carmen, Dolores del Rio, playing the title role, strikes a leggy pose in an uncommonly short skirt.

This provokes her toreador, Escamillo (Victor McLaglen), to an act that shows off her legs another way:

What’s more, this is the earliest film I know of where a spanked girl draws attention to her bottom by rubbing it afterwards:

That may or may not be an accident of movie survival, but one thing is clear: screen spankings in 1927 were becoming more daring. When Caryl Lincoln is spanked in the comedy short Slippery Silks, set on a ranch, she doesn’t wear a dress at all, but something that shows off a little more of her figure:

Another comedy made great play with the fact that Olive Borden is spanked while wearing only her…

Pajamas ad 1928 Canada

And naughty girls who wore skirts in McFadden’s Flats and 1928’s Excess Baggage found themselves getting spanked in the way naughty girls often did in life – without skirts!

The natural culmination of this 1927 tendency came towards the end of the year in the comedy short Flaming Fathers, whose other claim to lasting interest is that it was directed by Stan Laurel. But its significance here lies in the fact that the spanking takes place on the beach – in beachwear…

The flaming father in question, played by Max Davidson, is trying to prevent his daughter (Martha Sleeper) from eloping with her boyfriend. The three of them go down to the seaside, and canoodling takes place, whereupon Pop threatens to ‘spank her hard’ if he catches her doing it again.

Later on, however, the girl he thinks is his daughter turns out to be a stranger in an identical swimsuit, something he doesn’t find out until he’s started administering the spanking!

Perhaps that’s understandable, bearing in mind that the spanked girl appears to be also played by Martha Sleeper; but as he spanks he looks into the distance and there, in a different shot, is daughter dear, spooning with her beau elsewhere on the beach! And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, the girl he is spanking has a young, virile gentleman friend of her own who is more than ready to defend her honor…

A different kind of identity issue hangs over another example of a swimsuit spanking, in a publicity shot apparently taken during production of The Other Tomorrow (1930), featuring one of the stars, Grant Withers, with one of the chorus girls at First National Pictures:

Who’s that spanked chorus girl? Whoever she is, she’s blonde and significantly shorter than the 6’3″ Withers. The two early publications of the picture, both from 1930, gave two different names: according to Film Fun, she’s Maxine Cantway, who was 5’3″, but Picture Play identifies her as Sugar Geise, who was three inches shorter. And both of them were indeed chorus girls under contract to First National.

On the left, Sugar Geise; on the right, Maxine Cantway. On balance, my money’s on Sugar, not least because Maxine had brown hair in late 1929 when the photo was taken, and only went blonde later.

Maxine Cantway in 1929

If that’s right, then this wasn’t the only spanking Sugar got in the course of her professional career as an entertainer. And even if it’s not right, I guess you won’t mind seeing a prank she played all of eighteen years later, and what happened to her in consequence…

The scene is Los Angeles, and Sugar, now a celebrated nightclub star, is rehearsing for a revue at the Florentine Gardens. But the choreographer Dave Gould has dozed off, and Sugar seizes the chance of a practical joke:

Now she hot-foots it away…

But Dave catches her, determined to exact retribution:

But hold on, already! Isn’t this an unwarranted digression from my central theme? Well, actually what I’ve done is take you round the third corner and off into the distance, so my main sin has been to get ahead of myself.

Overtly immodest spanking scenes remained an available option for seven years. Once again, we could choose a familiar example like Nancy Carroll spanked in jodhpurs in The Water Hole or Ginger Rogers in her underwear in Professional Sweetheart, but once again let’s go for one that’s lesser known, leggy Dorothy Mackaill over Sidney Blackmer’s knee in this publicity still for Strictly Modern (1930):

(It’s another one where the girl was misidentified in an early printing, except that this time Picture Play managed to name an actress who can’t be traced and may not even have existed, Constance Meredith.)

We can illustrate the corner itself with a simple before-and-after juxtaposition. In 1933, we know of thirteen American movies that featured a spanking scene or publicity photograph; in 1934, there were just three. 1934 was also the year the Hays Code came into force.

After Prohibition officially ended in December 1933, the Hays Office was Puritan America’s next big project to keep the nation’s morals in check. Studios were encouraged to submit scripts in advance to receive the Office’s guidance on what would and would not be acceptable; failure to do so, or ignoring that advice, might result in censorship after the movie was made, entailing costly re-editing or, worse, a complete ban. In respect of our particular subject, the result was a significant decrease in the number of spanking scenes that were made, and, among those that were, a significant increase in the number of spankings that were aborted before they began or took place offscreen, albeit in some cases only just out of frame.

But the Hays Office was fundamentally ambivalent about spanking. Presented with the script of Libeled Lady (1936), it demanded (and got) the complete removal of a scene in which the wealthy heroine is spanked by the reporter tasked with her seduction. But presented with the script of True Confession (1937), it demanded that the ending be changed to indicate that the mendacious wife was about to be spanked by her husband.

On an equilateral triangle, the third corner takes you back to where you started. Take away the sexiness and the romance and there was nothing about spanking to offend small-town, small-mind America, because what was left was merely the just retribution that was routinely meted out to naughty girls in homes and schools across the nation, without any hint of impropriety.

But life doesn’t have that sort of reset button. Once the first two corners were turned and the alternatives introduced, they weren’t just going to disappear. Prohibition didn’t eliminate alcohol; it gave birth to the speakeasy. And so it was with the perceived excesses of Hollywood. Romantic spanking managed to find an onscreen compromise with the disciplinary approach, which at least saved the movies from a dour, unappetizing, uncommercial moralism. But sexy spanking simply went elsewhere, into different media untroubled by systematic, institutionalized censorship.

And that was not good news for, among others, Miss Sugar Geise…

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