Why Was Martha Spanked?

Here’s the American comedienne Martha Raye, who was known for her wide mouth and would have liked to be known for her lovely legs.

With that end in view, swimsuit pictures were taken,

but Martha just couldn’t stop goofing around,

and this led to her often winding up in an undignified position.

A case in point is the 1939 comedy Never Say Die, a story about a pair of humorously suicidal characters which manages to be wacky rather than edgy or macabre. Martha plays heiress Mickey Hawkins, who jumps in the water in an effort to avoid a forced marriage. Hypochondriac millionaire John Kidley (Bob Hope) tries to rescue her but can’t swim and she ends up rescuing him. This explains why, in the next scene, he’s in his dressing gown and she’s lolloping around in an oversized pair of his striped pajamas, the legs and sleeves far too long for her. (Hope was seven inches taller than she was.)

And it was in those striped pajamas that Martha clowned about once too often and annoyed the director, Elliott Nugent, who turned out to be one of those directors who liked to take a ‘hands on’ approach to maintaining discipline on the set:

That’s an extract from Feg Murray’s long-running ‘Seein’ Stars’ syndicated newspaper column, which retailed illustrated items of Hollywood gossip from 1933 through 1951. But was this particular item of gossip the truth, or was it just a concocted publicity story?

To begin to answer that, it’s worth thinking a little about how Feg Murray produced his illustrations. Here’s another from eight years later, concerning a scene that, if it was ever filmed at all, didn’t make the final cut of Dear Ruth:

But it did get photographed for publicity…

and that picture was obviously Murray’s reference for his drawing. This wasn’t an uncommon practice: the other comparable illustrated column of the time, Charles Bruno’s ‘Star Flashes’, also drew extensively on studio-supplied photographs, including for its tidbits about the spanking scenes in Public Deb No. 1 and The Great Profile. And likewise, the spanking on the set of Never Say Die was surely based on a photograph: the outsized men’s pajamas are an exact match for what Martha wears in the scene, and the man in the drawing is indeed Elliott Nugent.

The photograph has since disappeared, but the drawing is good evidence that it did exist – and since it existed, it follows that Martha Raye was indeed spanked by her director. No mystery there?

And yet…

If an actress was wasting time on set with her misbehavior, you would expect directorly retribution to happen in short order, as soon as supplies of patience ran out: get the girl spanked and then get back to the business of making movies! But studio photography in the 1930s wasn’t a spontaneous ‘paparazzi’ activity suited to recording events on the spur of the moment: it was something that was planned, organized, set up… and what got photographed was, in effect, staged.

And that’s where it becomes useful to take a longer look at Martha Raye.

There she is with Bob Hope again. They were often partnered, including, the year before Never Say Die, in the musical College Swing (1938).

And one stills session saw her lying over his knee in what might, but might not, have been intended to be a half-hearted spanking:

(There’s nothing comparable in the equivalent scene in the film.)

Four films later, Martha was making $1,000 a Touchdown, her next job after Never Say Die.

It’s a 1939 campus football comedy in which she plays the troubled college owner Martha Madison. We don’t need to go far into the plot, because the relevant scene comes five minutes into the picture, when she meets Joe E. Brown’s character outside the psychiatrist’s office by tripping over his outstretched feet.

She takes a spectacular dive,

that leaves her on the floor with her bottom in the air and her skirt in disarray.

But a more interesting alternative version found its way into the stills camera:

All this suggests a couple things about the style of Martha’s physical comedy: it often featured long limbs going all over the place, and sometimes saw her over somebody’s knee. So imagine how simply hilarious it would be if she were to be… spanked!

Well, happily, you don’t have to imagine it, because it happened at a party in the late 1930s. Also present were press photographer Jack Alkin, and Martha’s mom:

And that takes us back where we started, to the set of Never Say Die, and implies the answer to our questions: yes, there was a spanking, and yes, the publicity story about it was a taradiddle.

Martha Raye wasn’t spanked for unprofessionally clowning around at work: that energetic, high-kicking spanking, deliberately set up for a prearranged stills photographer, was the clowning around – and it was part of her job!

2 thoughts on “Why Was Martha Spanked?

  1. Samantha says:

    As Nora wrote, thirties screwball comedies are rife for funny discipline sessions, in front of or behind the camera.

    Martha Raye not only has a notable mouth, I think her eyes are magnetic. And I’m amazed and impressed that you found a picture of her mother pretending to smack her in the dressing trailer. What a face on both ladies!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.