Across the Psychiatrist’s Knee

In March 1958, one Lionel J. Felton of Barnet in Hertfordshire put Doctor at Large together with the pre-publicity for The Female Animal (which had not yet been released), and wrote to the British fan magazine Picturegoer to hail what would later turn out to be a false dawn:

‘I’m glad spanking is making a comeback on the screen. Once a heroine who got above herself would generally end up face downwards across the hero’s lap. That’s better treatment for those mixed-up girls than psychoanalysis.’

The interest is in the last sentence. It had become fashionable in the late 1950s for troublesome rich girls to consult psychiatrists to have their neuroses and behavior issues expensively straightened out. Some people had the same idea as Mr Felton, that there was a quicker and cheaper way of achieving the same results.

In respect of teens, this was often expressed as a contradiction between expert medical opinion and practical parenting experience, as seen in this father-daughter exchange in a 1952 installment of Harry Haenigsen’s newspaper strip Penny (1943-70):

The nature of the problem was that removing the ultimate sanction unhelpfully changed the power dynamic. For an illustration of that, let’s take a 1946 episode of the Suzie strip in Pep Comics, in which the heroine gets a job as governess to a brat whose mother believes him to be a little angel, but seems mysteriously unable to retain childcare personnel in her employ. In the main story, Suzie is given the runaround until finally she is given the sack, but the splash page offers a witty take on what is really going on:

Obviously not by the book! Or is it…?

To show the range of educated opinion, at least in fiction, we turn to Dr Stefan Burger, a distinguished child psychologist played by Peter Weck in the 1964 Austrian musical Liebesgrüsse aus Tirol (From Tirol with Love). He is a candidate for the post of director of a child psychology institute that is being set up as a charitable foundation with American money; but though his academic qualifications in the field are second to none, he lacks one thing that is considered essential by the sponsor, Mrs Applewhite (Grethe Weiser). Unlike his less qualified rival for the post, he has no children of his own, and therefore cannot be entrusted with the care of the disturbed young people who are to be treated at the institution. He is helped out by university-age Renate Larsen, Rena for short, a Danish diplomat’s daughter played by the Danish pop singer Gitte Hænning, who had been a child star in the 1950s but was now at the right end of her teens.

In view of the way the story develops, it is as well to start by showing how Rena appears in one of the lobby cards:

In other words, the movie and its publicity leaves no room for doubt that she is a young woman of just a little sexual allure. But when she finds out about Dr Burger’s problem, she dresses up as a little girl and, ahead of his arrival at the institute and without his knowledge, presents herself to Mrs Applewhite as his daughter. Of course, he has to be told of the well-meaning pretence, since he is to be the beneficiary, but Rena still allows him to think she is a child. The consequences should be predictable by anyone familiar with age-deception comedies like Dotty and Daffy or Act Your Age, and may be initially illustrated by the specially posed publicity still featured on another of the lobby cards:

One of her songs is entitled ‘Little Girls Must be Good’ (Kleine Mädchen Haben Brav Zu Sein), but this particular girl is neither truly little nor altogether good:

And so, in the movie itself:

There is a happy ending (Burger gets both job and girl),

but the germane point here is that the spanking is administered by a high-flying child psychologist who evidently doesn’t endorse the ‘no spanking’ view attributed to his profession by harassed parents and child-minders. You can find the same approach, taken specifically in respect of troublesome teenage girls, in stage plays like The Lady Psychiatrist (US, 1952) and Family Crackers (Britain, 1960). And it’s even true outside fiction: in ‘Psychosexuality and Borderline Disorders’, a paper delivered at a professional conference at Geneva in 2000, the Swiss psychoanalyst Dr Alicia Schteingart-Gitnacht proposed, that ‘for certain patients, a good spanking, given at the right time, might have done a world of good’.

So what’s ‘the right time’? Here we must not only shy away from the possibility of under-age spanking but also respect patient confidentiality, which leaves us prudently diving back into post-War entertainment. Now the subject for our attention is an edition of the US variety show Your Hit Parade, whose format presented comedy skits based around the top songs of the week. No video is available, only the memory of a viewer who saw and enjoyed it in the spring of 1958, and precise identification is impeded by the fact that documentation of the series is very patchy. The basis of the skit in question, was the Connie Francis song ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’, released that March. The young lady who was going to be sorry was Virginia Gibson,

who had been sorry in the same way before, when she was one of the two spanked brides in a publicity still for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). This time around, she’s a daughter whose mother takes her to a therapist – and the cure for her mental malady, or social maladjustment, is the same one unexpectedly employed in this 1962 edition of the long-running newspaper humor panel Mopsy by Gladys Parker (1908-66):

And that’s something we’ll be exploring further next time

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