The Rebel Son

I’ve written before about how some films are planned, made and sometimes even publicized with a spanking scene, but end up being released, or surviving, in prints that simply don’t include that spanking scene. This occasional series will present further detective work on individual films that, for various reasons, didn’t live up to their promises. It begins with the 1930s British film The Rebel Son, about a rising of the Cossack hordes against their Polish overlords who have forbidden them vodka.

Let’s begin with the evidence. Here’s the actress Joan Gardner.

Here she is in Cossack costume for the film, in which she plays Galka:

And here’s a scene that’s nowhere to be found in the available print:

The film is an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 19th-century novel Taras Bulba, about a Cossack chieftain and his two contrasting sons. All three of them are in the picture: the rebel son Andrew (Anthony Bushell) on the left, the non-rebel son Peter (Roger Livesey) on the right, and, in the middle spanking Peter’s sweetheart Galka, Taras Bulba himself (Harry Baur). Galka is the only one who has no equivalent in the Gogol story: she’s a character who was invented for the film.

Well, almost. This is a film with a complicated history that is imperfectly understood by the few people in modern times who have written about it, or otherwise attempted to document it. It is closely related to the French film Taras Bulba, which presents the same story, stars the same actor in the part of Taras Bulba, and also includes the character of Galka, played by Janine Crispin.

Watching the two films side by side is a revealing exercise. It is sometimes said that the British film appropriates spectacular scenes from the French one, using it effectively as stock footage. And it’s true that many sequences are identical, while many others, generally those including dialogue or close-ups of characters played by different actors, are still very similar in both films. In particular, the sets and many of the costumes are the same.

So it seems that we are looking not at a British film that plagiarizes a French one, but rather French- and English-language versions of the same film. That conclusion is complicated by the fact that the French film was released on March 13, 1936, but the British one not until July 10, 1939 (though the print bears a copyright date of 1938). But even so, the similar but not identical visuals are the giveaway: perhaps the costumes might be stowed safely away in the studio wardrobe, to be brought out again for a remake several years later, but after such an interval it would be virtually impossible to reproduce every detail of the sets and their dressing, even if it were considered worth trying. No, Taras Bulba and The Rebel Son must have been made back to back for different vernacular markets as was often done in the European film industry at the time. (See here and here for other examples we have previously come across.)

The clincher is an item in the October 31, 1935, edition of the British trade journal Kinematograph Weekly, which promoted the impending release of a film to be entitled Life of a Cossack. The piece was illustrated with a photograph of a scene from the film. Yes, this scene:

So Taras Bulba and The Rebel Son were both made some time in the first ten months of 1935, even though only one of them was released soon afterwards. And the spanking scene was chosen as the very first part of the English-speaking version that would be seen by British exhibitors.

So what happened to it?

Several other things emerge when you watch the two versions together. One is that the French film is, or appears to be, significantly longer: it runs to 86 minutes, whereas the available print of The Rebel Son is over before it gets to 74 minutes. (The video to be seen on YouTube is slightly shorter still.) There are a number of scenes, mainly towards the end of the film, that are included in Taras Bulba (also available on YouTube) but don’t appear in The Rebel Son. However, none of them involves Galka getting spanked.

One reason for that may be that her characterization is rather different in the French version. You can see the contrast in the side-by-side pictures shown above, one with a slight frown, the other a broad smile: as played by Janine Crispin, Galka is lively and flirtatious in her first scene with Peter, whereas Joan Gardner’s version is sullenly stand-offish. Both are on the receiving end of physical assertiveness from their men, but they respond differently: when Janine gets her face slapped, she slaps him back and then laughs joyously, whereas Roger Livesey’s Peter takes Joan by the wrist and forces her to her knees, to which she reacts by saying, resentfully, ‘You’re a real Cossack if you’ll beat your wife every day.’ There’s no such line in the French scene, but it’s possible that the English one may be laying down a marker for later.

Galka is, in fact, a slightly problematic character. The reason for including her at all was presumably to show that the contrast between Peter and his brother, which is the mainspring of the story, has nothing to do with their respective interest in women: Andrew may prefer love and learning to war and illiteracy, but so long as Peter has a girlfriend too, nobody can draw inferences about his sexuality that might have been unwelcome to a mainstream audience in the 1930s. The question is what to do with her once this has been established; and it’s an issue neither version manages to resolve satisfactorily.

She accompanies Peter to the Cossack army camp, assuring him in the English version that she will be able to manage his father’s possible disapproval. In the French version, she evidently does: there’s a scene, absent from the English version, where she arrives at the camp and Taras Bulba is warmly and sincerely pleased to see her. But thereafter, she more or less disappears from the film, except to react silently to a couple of major deaths towards the end. She’s in a few more scenes in the English version, but there’s still nothing for her to do, unless of course there was a bit where she was proven wrong about her ability to twist Taras Bulba around her little finger.

(And yes, that is the set for Taras Bulba’s tent at the Cossack camp, so it’s the right section of the film.)

There are two things I’m trying to establish here. One is that the French and English versions do have some significant differences of tone and emphasis, including in the way Galka is portrayed. The other is that the English version has been cut. And that’s incontrovertible, because its ‘official’ running time is 88 minutes, slightly longer than the French version, and 14 minutes longer than what we are able to see today.

There is some evidence that the film was once in circulation at different lengths. The print playing on US television in the 1960s filled a 90-minute slot, which means, allowing for commercials, it would have been the shorter time; but on the other hand, a late-night television showing in Iowa in 1980 filled 105 minutes, which must have been the full-length version. It’s possible that the original was abridged when the film was reissued in 1945 (as also happened to the 1950s reissue of The Rains Came, which removed 9 minutes, possibly including a spanking scene); it’s almost certainly when the title was garbled into The Rebel’s Son, as appears on the print. That might mean the film was shown in 1939 with the spanking intact, though if so, nobody seems to have noticed or commented on it. But there are two other possible explanations.

One is the unkindest cut: censorship. Since 1912, films shown in Britain had been subject to scrutiny by the British Board of Film Censors, and in the mid-1930s there are several documented cases of spanking scenes falling foul of the Board’s scissors. One was Mayfair Girl (1933), starring American actress Sally Blane as socialite Brenda Mason.

She starts out as a nightclub hedonist and is then framed for a murder committed while she was drunk and incapable. A scene was shot in which she was spanked by her lawyer, Robert Blair (John Stuart), who is in love with her; but the examiner of films, Colonel J. C. Hanna, was on the lookout for an ‘objectionable sex angle’ to condemn, and the spanking was the closest he could manage, which meant no spanking scene in the final release print. The same fate befell White Ensign (1934), with Molly Lamont joining the ranks of actresses who were spanked for nothing.

So could it also have happened to The Rebel Son, either in 1935 or 1938/9? One reason to think maybe not is that many other films were passed for showing in Britain at this time with their spanking scenes present and correct: British reviews of When Strangers Marry (1933), Forsaking All Others (1934) and Bunker Bean (1936), among quite a few others, all make appreciative mention of the spankings. It is noticeable that these are all American films, whereas the films known to have been censored were British productions; but in 1936, with Colonel Hanna still in charge at the BBFC, onscreen OTK spankings were allowed in the British-made You Must Get Married and Everything in Life. (A poor quality, wrongly dated video of the latter may be viewable here.) So the grounds for supposing there was censorship of The Rebel Son are slender at best.

The case for the other plausible possibility isn’t much stronger. It has to do with changes in personal circumstances in connection with Alexander Korda’s London Films, the studio that eventually released The Rebel Son. Midway between production and release, in 1937, Korda’s brother and partner Zoltan married Joan Gardner, and she retired from acting the following year.

I am reminded of something I once heard about the Czech actress Vera Ralston, who made almost all her films for Republic Pictures in the US.

The story goes that she was never cast in a spanking scene because she was the girlfriend, and later the wife, of the studio boss, Herbert J. Yates. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but is it remotely possible that the Korda brothers gave Joan Gardner the same consideration, and removed her spanking from The Rebel Son before it was released?

Who knows? But if they did, they also did her the disservice of seriously downgrading her character!

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