The Family Ford

Mary Lewis (1897-1941) eventually became a leading soprano at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but she got there by way of vaudeville, and she got into vaudeville after running away from home in Little Rock, Arkansas.

To escape her strict Christian foster-family, she joined the touring show Reckless Eve in 1919, but found herself stranded in San Francisco when the company ran out of money. Finding her way east, she got into the Ziegfeld Follies revue and appeared in three successive editions, from 1921 to 1923. The Met signed her in 1925, and she debuted there early the following year.

What launched her on this upward career trajectory was spanking: at home, she was spanked for playing jazz music and spanked for dancing, and the reason she eventually left was that, quite simply, she was utterly fed up with being spanked. In 1925, on the brink of her operatic emergence, a press profile described her early life, and reported an intriguing remark of hers:

‘She maintains that no girl in any of the shows she appeared in from Reckless Eve to Ziegfeld’s Follies ever had quite so many spankings as she received at the hands of her foster mother.’

The implication is clear: vaudeville shows like that typically featured rather a lot of spanking. Much of it is sadly lost to history, but we do know about a handful of relevant revue sketches, such as The Girl from Albany in 1909 and The Honeymooners in 1915. Before that, from at least 1901 until at least 1908, Al Leech (c. 1869-1912) toured in Joseph Hart’s sketch Examination Day at School (also known as Girls Will Be Girls), in which he played the teacher and the schoolgirls were a group of ‘petite adorable blondes’ known as the Three Rosebuds,

one of whom had an uncomfortable encounter with his new labor-saving invention, a hand-cranked spanking machine which saw to it that she spent the rest of the lesson standing up. Later, in the 1930s and ’40s Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks was often spanked on the vaudeville stage, as well as on radio. Later still, the Ziegfeld Follies show outlived its originator, Florenz Ziegfeld, by more than a quarter of a century, and the 1959 edition featured dancer Helen Wood,

whose bits included this scene with comedian Bert Wheeler:

One of the most successful of all vaudeville sketches, and one that includes a spanking, was The Family Ford, written by W. C. Fields, which was first performed in the 1920 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.

It almost wasn’t. When Fields first showed him the sketch, Florenz Ziegfeld hated it: he wanted his show to be escapist, whereas Fields was out to satirize the rigors and tensions of real family life. Fields was sent away to revise it and put in more girls – because Ziegfeld believed the appeal of vaudeville was founded on scantily-clad showgirls.

When Fields returned with a longer, fuller script running to 18 minutes, the impresario still wasn’t keen, but he agreed to give it a tryout: if the audience liked it, the sketch could stay in the show; if not, out it would go. It opened on June 22, and the audience didn’t just like it: they loved it. The Family Ford was adjudged the most successful comic element in the whole revue. It went on to have 123 performances in its first run, which ended October 16.

The sketch starred Fields as Mr Fliverton, who takes his family out for a Sunday afternoon joyride in their Ford automobile, complete with a picnic in the country.

Among the other family members were Fanny Brice as the nagging Mrs Fliverton and the Scottish dancer Ray Dooley as their boisterous daughter, Rose. Here she is in a couple of later shows (with Fields himself in the right-hand picture):

The car is driven onto the stage, but it causes problems for the hapless Flivertons. First it stalls, and they have trouble starting it. When they eventually succeed, Rose vigorously bounces up and down in the back seat and parts of the vehicle’s inner workings spill out onto the stage.

Finally the car falls to pieces completely in a wheatfield. (It was, of course, a special prop designed to progressively disintegrate though the sketch.) And Rose gets soundly spanked by both her parents.

A review of a later performance, at Scranton, Pennsylvania, in June 1924, describes the moment:

‘The spanking is done at the expense of a loud and giddy girl of substantial proportions and it is done by both father and mother in a way which is heard all through the house.’

The fact that there were any later performances at all has more to do with Fields’ faith in his own material than with Ziegfeld’s ability to recognize a winner when he saw one. Fields already had plans to set up in business as an impresario in his own right: even before the sketch opened in the Follies, he had formed his own production company (the W. C. Fields Producing Corporation, established on March 18, 1920, with $225,000 capital stock), and once the 1920 Ziegfeld Follies had run its course, he took back The Family Ford and produced it himself, in a version adapted for touring by his lover, showgirl Bessie Poole.

Accurately or not, the sketch was said to be ‘an exact reproduction’ of the Ziegfeld original when it opened in September 1921 at the Temple Theater, New York, with Jim Harkins as Fliverton. As the tour went on and on, successive leads included Harry Watson Jr (1922), Frank Lynch (1923), James Grady (1923) and John Ryan (1924-25). Ryan’s cast also included Gertrude Michaels as Mrs Fliverton and, as the daughter whose resounding spanking echoed around the Scranton theater, Denise Dooley:

(So far as I can discover, she was no relation to Ray Dooley.)

The run finally ended in 1925, but The Family Ford was too popular to stay away long, and it was revived in 1927 for another long run, with Jim Harkins back as Fliverton alongside Marion Harkins, who was his wife in real life as well as onstage, and Margie Grey and Mary Sullivan as successive Roses. We don’t know which of them was playing the part when the show went back to Scranton in October 1928, but she obviously made a big impact as well as receiving one:

‘The girl who is spanked in this act puts over a very good stunt and is provocative of a great deal of the merriment.’

Then things went badly wrong. In May 1929, Harkins and his wife turned The Family Ford into a 9-minute short film for Vitaphone (part of Warner Brothers), with either Marie Dolan or Hope Eden as Rose. (Both are in the cast list, neither is credited with a specific role and both are too obscure to identify.) What Harkins neglected to do was secure the permission of the author and owner of the material, W. C. Fields himself. The infuriated Fields sued Vitaphone, and the release was delayed until July 1930 while a settlement was negotiated.

The upshot was that Fields decided he needed to prevent such a thing ever happening again, by preemptively filming his own sketches. From there on, his attention turned increasingly away from the vaudeville stage and towards Hollywood. The rest is entertainment history. And, in a very small way, it is spanking history too…

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