‘He may think that’s hip in Ohio, but this is the Big Apple, and that’s not cool here.’
That was one audience member’s reaction to the finale of a segment in the October 14, 1973, performance of The Oriental World of Self Defense at Madison Square Garden.
Martial arts displays became big business in the early 1970s, and one of the acts in the 1973 run of The Oriental World featured A.E. Vea, director of the House of International Karate in Youngstown, Ohio, and his star pupil, 19-year-old Judy Kolesar, who had won more karate awards, both national and international, than any other American woman.
Their act saw them take on one another empty-handed,
until, at the end, Vea got to demonstrate who was sensei and who was seito (teacher and student) – by turning Judy over his knee and putting his empty hand to work across the not-so-empty seat of her pants. Hence the ‘not cool’ reaction from the offended feminist in the audience.
That’s the sort of thing you might not be altogether surprised to hear in the early Seventies, when the popularity of spanking scenes was in decline and ‘second wave feminists’ were crudely flexing their cultural muscles. It defines a moment of transition: from this vantage-point, you could look out over a half-century vista of mainstream spanking going back to the 1920s, and an equivalent half-century up to the present day where different attitudes have been in the ascendent. But if you were to do so, the conclusions you might draw would be profoundly wrong.
Some spankos look back wistfully at the middle of the last century and see a Golden Age of Spanking, when there was lots of mainstream material to enjoy and no sour, nasty feminists to carp and snipe and spoil our fun. This may then proceed into the, at best, ethically equivocal territory of wishing for a world where ‘women knew their place’ and those so inclined could find abundant opportunities to spank them with impunity.
But anyone tempted to think that way had better not book their tickets on the TARDIS just yet. First, let’s take a longer, harder look at that Golden Age, passing through a series of what Doctor Who’s technobabble-loving scriptwriters would probably call epistopic interfaces of the space-time continuum, and what we might more simply describe as examples from successive decades of the period in question. Our safari through time will take us first to the year 1927.
But before we leave 1973 behind, let’s briefly survey the landscape. Spanking scenes appear in a clutch of European movies, but there’s nothing on the American big screen. On paper, there are a handful of romance comic book spankings and an offpage Archie. On television, just over a fortnight after Judy Kolesar was spanked onstage, Lucie Arnaz got this from Andy Griffith on her mom’s sitcom, Here’s Lucy:
And that’s pretty much it for new product. Whatever the other cultural delights of 1973, and they are many, mainstream media spanking seems mainly moribund: it’s not only in the Big Apple that it’s not cool.
So naturally our first impression of 1927 is going to be one of abundance. Television is only just being invented, and comic books haven’t got properly started either, but we know of nine films featuring a spanking scene, more than any other year of the 1920s, and, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, many of them show the filmmakers developing a new awareness of the genre’s potential raciness. But for an illustration we’ll take something a little more middle-of-the-road conventional, the romantic comedy My Best Girl, which climaxes with Pa Johnson (Lucien Littlefield) deciding to take charge of his family, with predictable consequences for his flapper daughter Liz (Carmelita Geraghty):
And even though that outcome overtly reinforced traditional social order in a traditional way, it still suffered the commonplace fate of spanking scenes in conservative states:
But while that’s germane to my overall argument, it’s not what we came to see.
During 1927, amused New Yorkers began to see copies of an engraved card purporting to be an all-purpose form letter of apology to the hostess of a society party, in which the disgraced guest was to fill in the blanks with his name and the date of the party in question and check off the particular misdemeanor(s) for which he was seeking forgiveness. Obviously it’s the second one that interests us:
Mr ________________ regrets exceedingly his deplorable conduct while a guest at your party last ______________ and humbly craves your pardon for the breach of etiquette checked below:
- Striking hostess with bottle
- Spanking hostess or female guests
- Excessive screaming
- Frequent absence from party
- Protracted absence from party
- Extreme inebriation
- Excessive destruction of furniture
- Complete loss of equilibrium
- Partial loss of equilibrium
- Throwing glasses
- Insulting guests
- Indiscreet petting
- Dismissing hostess’ servants
It was actually a spoof, the work of the Broadway publicist William A. Page, who died the following year; but the joke was still being appreciated, and the cards were still in circulation, a decade later in 1938.
Humor it may be, but not of the absurd or fantastical variety: these are all kinds of wild behavior that might happen at a party – yes, even spanking the hostess. But (and this is the point) they are also recognized as bad behavior that has to be apologised for afterwards. Nobody had carte blanche for spanking in 1927, whatever may have happened on the silver screen.
But it is worth adding a critique of the joke from the Des Moines Register:
‘To the socially enlightened, it is obvious that many of these things are no longer breaches of etiquette. Some of them have become inseparable from a good time, and many a hostess would weep secret tears if she gave a party at which none of them happened.’
So I guess they were having some pretty exciting parties in Iowa back in the late Twenties!
To develop the case I’m making, we must now travel forward seven years, to 1934. This means we arrive just too late for the next high watermark year for movie spanking: scenes have dropped away sharply in 1934, and the example I’ve chosen to stand for the year is itself a hangover, a comedy made in the fall of 1933 but not released until twelve days into 1934. The Meanest Gal in Town is really about the sexiest gal in town: flirtatious actress Lulu White (Pert Kelton), star of a theatrical company stranded in a small town, who survives on her wits and is not above attracting male attention by wiggling her bottom. In the course of the story, she finds herself abducted by a gunman who turns out to be an admirer, Duke Slater (James Gleason), whose marriage proposal she has rejected.
And while she’s being detained at his cabin hideout, her rear end gets some more male attention:
The film is pertinent in several ways, though again it’s not the reason we’re in 1934. What we’ve come for is a letter in the British movie fan magazine Picturegoer, signed by the pseudonymous ‘Devonia’, who wanted to complain about the frequency of a certain type of movie scene:
Is quite so much screen ‘spanking’ essential? Almost every other film I see introduces a slapping scene, and I am heartily sick of it.
In minor films, far too numerous to mention, I have seen female players receive a resounding pat on their nether regions with the sole intention of drawing a cheap snigger.
It was impossible to go through Cock o’ the Air without a ‘spanking’ scene.
In Britannia of Billingsgate, Kay Hammond had to suffer the same indignity.
The Bowery seemed little else but a slapping orgy by stick, catapult and hand.
If one doesn’t get it in reality, it is there by implication.
Matinee Idol, quite a good British effort, could not run its course without the remark in reference to a supposed erring girl: ‘If she were my daughter, I’d see that she couldn’t sit down for a week!’
It is time we called a halt to this ‘spanking’ surfeit. Movies should mirror real life – in which such scenes emphatically do not take place.
In effect, to paraphrase in the idiom of a few generations later, ‘They may think that’s hip in Hollywood, but it’s not cool here in Devonshire.’
For those who don’t know it, The Bowery (1933) is a slice-of-lowlife comedy set in 1890s New York, and does not feature a spanking scene as such, but here are the five relevant moments:
The recipient of most of this is Fay Wray; but the older lady who gets the stick in the opening montage is uncredited and the girl in the floral dress being patted on the rear by George Raft as she gets into the cab is none other than Pert Kelton, playing another showgirl and once again drawing attention to her bottom, in the most direct of ways:
And while that might well seem rather provocative, the whole lot hardly merits the exaggerated description of ‘a slapping orgy’, except by someone who was already looking for some slapping to complain about!
All of the films mentioned by name in the Picturegoer letter date from 1932 and 1933: ‘Devonia’ was talking about her recent moviegoing experience rather than the most up-to-date trends in Hollywood; it’s relevant that there was a lag of some months before American movies reached the other side of the Atlantic. (For instance, Flying Down to Rio, released in the US on December 29, 1933, didn’t open in Britain until August 27, 1934.) The phenomenon she found so objectionable was, like The Meanest Gal in Town, a hangover from the high-volume spanking year of 1933, and, though she didn’t know it, she had already gotten her way, or as near to it as she was likely to have: The Meanest Gal was the last of the Pre-Code Hollywood spankings, and onscreen opportunities were narrowing as the Hays Office tightened its grip.
Forward another eight years to 1942, and once again we land just after a peak year for movie spanking – this time, the all-time high of 1941. The numbers of screen scenes went down sharply as America went to war, but a look around other media shows the genre was safe and healthy elsewhere, notably in the comics. But if we want an example from a US film, we’re not exactly spoiled for choice: the only onscreen spanking in a US movie of 1942 was that of Paulette Goddard by Ray Milland in Reap the Wild Wind, which I have described in more detail here, but which may be further represented now in a run of pictures we haven’t seen before:
And thankfully, just for once, this is what brings us to 1942.
This was a scene the filmmakers were very proud of: it featured heavily in prepublicity, and got a prominent mention right at the head of the newspaper ad, in terms that uncannily anticipate a lesser spanking scene of far more modern vintage.
We don’t know which of the movie’s three screenwriters was responsible for it, because they all had other screen spanking material to their credit. Charles Bennett was the author of Matinee Idol (1933), the ‘quite good’ British film that offended ‘Devonia’ with its wry line about a young woman’s prospects of being able to sit down. Alan Le May and Jesse Lasky, Jr, had previously collaborated on the screenplay for North West Mounted Police (1940), featuring another spanking for Paulette Goddard; Lasky then co-wrote the story for The Singing Hill (1941), a Gene Autry oater that ends with Virginia Dale riding away with a pillow on her saddle after an especially sound offscreen spanking, and Le May went on to write High Lonesome (1950) with its abortive spanking for Lois Butler. But what we do know for sure is that one or more of them must have decided to include the Reap the Wild Wind spanking scene, because it’s an incident that doesn’t feature in Thelma Strabel’s original novel of 1940.
A review that ran in several California papers in April 1942 commented on the various ways in which the authors had adapted the book. Some of the changes met with the approval of the reviewer, Estelle Lawton Lindsey. Unfortunately:
‘Other additions were less happy. The spanking scene, at a Charleston dance of all places, was grotesquely impossible as well as displeasing.’
(For what it’s worth, she also didn’t like the giant squid.)
Perhaps by now I’ve said enough to make my point: there never was a Golden Age, because spanking scenes were never universally loved, or even accepted. They were considered popular enough to be worth making, but the whole subject of spanking attracted a diverse range of incompatible opinions, including earlier exemplars of the self-righteous ‘not cool in the Big Apple’ outrage we witnessed in 1973 and continue to encounter today. Just how diverse the views were will become clear when we go forward another nine years to 1951, to see a local controversy so elaborate and complex that it warrants separate treatment next time.