Let’s begin by introducing ourselves to the 1930s starlet Harriet Hagman.
She was a very, very minor starlet, with just two movie appearances to her name, one of them uncredited. The publicity department of her studio, RKO, seems to have tried its best for her, which included a photo op when she took a day trip aboard the Billings fishing barge in Ocean Park, California. She lent a hand and, we are told, caught rather a lot of fish, which you might think was cause for commendation. But not according to Captain Billings:
I don’t know if that was the end of her career, but, depending on how you look at it, it surely was either a highlight or a low point!
Never mind, Harriet, worse things happen at sea. And indeed, if a girl was aboard for a more extended voyage, things might potentially become more serious, though not always. It’s worth remembering that, so long as we were in the age of sail, many ships had an interestingly named piece of rigging that created the potential for cutesy misunderstandings like this:
In reality, Miss Bianca Banker is in no danger, even if they are rough, uncouth sailors: the spanker is a sail, not part of the mate’s job description. But circumstances don’t have to change all that radically for things to get risky quick, as this young lady will have cause to discover,
in this silent film of a similar vintage to the limerick:
Miss Jackie of the Navy (1916) tells of tomboy heiress Jackie Holbrook (Margarita Fischer), who is popular with all but one of the sailors in and around the Californian port of Coronado. But the belle of the beach takes her admirers for granted and wants to seduce the only one not to have fallen for her charms: the captain himself, Robert Crowne (Jack Mower). So when his ship is given sailing orders for the island of Vergania to put down a native uprising, she comes along too, cunningly disguised:
The rest of the crew take the new recruit’s gender at face value, and see no similarity with the wealthy, headstrong beauty they admired back in port. But one of them, Big Bill Blount (J. Gordon Russell), can see that the ‘lad’ is a ‘sissy’, and teases ‘him’ mercilessly, not excluding a piece of rough stuff that is of especial interest to us. Happily, Jackie eventually proves her worth when the primitive Verganians try to sacrifice Captain Crowne to their snake god, and she daringly rescues him in the nick of time. He’s impressed by her courage and naturally, once her sex and identity are revealed, he falls in love and asks her to marry him.
One early reviewer remarked how implausible it is that nobody notices she’s a girl: she ‘couldn’t fool a blind man as a boy’.
In this offering we find Miss Fischer chasing through many reels of film in sailor’s togs, and it would seem from the action that every one on the ship was unable to see more than a foot beyond their nose. One big fellow even handled Miss Fischer rather roughly several times – even put her across his knee and spanked her without discovering that he was playing with a plump young lady.
(‘Plump’, by the way, here means buxom rather than overweight!)
Though the film doesn’t emphasize it, Miss Jackie has also crossed a line that features significantly in the true stories of Roberta Eike in the 1950s and Sandra Hilder in the 1960s, which are told here. The core maxim at the heart of it is: stowaways will be spanked!
There’s an obvious reason for that. Once a ship has sailed, it is a self-contained community which must observe and impose discipline from within itself: unable to call the police or other official representatives of law and order, all the captain can do is hand out a summary penalty across his knee. That seems to be the fate in store for magazine writer Colleen O’Hara in a 1961 story in the Martha Wayne newspaper strip.
She and Martha find themselves stranded on a private island with its own small but reasonably hospitable community, and one real dish in the form of the local handyman, Dirk. Colleen becomes besotted, and asks him to take her out fishing in his boat, with an obvious ulterior motive of the romantic variety. Nothing doing: he’s taking the boat to fetch supplies instead. So she stows away, with predictable consequences when she is discovered:
It’s a ‘You’ll have to catch me first’ scenario, which might seem to be not much of a problem on a boat at sea, except that there is still one obvious escape route which puts her in peril of something worse than a spanking:
And her bottom is saved at the cost of a minor injury to her leg from scraping against the shark’s rough hide.
Stowaways tend to be portrayed as basically naughty, but there might also be a reason to deal sternly with a girl who’s on a ship legitimately. Meet Frisco, who appears in an early wartime comic book story of 1942.
She’s not naughty, but nefarious: an enemy agent who ‘carelessly’ dumps some paint over the side of an American munitions freighter, enabling a U-boat to locate them.
What can our hero, adventurer Jim Ellis, do with her? For the time being, the only thing he can:
(In this particular strip, the action panels are often drawn in silhouette.)
If Frisco’s misdeed seems rather extreme to be dealt with by a mere spanking, how about careless driving of a naval boat and unauthorized firing of a torpedo? That’s closer to the mark, so long as it’s handled light-heartedly, and so long as the causer of the damage is Babette Bergerac (Susan Silo), the guest mayhem in ‘Babette Go Home’, a 1964 episode of the service sitcom McHale’s Navy.
The outcome is pleasing, even though a carefully placed commercial break means we don’t get to see it in full.
But although the scenario remains naval, we’re shading slightly away from the main topic: Babette is spanked when she returns to dry land, and by the man with the most unassailable authority to do so, her father (Jesse Jacobs).
We can develop the point by taking some more examples. In an episode of the Spanish-language strip Los Agentes Secretos (The Secret Agents), a pretty reporter gets into trouble by ignoring a warning from her colleague, and, once the villains have been blown up in their boat as they pursue the heroes, she exults at the stupendous story she’ll file. But before they get to shore, the story is finished off appropriately:
It’s a shipboard spanking, but only because that’s where they happen to be at the time.
Or take Sea Devils (1937), whose cast includes, uncredited, Barbara Pepper,
playing the very minor role of ‘Spanked Blonde’. That would also be an accurate description of her role in The Sagebrush Troubadour two years earlier, but in this case ‘Spanked Blonde’ is actually how the part is listed on IMDB!
Early in the film, Miss S. Blonde features in a passing incident in a bar whose proprietress Sadie (Helen Flint) refuses to serve her, believing her to be underage: ‘a little gal like you needs a good paddling’. And indeed it later emerges that she is only 17, and she is told to come back when she’s 21, which in fact Barbara Pepper herself was when the film was made. Sadie’s friend Coastguard CPO ‘Medals’ Malone (Victor McLaglen) does the honors, throwing her out with the warning, ‘If you come back again, I’m going to give you a paddling myself – personally, see?’
Immediately outside the bar, she falls into the arms of sailor Mike O’Shay (Preston Foster), who appropriates her from her previous date and takes her straight back in. Malone sees them getting settled, and there is the following exchange:
MALONE: What do you do when you make a promise, Sadie?
SADIE: Keep it, but you never do.
MALONE: This is one time I’m going to keep it.
And with that he strides over to Miss Blonde, leads her behind the bar and fulfils her destiny by making her Spanked:
The point of the incident is to sow conflict between Malone and the philandering Mike, who further earns the CPO’s disapproval by becoming romantically involved with his daughter – which becomes one of the main strands of the plot.
Next up is Sally Eilers:
She plays the female lead in Sailor’s Luck (1933),
about her developing romance with seaman Jimmy Harrigan (James Dunn). The Philadelphia Inquirer opined:
The ‘big scene’ of the film seems to be neither the swimming pool nor dance marathon riot, but the reasonably quiet bedroom sequence in which the suddenly timorous Sally successfully fights off seduction by the increasingly plump Mr Dunn and gets herself soundly spanked.
It happens midway through the film after Jimmy finds her on the street with nowhere to stay, and rents her a room at the Minnehaha boarding house. Once they are in it, she keeps her distance and, in particular, pointedly tries to avoid going near the bed.
His advances decisively repulsed, Jimmy gives her a good talking-to: ‘You should be sorry! Didn’t you know what could’ve happened to you? Well, this is going to happen to you.’
And with that he walks out, advising her to lock her door, and leaves her not only rubbing her rear but smiling at his impetuous, chivalrously romantic gesture.
These can’t really be classified as nautical spankings in any strict or narrow sense. They might be better described as hybrids, with some elements present but others not.
But even so, when the Hungarian actress Vilma Hertha Holenia found herself face down over the knee of the ship’s captain towards the end of an Atlantic crossing, it still didn’t qualify as properly nautical. The incident became a cause célèbre in 1936, and later inspired a minor element in Kiss Me Kate, as recounted here. Vilma had trifled with the seaman’s affections and she was duly spanked for it, but she would likely also have been spanked if she had done it on dry land to another man with a different profession. It was a regular situation in romantic relations between the sexes, successful and otherwise, which on this occasion just happened to involve a seafarer on shipboard.
In the end, a sailor is first and foremost a man, who will act and react like other men.
There’s plenty of evidence in vintage candid photography that sailors did playfully spank their wives and sweethearts,
but that was because the ladies were wives and sweethearts – not because the men were sailors!
Note: Miss Jackie of the Navy survives in at least one archive (in Lund, Sweden), so it’s not impossible that we might get to see it one day. But there is a significant obstacle, over and above the spanking scene, to its getting an unprejudiced, outrage-free reception today, even as a piece of historical product reflecting cultural attitudes very different from our own, and that is the naive treatment of the islanders.