When making the television series Bull, in which she played a lawyer, the actress Eliza Dushku flubbed a line, and got an overreaction from the series’ star, Michael Weatherly: he told her,
‘I will take you over my knee and spank you like a little girl.’
The cameras were running at the time, so he couldn’t deny it, but equally couldn’t have felt he was doing anything heinous. But Dushku laid a sexual harassment complaint (and, in fairness, this wasn’t the only alleged incident, just the one that could be verified) and she wound up getting fired. That was in 2017. Two years later, and after the #MeToo movement had transformed attitudes, the producers paid her $9.5m compensation.
It is not my purpose to comment on the rights and wrongs of the case, not least because the fact that, in fantasy, I’d rather enjoy seeing Eliza Dushku get spanked, means I might be prone to misjudgment.
What the case helps to focus is the prevailing attitude to quasi-sexual banter, and to spanking in particular (whether or not it is right to characterize Weatherly’s behavior as ‘banter’). We can reinforce that with another recent case, that of the Danish film producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who didn’t just talk about it, but actually used to spank trainees on the set.
He thought it was just a ‘friendly’ way of keeping order. Nine women thought it was sexual harassment, and complained in 2017. And in consequence, young ladies’ bottoms were out of danger, and discipline on the set of a Jensen production became more adult, more formal, more professional and much less playful.
Now let’s go back three generations or so to find out what happened to another movie actress who flubbed her lines: Ann Sheridan.
In her day, spanking wasn’t a creepy sexual thing, so much as a commonplace practice which might sometimes have sexual undertones. Ann herself was spanked twice on screen, in Fighting Youth (1935) and The Footloose Heiress (1937).
In 1940, she joked about being spanked by James Cagney in Torrid Zone (which she wasn’t), and on February 21, 1942, on the set of Wings for the Eagle, the director, Lloyd Bacon, upended her and administered 27 smacks:
Or perhaps 28, with the traditional ‘one to grow on’, for it was her birthday!
Back in 1939, Ann added impressively to her tally when making the musical comedy Naughty but Nice.
She played Zelda Manion, a rascally singer who tricks a college professor (Dick Powell) into a contract with her music publisher (William B. Davidson). In one scene, after an embarrassment, she barges into the latter’s office and marches from one man to the other, slapping them alternately as she rages about what has happened:
But that tirade proved troublesome. Any scene involving slapping, whichever end it’s aimed at, is one you’d ideally want to finish in a single take; but the combination of elaborate physical action and a complicated speech proved too much for Ann. She kept mistaking her lines – which meant that, in retake after retake, her two costars found their faces getting sorer and sorer.
After a while, the director, Ray Enright, proposed an equitable way of proceeding: from then on, for every take wasted because of her flubbing, she would be spanked. In fact, each time she would get three spankings, one from Dick Powell, one from Bill Davidson and finally one from himself, Ray Enright. Ann, who was no doubt just as frustrated with herself as they were with her, consented to the arrangement, but the upshot was simply that she got spanked a lot that day. ‘It looks as if she’s welcoming spankings for slapping us,’ remarked Powell. I do wonder just a little whether the term spanking was being accurately used, or whether what she actually got was just a series of smacked bottoms, but whatever the truth, the effect was essentially the same; the press reported the incident under the headline,
‘Star Slaps So Hard She Can’t Sit Down’.
And the story ended with an account of how she brought a pillow to the studio the next day, to cushion her tender seat.
Ann Sheridan wasn’t the only actress in the Golden Age of Hollywood to be given this kind of incentive. We’ve already encountered the case of Linda Darnell, whose director got a performance out of her in 1944 by smacking her bottom, and in 1936, when the Olympic champion skater Sonja Henie went into the movies with One in a Million, her director Sidney Lanfield told her on her first day, ‘If you’re unnatural, I’ll spank you.’
And since she went on to make 12 pictures through 1948, including two more with Lanfield, she must have been natural enough!
But sometimes rhe issue was personnel management rather than stimulating a temporarily incommoded star. Among the ‘Tips for Producers’ offered in 1938 by the US drama critic George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was how to deal with a star actress ‘making herself silly in the eyes of the critics’ with injudicious comments to the press. The particular actress he had in mind was Grace George,
who criticized the decision to award that year’s Drama Critics’ prize for the best new play to the stage version of Of Mice and Men, which was, she told the press, ‘an unpleasant play about unpleasant people’ which shouldn’t have won. Nathan’s remedy:
I would take my star actress aside and confide to her that Oedipus Rex, Gorki’s Night Refuge and other of the world’s admittedly great plays are also about degenerates and perverts and are also ‘unpleasant plays’ about ‘unpleasant people’. Then I’d lay her across my knee and give her a good loud spanking.
And this wasn’t just a bright idea from a journalist, either: it also found its way into a few movie directors’ minds over the years. Fast-forward to the early summer of 1942 and the set of My Sister Eileen, in which the title character was played by Janet Blair.
She was no stranger to spanking in the course of her Hollywood career: she was spanked at the end of Three Girls About Town (1941),
spanked again in a scene that didn’t make the final cut of another movie we’ll cover another time, and spanked yet again in a publicity shot for The Fuller Brush Man (1948).
And when she was visited on the My Sister Eileen set by her former schoolteacher, Andrew Moore, now a soldier, it emerged that this was only the continuation of a trajectory that had began when she was a recalcitrant teenage schoolgirl.
They talked about old times, as old acquaintances will, and Moore recalled how she had a bad habit of chewing gum in class, which he forbade. She defied his ban, and his response was to put her across his knee for ‘20 whacks with a stout ruler’. The press was in attendance at the reunion, so the photographers tried to persuade them to stage a reenactment, but Moore demurred in embarrassment and merely offered them this:
‘What a changed man you are,’ commented Janet, ‘for I well remember the effect of the inverted position or schoolhouse type of spanking.’ At that, the director, Alexander Hall, cut in to say that Janet herself hadn’t changed a bit: she still chewed gum on the movie set, and several times he had considered spanking her to get her to stop!
The press write-up was careful to point out that ‘the director-star association in Hollywood does not include spanking actresses’, but it was evidently not altogether unheard of. Back we go to March 1937, and the first day of shooting on Topper, the supernatural comedy starring Constance Bennett as the spectral female lead, Marion Kerby, not seen here on the movie’s French poster:
(This is, incidentally, the same character who, played by Anne Jeffreys, was spanked twice in the movie’s 1950s revival as a television sitcom.)
The director, Norman McLeod, was aware that Constance Bennett and her two sisters all had a reputation for being temperamental, and decided to take preemptive measures. If she caused any trouble, he warned her, ‘I’ll turn you over my knee and spank you’. Constance angrily retorted:
‘The Bennetts haven’t been spanked yet!’
Not entirely accurate, given that she herself was spanked in My Son twelve years earlier, though it is also true that her 17-year-old sister Barbara left home in 1923 rather than submit to a spanking from their father for coming in late after a party.
And the story itself may also be not entirely accurate. Another version that did the rounds of the movie gossip columns had Constance approaching McLeod to warn him of her reputation as a ‘vixen’, to which he replied that anyone who got out of line would get ‘a good swift kick right where they need it’. And Constance reacted positively: she called him ‘My pal!’ and promised to give him no trouble – which, by all accounts, she didn’t.
That illustrates the need, sometimes, for a pinch of salt to be taken with newspaper stories from the movie set. An oft-told tale is relevant here, about Diana Barrymore, daughter of John and part of the closest thing America had to theatrical ‘royalty’.
In 1942, she was making her second film with star billing, Between Us Girls, alongside Robert Cummings, and the story goes that she was given to such hilarious pranks as hitting Cummings across the shins with a length of metal pipe. Cummings responded, we are told, in a way that was demonstrative but perhaps not unreasonable within the norms of the time: he ‘taught her decorum by turning her over his knee and giving her a business-like spanking before the assembled company’.
That was how the story went years later in 1947. And it was brought out again in 1952 as part of a retrospective of her chequered career: ‘he lost his temper, turned her across his knee and gave her one of the soundest paddlings a young woman ever received’ – though not one which could be said to have had any lasting salutary effect, given that the occasion of the article was her being fired from three stage plays in rapid succession for offensive ad-libbing!
But turn back to the gossip columns at the time the movie was made in 1942, and we find a different and less titillating tale:
‘Perhaps Cummings has super-sensitive shins or perhaps he lacks a proper sense of humor. At any rate he lost his temper. Then and there, before the assembled company, he told Miss Barrymore the facts of life. Loudly and eloquently!’
Not spanked at all, then? Well, maybe not on that occasion, though of course the movie did originally include a spanking scene, which wound up on the cutting room floor only after being restaged for the publicity photographer:
And looking round the columns of 1942 some more brings up another story, from the same movie set, involving the same participants, plus one in addition. The interloper was another actor, Bramwell Fletcher, who was not a member of the cast but was on the set because he happened to be Diana’s fiancé. She chased him round the studio,
‘not for love and kisses, but because she wanted to hit him. Just being kittenish! It interfered with the scene, so Bob Cummings caught her and gave her a good sound spanking, which delighted everybody on the set except the youngest member of the Royal Family.’
And in case you’re wondering why the task fell to Cummings and not Bramwell Fletcher himself – when she hit him, she broke his fingers, which you might think is behavior well worthy of a sore bottom!
You might also think that royalty should be treated with more respect, and one person who would agree was Ernst Lubitsch, best known to us as the director of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), in which Claudette Colbert is spanked.
Back in the fall of 1931, he was making Broken Lullaby, a sentimental melodrama starring Diana’s uncle, Lionel Barrymore, as a war-bereaved German doctor. Even the most distinguished of actors will from time to time encounter the same difficulty as Eliza Dushku or Ann Sheridan, so it isn’t particularly shameful that he should have forgotten one of his lines at one point. But a younger member of the cast was evidently very irritated by it, to the extent that she rudely called him a ‘tired old man’. Lubitsch found the insult intolerable, and she quickly found herself across his knee getting a good spanking in front of the entire cast and crew.
The journalist who related the story a few years later gallantly affected not to remember the name of the girl Lubitsch spanked, but there’s actually not much room for doubt. Broken Lullaby is a story largely about how the older generation coped with the slaughter of their offspring in the First World War, so there were relatively few younger members of the cast, and only two young women, one of whom (the obscure Joan Standing) didn’t have any scenes with Barrymore. So the conclusion is almost inescapable:
the rude, spanked actress can only have been Nancy Carroll, who had previously been the naughty, spanked rich girl in The Water Hole (1928).
So sometimes reporters suppressed facts about studio spankings, and sometimes they embroidered them to make a better story. But we aren’t dependent on such equivocal testimony when it comes to the case of Mexican actress Lupe Vélez,
whose career included being spanked in a darkened ship’s hold in Hot Pepper (1933),
and spanked again in Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943),
not to mention marrying Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, in the fall of 1933. The first movie she made after their honeymoon was Laughing Boy, directed by W. S. Van Dyke and shot partly on location in northern Arizona. Van Dyke was out of sorts during production, because the desert dust and frequent changes of ambient temperature were making him ill, which meant that, by his own admission, he was a little less patient with Mrs Weissmuller than he might have been.
‘I forget what the argument was with Lupe, but she dared me to spank her, so I did. I turned her over my knee and gave her a couple of good ones.
‘If Johnny Weissmuller wants to learn my technique, I’ll be glad to demonstrate, but not on Lupe a second time. She was so flabbergasted she forgot to pull my hair out. But why tempt Providence? Once is enough.’
But it turned out that once wasn’t enough. Half a decade later, when he took over the direction of the troubled romance I Take This Woman (1940), he found himself having difficulty with his leading lady, Hedy Lamarr.
‘I gave her a good spanking,’ he told a reporter.
So to sum up, in the last century there were three circumstances in which an actress could expect to be spanked in the course of her job. She might be called upon to perform in a spanking scene, as director David Butler here demonstrates with June Haver in Look for the Silver Lining (1949):
She might be called upon to shoot a spanking publicity photo, like Jean Arthur here across the lap of William A. Seiter, the director of If You Could Only Cook (1935):
And she might just get spanked because she deserved it.
But of course, that’s a recommendation from 1934, and has no relevance at all to how Eliza Dushku or any other actress today might be treated in her workplace – however much we might like to imagine otherwise!