In one of the last pre-Code films, Long Lost Father (1934), nightclub manager Carl Bellairs (John Barrymore) and nightclub torch singer Lindsey Lane (Helen Chandler) are both left derisory sums in the will of an aged relative in rebuke for their irresponsibility. Embarrassingly, what Bellairs doesn’t at first realize when he tries to flirt with her is that she is the fruit of his loins, whom he hasn’t seen since her childhood. Later on, they find themselves working in the same club, and he takes a more fatherly attitude, putting his foot down when she unprofessionally informs him that she is going to miss a performance for a trivial reason:
‘What you need’s a good spanking!’ he tells her.
It’s just a passing moment: despite striking similarities with Allan Manville, the role in My Dear Children (1939) that later won Barrymore a reputation as a formidable spanker, Bellairs doesn’t follow through. But what gives it particular interest is her defiant response:
she turns her back on him and silently begins to draw up her clinging sheath dress in a clear invitation to make good his threat. The implication is all the clearer for being unspoken: a spanking, if given, will be given with her skirt raised, on the seat of her panties.
I’ve argued before that this was a routine assumption about spanking in its heyday, but I guess there’s no harm in adding some more evidence to reinforce the point. Let’s begin with the noted British conductor Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967).
In 1945, during a visit to New York, reporters sought his views on current musical trends, and he favored them with a choice soundbite:
‘If I were the father of a daughter who swooned at Frank Sinatra, I’d pull down her trousers and give her a spanking.’
This presumably reflected his ideas about actual paternal practice rather than some queasy fantasy (though the psychology is complicated by the fact that his own beloved 18-year-old daughter, Pamela, had died of polio the year before, and he took the bereavement badly). And we can also find scattered examples of actual non-paternal practice if we look around. Here’s the Montreal model turned radio presenter Judy Joseph:
In the mid-1980s, she fronted a regular magazine program for Quebec’s black community, for which she tried very persistently to get an interview with the Jamaican reggae star Peter Tosh. Despite an extremely busy schedule, Tosh took the trouble to pencil her in for a 20-minute slot, only for her not to turn up on the day. She later approached him in a hotel lobby, and, we are told:
Before she knew it, in the middle of the crowded lobby, he put her over his knee, pulled up her skirt, and administered a public spanking.
Something not dissimilar happened in Washington DC half a century earlier in 1933, when a Venezuelan diplomat was escorting an army widow to a party. She became obstreperous in the taxi on the way and threw his hat out of the window, so on arrival, he put her across his knee in public:
Not even the silken folds of Mrs John Russ Street Jr’s dainty evening gown were permitted to deaden the impact of the angry Señor Guillermo A. Suro’s lustily applied smacks. At least fifty folk witnessed the spectacle in the marble foyer of the Club Madrillon.
Of course, you have to read between the lines there to realize what actually happened: that the ‘silken folds’ were folded out of the way. What all these examples have in common is a reticence that pays more attention to the uncovering than what has been uncovered. So let’s go down under to a more plain-spoken culture, to find some rather more direct statements in Australia.
In 1940, a newspaper expressed its opinion on the difficulties connected with what might have happened to Miss Pamela Sargent had she lived to swoon at Frank Sinatra:
As a social problem fathers spanking big daughters goes deeper than a pat on the scants.
No ambiguity or understatement there: just a straightforward and, this time, explicitly articulated assumption that a spanking will ordinarily be administered on a girl’s ‘scanties’. And from the same continent later the same decade, there are reports of actual cases, too. Take this example from 1944, concerning an Aussie soldier (or Digger) who caught his wife canoodling with a military interloper from overseas (an Ally):
Our seaside suburb has been treated to a wife-spanking, an open-air event free to all spectators. Having demanded of the Ally in whose company he had caught the woman whether he knew that his companion was a married women and being told no, the big Digger dismissed him with a curt, ‘Well, then, you keep out of this.’ Then he dragged the lady over to a park seat, in a trice had her across his knee, and with her skirt lifted to give an ample display of scantie laid on as vigorous a spanking as ever was seen.
He let the squalling woman topple off his knee. ‘You can do what you like; get a divorce if you like,’ said the Digger, ‘but as long as you use my name and draw my allotment you’ll behave yourself or you’ll be spanked – in public too.’ Nobody interfered; in fact there was some inclination to applaud; and although the police arrived before the crowd dispersed they did not stop the Digger as he coolly walked away.
In 1948, a mother had transferred ownership of a farm to her eldest daughter and husband on condition that the two younger daughters should also live there. As it turned out, the two teens slacked off on farm chores and there was much bickering. A local friend of the mother’s heard that she was visiting and went to pay her a call.
Approaching the house I could hear the sound of good hearty smacks accompanied by muffled cries. Rounding the corner I came across my friend with Miss Sixteen, face down, across her knees, with her dress turned back getting the spanking of her life. Son, in desperation, had written to Mother-in-law. Mum was co-operating.
Why turn the dress back like that? Purely, it seems, for reasons of practicality, as may be inferred from this suggestive exchange in Georgia Craig’s 1959 novel, Her Alaska Home:
‘I have seldom seen a girl more appropriately dressed for something you’re asking for,’ he stated flatly.
Carla laughed up at him, but the faintest possible flicker of uneasiness appeared briefly in her eyes.
‘And that is?’ she suggested. ‘A good sound spanking,’ Jed answered.
And Carla’s ‘appropriate’ dress for that particular spanking is a bathing suit. In other words, it’s all about a relative lack of covering that will enhance the effectiveness of the spanking.
But that is itself a problem when the spanking comes out of the woodshed and into the media, and all the more so when the clothing involved isn’t a swimsuit but instead a garment not usually seen in public. In 1940, the Australian Woman’s Mirror ran a lengthy feature entitled ‘Does Your Husband Spank You?’, signed by ‘Simple Sal’ and illustrated by Mollie Horseman (1911-74).
The piece contains several turns of phrase, such as ‘hand-warmed scanties’ and a tingling ‘in the smitten seat of our little cotton bloomers’, that make it clear that, once again, the author thinks of spanking on the panties as the regular way of things. The article concludes, wryly: ‘Our men must do their duty – even if we have to reinforce the seats of our scanties and silk bloomers so that they can sustain the wear and tear.’ But in complete contrast, Mollie Horseman’s keynote illustration, though terrific, holds back:
In the same vein, take the 1944 story of how red-haired Hollywood dancer Aileen Netherton (otherwise known as Jeanne O’Brien) got a divorce from her husband of fourteen months after he did something unacceptable:
‘He pulled up my dress and spanked me before company to show how a wife should be kept in line.’
Now see how the Pittsburgh Press compromised in its illustration of the moment:
Yes, her dress has been pulled up, just a little, to expose something not usually seen, a suspender tab. But no, it hasn’t been pulled up in the way that it was surely pulled up for the spanking!
And that brings me to my point: if spankings were routinely administered to a less than fully clothed bottom, then many of the rather frequent representations of the act in the mainstream media must have struck contemporaries as oddly restrained and decorous.
This sort of thing, illustrated there by randomly chosen examples, was all somewhat out of step with what was actually happening in the woodsheds of America (not to mention the other three continents on which our evidence has a bearing). In fact, the most true-to-life of all significant mainstream spankings must have been, ironically, the one in the most stylized medium of all:
Part of Frederick Ashton’s objective with La Fille Mal Gardée was to use an art form that more often dealt in fairytale fantasies like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, to present the charming realism of everyday things: chickens in an early morning barnyard, village sports and pastimes, reapers getting in the harvest (and having to be paid for it)… and, yes, a naughty girl being spanked by her mother in the way that naughty girls actually were.
The people who knew best what really happened when naughty girls were spanked were, of course, the naughty girls themselves, which is why school plays are also worth thinking about in this connection. It’s not particularly surprising that this particular genre of performance tended to err on the side of decorum.
Until, that is, we reach the early 1970s…
Our object of attention is Hope Springs Eternal, a comedy written in 1964 by Elizabeth Gregory (who was really a pseudonym for the writing syndicate of Elizabeth Gibson, Charles Bernard Gifford and Maurice Nugent). The play deals with a retirement home where the residents never die, much to the frustration of the local undertaker. Suspecting that this statistical anomaly can only be the result of fraud, the Social Security Department sends in an investigator, Howard Elliott, to check whether they are really still alive. They are, and not because of some wonder chemical in the water, as Howard at first suspects; the secret of their incredible longevity is simply that they are living in a fantasy world in which Hope Springs is an independent state. All of them all have important court positions in what they call Regnum Somniorum (the Kingdom of Dreams), meaning they have the sense of purpose and relevance often denied the elderly: they go on living simply because their environment gives them a reason to stay out of their graves.
In the strand of the plot that concerns us, Sylvia Shafer is trying to convince her 78-year-old mother, Rusty Russell, to leave Hope Springs and come and live with her; but the behavior of Rusty’s bratty granddaughter Penelope convinces her otherwise, a decision not reached without trauma to Penelope’s sitting area. The particular production that’s germane to our discussion was put on in the spring of 1974 at Ripley High School, Indiana, with Nancy Francis as Penelope.
Here she is in costume for the production itself:
Here she is in confrontation with her grandmother, played by Linda White:
And here’s the outcome of that confrontation, in which the Kingdom of Dreams becomes a Naughty Girl’s Nightmare:
As you can see, she’s being spanked with her short skirt raised, on her not particularly abbreviated panties – in fact, more shorts than briefs, but underwear nonetheless.
This wasn’t completely unprecedented. The spanking in the production of We ‘Dude’ It at St Joseph’s Academy, Chillicothe, Missouri, got there seven years earlier in 1967. Patty Kriegshauser played the terrible Stinkey Vayne.
Here she is in costume:
And here she is showing another part of her costume as she gets a spanking from Mary Crookshanks, playing Miss Padgett:
As you can see, she is being spanked on a pair of short-legged knickers which she is wearing (as the VPL makes clear) over her own bikini panties. Tellingly, the yearbook editors were banned from including the photo in the spread devoted to the play, but snuck it in later as a candid: this was considered racy stuff then. But perhaps not so much six or seven years later: there’s a slight but noticeable accumulation of examples from around the time when Nancy Francis was getting her shorts walloped in Indiana. The very same year, 1974, saw quite a similar raised-skirt spanking in another production of We ‘Dude’ It at Kit Carson High School in Colorado, which we’ve seen before but is worth revisiting:
And let’s not forget the very deliberate flip of the miniskirt that precedes the spanking in the 1973 Latin American telenovela Esmeralda:
Was all this just coincidence, or was there anything special about 1973/74? Well, maybe. There’s room to speculate, especally if we collocate it with La Fille Mal Gardée.
The thing about the world of ballet is that there’s nothing particularly taboo about seeing a dancer’s panties. In fact, what she’ll be wearing is usually a deliberate design decision rather than a matter of what came out of the drawer that morning.
So when it comes to a spanking scene in ballet, the usual inhibitions don’t apply – at least to the dancers, though Lise herself may have reservations about it.
And in real life, especially in the world of young people, the same conditions were current for maybe half a decade in the miniskirt era of the late Sixties and early Seventies.
So panties were a more commonplace sight than at any time before or since, and while this was widely considered indecent in the early years of the fashion, familiarity must have taken the edge off towards the very end – which was around 1973/74. If there ever was a moment when you might reasonably expect to see even a slight proliferation of raised-skirt spankings in mainstream material, and to see a rapprochement between stage representation and woodshed reality, that was surely it!