Spanked Fanny

Move over Patricia Morison and Lucille Ball! Here’s another lady who might have some claim to be considered the most spanked performer of the 20th century.

She’s the vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice (1891-1951), and she was in her early 40s when she put herself in the way of getting a regular spanking in the name of American humor. Arguably she was also a whole lot younger.

Baby Snooks began as a party piece Fanny performed privately for her friends, a spoof of the 1920s juvenile performer Baby Peggy (Peggy-Jean Montgomery, 1918-2020). She was encouraged to develop the character, and Snooks made her radio debut in 1933 in the Chase and Sanborn Hour.

At the time, the terms of her radio contract stipulated that she couldn’t appear onstage, but once it expired, she went into the 1934 edition of the touring Ziegfeld Follies revue, and took Snooks with her; Victor Morley, a long way down the bill, costarred in the important role of Snooks’ Daddy.

There was a further Snooks sketch in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies, which included an encounter with Bob Hope, and the character also returned to radio by accident that February, when Fanny broke her dentures. She was due to appear on that evening’s Ziegfeld Follies of the Air but, without her teeth, could only speak with a lisp. The only character in her repertoire who would fit was Baby Snooks.

From there, Snooks became a palpable hit. In 1937, she moved to Good News, another radio show sponsored by MGM and Maxwell House coffee. She featured in at least one sketch every week, with Daddy played by Hanley Stafford, the actor most associated with the part in the long term.

In 1945 she got her own half-hour show, which ran until 1951, with an 18-month break in 1948-49 because of a salary dispute. The final episode went out on May 22, 1951; there would have been more, but Fanny suffered a brain haemorrhage two days later and died May 29.

And the relevance of all this is, of course, that many of the sketches during those nearly two decades of her existence involved Snooks getting spanked.

One listener in 1950 wrote:

‘It hurts my rear end when Baby Snooks gets a spanking, and she gets one every single week.’

That’s not strictly true, but on the other hand it was also not strictly true that, as Variety said in its Fanny Brice retrospective,

‘Daddy was harried and desperate and occasionally was driven to spanking his impish daughter.’

In other words, it happened less than every episode, but a lot more often than ‘occasionally’.

The Fanny Brice archive at UCLA includes a selection of radio scripts from the period 1937-45, at least 25 of which feature spanking scenes, and in 1942 it was reported that Snooks had been spanked more than 368 times in the past year alone; the estimate went up to 500 in 1950.

Obviously that must refer to the fictional life of Snooks, with at least one spanking every day, and not to actual scenes in a weekly radio show, even with episodes like ‘Report Card Blues’ (broadcast on May 5, 1951), in which Snooks is spanked twice; with those figures, the show would hardly have time for anything else!

So how does that affect Fanny Brice’s claim to a place in the ‘Most Spanked Performer’ stakes? It’s worth remembering that radio spankings aren’t necessarily all that they seem. Here’s Fanny performing a spanking scene with Hanley Stafford in a 1941 edition.

(That, incidentally, gives the lie to claims that she always performed at the microphone in full Snooks costume.)

But even so, she still received many a spanking in her Snooks stage appearances, not to mention in a ‘Snooks meets a burglar’ sketch that was ultimately dropped from the 1946 film version of Ziegfeld Follies.

Spanking was, in fact, one of the fundamental elements of the act: even when it’s not actually done, it is constantly being threatened and talked about. There are many spanking jokes, some of which have since become old chestnuts, though it’s impossible to say whether they originated with Snooks. For example, in the Halloween 1946 episode, Daddy is trying to get some sleep and Snooks is agitating to be allowed out to commit the traditional seasonal mayhem.

DADDY: Snooks, if I hear one more peep out of you, I’m going to take my belt off. And you know what’ll happen then.
SNOOKS: Your pants’ll fall down.
DADDY: No, I’ll give you a tanning, that’s what!

Or, in the broadcast of April 27, 1939, after Snooks gets bad grades, her father hires a (posh, female) private teacher, who eventually loses patience and puts Snooks over her knee:

TEACHER: There! That’ll impress it on your mind.
SNOOKS: That ain’t where my mind is!

For a slightly more elaborate example of the humor, take a episode towards the end of the series, scripted by Jess Oppenheimer, in which Snooks is annoyed with Daddy for spanking her, even though he tells her that he did it because he loves her. ‘You spanked me, and I’m sore at you,’ she complains. ‘Look, Snooks,’ persists Daddy, ‘I spanked you, in the first place, for your own good. And in the second place, you’re not “sore”. You’re angry. Do you understand?’

SNOOKS: Yeah, I’m angry in the second place.
DADDY: Right. Now come over here and sit down.
SNOOKS: No.
DADDY: Why not?
SNOOKS: ’Cause I’m sore in the first place!

But perhaps the best illustration of the centrality of spanking was a photo opportunity from 1945, when Fanny Brice returned home to New York City, accompanied by Hanley Stafford, after eight years away. She wasn’t in her Snooks costume, but she was more than happy to assume a customary Snooks position for the press:

And that may help to account for the declining popularity of Snooks with later generations, over and above the fact that she was specifically a vehicle for Fanny Brice’s performance. After Fanny’s death, Jess Oppenheimer consciously took Snooks as an influence in shaping the central character of a new sitcom that was already in development and began airing the following October: I Love Lucy. In effect, Lucy Ricardo was, to some extent, a grown-up equivalent to Snooks, including even a spanking from time to time:

Oppenheimer cowrote all four of the spanking episodes (not to mention a further 146 without spanking scenes). As the show was drawing to an end in 1957, his next project was a television revival of Baby Snooks, which got as far as a pilot with Martha Raye in the lead, but wasn’t picked up despite the perfect casting. Another television series was floated in 1968, as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand, who had just played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, including a very brief appearance as Snooks:

But that too came to nothing, and Streisand survived unspanked.

Baby Snooks has fared just a little better in the present century, in part thanks to the fashion for live stage recreations of old-time radio broadcasts, an example of which can be seen here. What’s more, a fullscale modern production of some of the radio scripts was staged at the Hip Pocket Theatre in Fort Worth in 2019, starring Shelby Griffin as Snooks and Paul Logsdon as Daddy.

What’s not known is whether any of the abundant spanking material in the Snooks corpus made it into the show, in word or deed, or whether, on the other hand, it followed the example of the I Love Lucy stage show and avoided the subject altogether. Certainly there was no spanking publicity imagery, a decision which reflects not only the welcome change in child-rearing practices since 1951, but also the perhaps less universally beneficial change in overall attitudes to, and tolerance of, spanking in the creative arts. We are now more attuned to the sexual dimension of spanking, and much more sensitive to child abuse, than the average American was in Fanny Brice’s lifetime, and that means that this key element of her Snooks act has become uncomfortable in a way that’s very different from the sympathetic tingle that some early listeners felt in their own bottoms whenever Snooks was spanked on the air.

Most modern writers who attempt to describe the act with any degree of thoughtfulness take it as their starting-point that Snooks is a child, and try to explain the joke as a child looking at the adult world without the filter of maturity, or the hypocrisy. Actually it’s more complex than that. We’ll get closer to the essence of it if we home in on a fundamental inconsistency. The character is called Baby Snooks, but she’s not a baby. She goes to school, where she is said to be in 4th grade, so around the age of 10. She is sent to run errands on her own, and is (unwisely) entrusted with money. And she’s articulate and inquisitive about the world.

But the crucial point is that she’s also not really a child, in the same way that the pantomime dame (or Widow Simone in La Fille Mal Gardée) is not really a woman, and the principal boy is far too leggily alluring to be a boy. Likewise, although Snooks is a child in the scenario, the comedy depends on her being performed with the knowingness of an adult as well as the innocence of a child: both together, rather than exclusively one thing or the other. Her catchphrase is ‘Why, Daddy?’, but as one perceptive 1945 write-up commented, ‘Baby Snooks knows why. She always knows.’

For example, one frequent type of joke involves a Snooks line heading inexorably towards the mention of something indelicate, only for Daddy to jump in and cut her off before the word itself is uttered. In the sketch broadcast on October 9, 1941, Snooks is being sent to a special school for problem children, and is worried about their educational methods.

DADDY: They use the right kind of psychology on your rearing.
SNOOKS: Yeah, and they use a cane on your…

But she never gets to say ‘rear end’. And a few weeks later, a Halloween sketch has them out trying to undo all the unkind pranks perpetrated by trick-or-treaters, in the course of which they find a gate removed from its hinges, and try to put it back, with difficulty:

DADDY: Make it snappy, it’s heavy!
SNOOKS: What shall I do with it?
DADDY: Smack it on the bottom!
SNOOKS: Shall I make believe I’m you and the gate is me?
DADDY: Huh?
SNOOKS: You always smack me on the…

But back then you couldn’t directly mention a lady’s bottom on the radio!

The mechanism of these jokes is that Snooks is unaware of the taboo she’s about to breach, but their tone derives from the fact that both performers know it perfectly well, making everyone, performers and audience alike, mischievously complicit in the humor, rather than simply laughing at Snooks for her lack of adult sophistication.

That duality is reflected in the way Snooks was photographed for publicity, such as in this shoot from 1945:

She’s dressed as a child, but there’s no attempt to hide the fact she has the body of an adult woman.

And that posed a challenge when Snooks was represented in other media not directly involving physical performance. When a selection of sketches was released on vinyl in 1949, the cover artwork portrayed her like this:

It’s a version of the character in the style of contemporary cutesy ‘kid comics’ like Little Audrey, which were a mainstream phenomenon that sometimes featured spanking but are firmly outside this site’s frame of reference. I use the illustration here to provide a context for the different approach taken in Toasties Time, a 1945 series of comic strips advertising the breakfast cereal Post Toasties, the current sponsor of the radio show. The stories generally climax with Snooks getting spanked, as in this example from March 11, when an accident at the breakfast table results in Daddy getting the whistle from a cuckoo clock stuck in his throat:

Similarly, when Snooks pretends to sleepwalk in order to steal Daddy’s delicious nocturnal meal of Toasties:

The strips don’t represent Snooks as simply a little girl, but as a scaled-down version of the adult Fanny Brice in kid’s clothing, achieving something like the ambiguity in the sketches and publicity pictures: neither entirely one thing nor the other, but both at the same time.

That becomes especially challenging when we introduce one of the key differences in how the media represented the spanking of little girls and, on the other hand, adult women. We’ll approach it through one of the most risqué of all the jokes in the radio series, broadcast on George Washington’s birthday (February 22) in 1940.

Snooks is sent to buy an evening paper for Daddy, but spends the money on ice cream, and then makes up successively more elaborate and unlikely explanations: Washington couldn’t tell a lie, but the same clearly doesn’t apply to Snooks.

DADDY: You can drop your subterfuges.
SNOOKS: Can’t you spank me with them on?

The joke is, of course, that subterfuges is being misunderstood as a synonym for panties. This introduces the idea that Snooks might get a panties-down, bare-bottom spanking, without any serious risk that it might actually happen; but for our purposes it’s more important in establishing how she ordinarily gets spanked, with her panties up but, it is implied, on show.

That was commonplace in kid comics, but very rare when the recipient was an adult woman, even though it happened often enough in life. I’ve argued elsewhere that this was one of the fundamental disconnects between actual social behavior and what was represented in the media, because once a young woman reached sexual maturity, exposing her panties during a spanking was indelicate in a way that didn’t apply to little girls who were presumed to be too young to be erotically interesting. So it’s an either/or issue that might potentially complicate the both/and way that Snooks is typically portrayed. Or does it?

In the January 14, 1945, episode of the Toasties Time strip, Snooks fakes a piece of fan mail from ‘A Friend who eats Post Toasties’, which advises Daddy that he is ‘too mene to Snooks. You oughta trete her nice and give her more allowence.’ This unorthodox approach to spelling indicates to Daddy that something’s amiss:

You can do that with a mini-Brice, but surely not with full-size Fanny!

Think again!

There’s a very large, albeit incomplete, collection of Snooks shows available to be browsed through here.

3 thoughts on “Spanked Fanny

  1. Dean says:

    Wasn’t sure where to post this. I wanted to mention some of the best spanking threats, comments in the movie before and after the scene. One of the best I think with more talk etc was in Public Deb #1 (1940) The scene itself is about 24 mins in. He makes a threat right before. Then right after a newspaper article is headline with a pic. Then the next scene the spanker is jail with another guy. He gets flowers and letters congratulating him. The guy in with him reads one. Then he tells him he is in for the same reason but he’s not getting any publicity because he spanked his wife not famous. Then next scene she is sparring with a man and makes a comment. Next scene she’s talking with an older lady; she has the paper with story mentioning it’s bad publicity for her dad’s company. Then at 31 mins in several good comments for about 2 mins she goes down to get him out of jail and drop charges. Then a radio announcer makes a comment about other girlfriends about 37:45 in. Then at 1 hr 6 mins in on a dance floor. I would like to know of more talk threats etc Dean

    Like

    • Harry says:

      Yes, there is a subject here that is slowly coalescing in my mind; I expect it will turn into an article that will run next year. There’s a lot of potential material for inclusion and I’m not sure (or wasn’t!) that Public Deb is a front runner, but it will all depend on how the piece ultimately comes together. The film is well known in our circles, though its politics are very much a period piece; if anyone hasn’t encountered it before, there’s a (poor quality) video here.

      Like

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