Lilian Gets Away With It

The Anglo-German actress and singer Lilian Harvey (1906-68) made her greatest escape in 1939, when she helped a Jewish friend to flee to Switzerland and then had to leave Germany herself to avoid Nazi reprisals. But there were several lesser moments of evasion earlier in her career, before the Third Reich came to power: in several films of the Weimar era, she came very, very close to being spanked, but, happily for her if not for us, got away unscathed at the last moment.

One was Die Drei von der Tankstelle (The Gas Station Three), made in the early summer of 1930 just as the impact of the Wall Street Crash was starting to be felt in Europe.

But the film’s a light, romantic operetta, and the nearest it gets to harsh contemporary realities is the initiating situation, when three playboys return home from holiday to find that their bank has collapsed and, in consequence, all their money is lost; the bailiff has seized their house and everything in it, so the only asset they have left is the car they took the trip in. Off they drive, contemplating the dreadful prospect of having to work for a living, only to run out of gas on a busy country road. It’s an inspiration: they sell the car and use the capital to open a gas station right there, which they wryly name ‘Zum Kuckuck’ (The Bailiff’s) and divide up duties between them so that the pumps are manned round the clock in eight-hour shifts. Each of them meets and falls in love with a regular customer, but unfortunately for all concerned, it’s the same customer three times over, Lilian Cossmann,

who fills her tank at different times and therefore during different partners’ shifts. Even more unfortunately, each one decides to keep his little romance a secret from the others…

The real question, on which viewers of the film seem divided, is whether Lilian’s just a nice, friendly girl or a flirty minx. The typical fate of the latter might be usefully illustrated by what happens to Alice White in a near-contemporary American film, The Naughty Flirt:

So you might hope to see Fraulein Harvey get similar treatment, especially when her flirtiness is reinforced by one of the film’s early highlights, a leggy, panty-flashing song-and-dance number with Kurt (Oskar Karlweis), even though those on the alternative side of the question could equally well take it as a simple display of her ingenue charm:

And yet the one she settles on isn’t Kurt. It’s the boy on the night-shift, Willy, played by Lilian Harvey’s regular screen partner, Willy Fritsch.

Of course, everything goes wrong when the boys find out the truth, and Lilian’s efforts to sort it out only make matters worse. Eventually she persuades her rich father (Fritz Kampers) to set up Willy as the director of an oil company, with herself as his secretary; but when he finds out how he got the job, he insists on quitting. But wily secretary Lilian substitutes another document for his letter of resignation, and he ends up putting his name to a marriage contract. As family and friends gather to celebrate a happy ending, the discomfited Willy struggles to deny his own signature, and angrily accuses her of blackmail. She is so exasperated that she tears up the contract, precipitating a stern and extended paternal telling-off.

Papa Cossmann has evidently decided where he stands on the naughty-or-nice question we considered earlier, and it’s not good news for Lilian.

He picks up a stick and, after a very stylized chase around the room, also picks up his daughter:

But before the stick makes first contact, Willy intervenes to save her, and the happy ending is assured – though it’s not so happy for two thirds of the gas station three!

The stakes are higher in Der Kongress Tanzt (1931; The Congress Dances), another Harvey-Fritsch vehicle set against the background of the 1814 Congress of Vienna that redefined Europe’s borders and balance of power for the century after Napoleon.

Lilian plays Christel Weinzinger, a sprightly glove vendor who’s first seen attending to a customer, a visiting British soldier who tries to chat her up (‘Do you speak English?’, then ‘Parlez-vous Français?’), then enjoys the view of her long pantalette-style bloomers as she climbs a ladder to attend to her stock.

That might seem somewhat gratuitous, like the ensuing sequence of her getting dressed the following morning, presented with bloomers in the film and then restaged bare-legged for the publicity photographer.

But the bloomers are very much to the point as a foreshadowing of what is to come. There’s another quite separate moment with the same function when she has a little quarrel with a boyfriend about an idea she has to promote her business: during the ceremonial arrival of the Tsar of Russia (Willy Fritsch), she will throw an advertising bouquet into his open-topped carriage as it passes by. The boyfriend warns her that there might be serious consequences involving deportation to Siberia, but she makes light of it: as her gesture makes clear, the worst that could happen is just a little spanking.

Unfortunately for her, when she does throw the bouquet, it hits the Tsar on the head, then falls out of the carriage to be trampled under the horses’ hooves. Someone in the crowd assumes a bomb has been thrown, and starts a panic. The forces of law and order swiftly nab her, and she is brought to summary justice as an anarchist. So what’s the worst that can happen? Sentence is pronounced: she will get 25 strokes of the cane, ‘auf den blanken hintern’ (on the bare bottom). So all that emphasis on the presence of her bloomers works to counterpoint their impending absence now and, for the second time in the film, but this time with real apprehension, her hands go behind her:

They stay there as she is led whimpering away to meet her punishment:

The sobbing continues as we cut to a room full of wall-mounted canes. A young officer of the law takes one down for imminent use.

Christel is brought face to face with her terrible fate:

Her executioner swipes the cane through the air, leads her to the flogging bench, straps her down and starts to raise her skirt.

And, just in time, a reprieve comes through: the stray bouquet has been found and brought to the Tsar, who realized it was only a publicity stunt and asks for clemency. The disappointed whacker covers her back up,

flipping down both petticoat and skirt in two separate movements, which clearly indicates how far he’d gotten in his preparations, even though the relevant area of Christel is just below frame level. Unstrapped but still bent over the bench, Christel looks up at her deliverer:

And so begins the Tsar’s ‘holiday romance’ with the little glover, which is the main substance of the film. So once again, Lilian Harvey has been saved from a sore bottom by the intervention of a lover played by Willy Fritsch.

Back in her first scene, Christel’s answer to her military admirer’s linguistic advances was a prim ‘Nein’ to both English and Français, which certainly wasn’t true of Lilian Harvey herself. UFA, the production company for both Tankstelle and Kongress, had ambitions to compete in the international market, which presented certain obvious obstacles concerning language. So as well as Die Drei von der Tankstelle, they also made a French version, Le Chemin de Paradis (Paradise Road). Lilian Bourcart, renamed from Cossmann, was still played by Lilian Harvey (oui, elle parlait Français assez bien), but her father was now Gaston Jacquet. It was made concurrently with the German version, on the same sets and from the same script, with the same non-speaking extras and the same director in charge, William Thiele (but sharing the credit with a Frenchman, Max de Vaucorbeil); so although I haven’t seen it in its entirety, it’s a fair bet that the spanking business remained intact, though not an absolute certainty, for reasons that will emerge in a moment.

Likewise, Der Kongress Tanzt was made in two alternate versions, for release in France (Le Congrès s’Amuse) and Britain (Congress Dances). I haven’t seen the English-language one, but the available print of the French edition is markedly more restrained than the original. There’s no bloomer voyeurism, and though Christel still has the echoed gesture regarding the prospective fate of her bottom,

the lovingly detailed preparations for the caning are missing: the film cuts straight from her being led away after sentence to her reprieve while bent over.

But there’s a reason why I hedgingly refer to the available print, because it’s 17 minutes shorter than the reported length of this version, so it may have been censored. That said, there’s one point where what was filmed for France is overtly more decorous than what was filmed for Germany: in the French print, Christel doesn’t go up the ladder to show her bloomers to the British soldier. So it’s also quite possible that the censorship, or restraint, happened before or during shooting rather than by later interference with the print. As things stand, we just don’t know.

And while we’re on the subject of uncertainties, it is rumored that eventually Lilian Harvey’s luck ran out, and that she was spanked in one of her last films in Germany, Capriccio (1938). But all I have seen of the film is a short extract, and the spanking information comes from a source that isn’t notably trustworthy: lists of movie spankings compiled by enthusiasts often include, on the basis of unverified third-hand reports, titles that turn out not to include any such scene, and in any event the compilers tend to be so desperate for material that they will classify as ‘spanking’ anything from unintentional hand-to-bottom contact all the way to severe whipping. So Capriccio has to be considered doubtful, and reading a summary of the plot doesn’t do much to dispel those doubts. Lilian, who was undoubtedly feminine,

spends much of the film impersonating a man in order to escape an unwanted marriage.

And as usual she’s playing the heroine, a sympathetic character, meaning the chances of her getting spanked, in the strictest sense of the word, seem fairly limited. So should I ever get to see Capriccio, of course I’ll hope for the best, but I’ll also expect disappointment on the spanking front and look to enjoy the movie for its other qualities instead.

[Update: The video has been found online by Maitrefesseur, and it’s good news: it is an OTK spanking, brief but worth seeing and indeed listening to as Lilian emits the same quavering little cries that are heard in Der Kongress Tanzt, only this time in response to actually being spanked rather than just the prospect of it!

A link to the video may be found in the comments!]

Emigration effectively ended Lilian’s screen career. She made two more films in Vichy France in 1940 before spending the rest of the war in the USA, and made some concert appearances back in Europe at the very end of the 1940s. But there was an ongoing legacy.

A number of pre-Nazi German movies were remade in the 1950s, and 1955 saw new versions of both Die Drei von der Tankstelle and Der Kongress Tanzt. The new Tankstelle starred Germaine Damar as Gaby Kossmann and featured no spanking. The new Kongress starred Johanna Matz as Christel,

and she did have something to worry about.

In this version, the whole thing is handled with even less ceremony than the 1931 French version, partly because it’s no longer a judicial punishment. Christel is brought before an interrogator brandishing a cane, who tries to get her to admit that she threw a bomb.

She won’t, because she didn’t, so he moves on to a firmer method of persuasion. The soldiers bend her over the desk while he tosses up her skirts and raises the cane…

but they’re interrupted, not with a reprieve but the news that the ‘bomb’ has been found, whereupon she’s shoved into a cell, to be released later after the misunderstanding has been cleared up.

Erik Charell, the director of the original 1931 Kongress Tanzt, turned it into a stage operetta in the 1950s, which was performed in France without much success. There have been intermittent efforts to revive it in more recent times, including a production at Celle in 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the composer, Werner Richard Heymann, and in 2016 the Vienna Volksoper produced its own adaptation with Anita Götz as Christel. Meanwhile, Tankstelle turned into Die Drei von der Gasstelle, both a stage musical (Berlin, 2005) and a non-musical play (Dresden, 2006), with occasional revivals since under the original, more marketable title.

It is not known how, or even whether, any of these recent versions dealt with the relevant scenes in the screen originals, though there’s an unintentional multilingual irony that, if there was an abortive whacking in the Volksoper Kongress, it would have been undertaken by a singer named Georg Wacks, playing an officer of the law. But at least one stage version of Tankstelle had one of the three boys threaten Lilian with a spanking in the course of their flirtation. So hurrah for that at least!

3 thoughts on “Lilian Gets Away With It

  1. maitrefesseur says:

    Congrats to your exquisite article – great work!

    As a matter of fact, I can confirm the scene from Capriccio (1938). I have seen the movie and it is currently watchable via The spanking, or let’s better say smacking, takes place at 1h 17m, it consists of only two resounding smacks, but in a clear otk position, face towards the audience. The film by itself is charming and witty, the spanking however, although cute, leaves something to be desired:


    • Harry says:

      Thanks for this very good news. And by my definition, if it’s OTK, it’s definitely a spanking rather than a smacking! Maybe not the best screen spanking ever, but well worth its while. I’ve amended the article with a still in case the video should disappear in the future; but if it does, I think I know who might be able to capture and put up a clip…


      • maitrefesseur says:

        You are right. I was too negative about it. And, yes, I also know someone who might be able to capture and put up a clip…


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