Dumb-Bells in Ermine (1930) is generally understood to be a lost film (even though you can find some possibly unscrupulous outfits on the internet offering to sell it to you on DVD), but it was turned into a novelette by the British fan magazine Screen Stories, which enables us to get the gist of it – even though some of the minor details were apparently changed.
The central character is Faith Corey, played by Barbara Kent.
Her mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) runs the local Uplift Society, dedicated to the preservation of the town’s morals. Which town? It’s in Virginia in the movie, but in the magazine version it’s Claremont, a little south of Chicago and so in Illinois (or perhaps Indiana). Maybe that doesn’t much matter, though the move to the mid-west arguably enhances the emphasis on small-town small-mindedness, which is a strong part of the story’s dynamic.
Mrs Corey wants her daughter to marry Siegfried Strong (Arthur Hoyt), a leading light of the Uplift Society, whose future is to be a life of missionary work in the Congo. He has just been instrumental in closing down a speakeasy, despite a marked reluctance for the establishment’s flirtatious young women to be run out of town without first getting some moral instruction from the Uplift Society (and, in particular, from him).
Faith develops other romantic plans after meeting Jerry Malone (Robert Armstrong), who saved her dog from drowning. The major drawback is that he’s a boxer, which is sure to win her mother’s complete moral disapprobation – though her grandmother (Beryl Mercer), the widow of an old-time bare-knuckle prizefighter, is of another mind.
Unfortunately for Jerry, Faith is soon converted to her mother’s way of seeing things, after Siegfried reveals that he was one of the speakeasy customers arrested in the recent raid. Jerry protests that he never touched a drop of alcohol (he’s in training for a bout), but Faith is now dead set on marrying Siegfried; and she will be dissuaded by nothing her grandmother tells her about Africa: heat, snakes, malaria, cannibals…
Meanwhile, Jerry is mooning over Faith, and his trainer Mike (James Gleason) proffers some advice to the lovelorn: what’s required is ‘a bit of caveman stuff’.
‘Don’t take “no” for an answer, and just stick out your jaw. Girls like a strong jaw. And you can go even further; put her across yer knee and wallop her. Treat ’em rough and tell ’em nothing – that’s my motto.’
Jerry confronts Faith in the garden, with Mike watching from hiding, which is behind a rose bush in the magazine but may have been behind a gate on screen.
What Jerry has to say to her is:
‘I’ve been having a quiet think, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more certain I’ve become of one thing – that you’re my girl. We were made for each other, and a psalm-smiting sham shan’t stand between us. You’re goingta marry me, and I don’t care what your mother says. You love me and I love you. When I left the house the other day I thought I could forget you; but I can’t! You don’t love this other guy. You wouldn’t be human. And let me say here and now that all that bunk about that speakeasy was grossly exaggerated. What have you got to say about it?’
What Faith has to say to him is a rebuke for his impertinence, followed by a ‘How dare you?’
A forcible kiss provokes ‘You beast, you brute! I hate you!’ And then Mike pops his head out of the bush (or, perhaps, around the gate) to tell Jerry to move onto ‘the rough stuff’.
JERRY: You’ve got a lot of this high-falutin’ nonsense in your pretty head! It wants knocking out of you, so that you change back into the same girl you were a few days ago. You’ve got the idea that destiny has decided you shall be a missionary’s wife. Believe me, honey, you would be a dead failure. You’d probably strangle old Siggy and turn the natives into head-hunters and cannibals.
FAITH (coldly): And how do you propose to change my ideas? Would you like to knock me about?
JERRY: I’d like to spank you!
FAITH: You wouldn’t dare!
JERRY: Wouldn’t I? Just watch me.
And the magazine version continues:
Whereupon he whisked Faith up in his strong arms and laid her across his knee. Mike kept on hissing, “Harder, you fool!” But Jerry did nothing more than administer a slight tap. Still, it was a most humiliating position for a modern young woman, and Faith, when she struggled to her feet, was almost bereft of speech.
She walks off into the house, where her mother and Siegfried are hosting the speakeasy girls for that moral education session.
What actually happens is that one girl, Camilla (Charlotte Merriam), reveals that Siegfried is a deep-dyed hypocrite: he lied that the place was an illegal liquor establishment in order to raise his Uplift credentials with a notable victory over vice, and what’s more, she was only employed there because of a sexual misdemeanor in which he was the other participant (and she has letters and photographs to prove it).
Now that it has been established that Faith’s mother has been pressing for her to marry a scoundrel, the way is clear for Jerry.
JERRY: Faith, let’s call it quits. Siegfried put a film over your eyes and you were a bit rough on me. I was a bit rough on you and that’s where I was wrong. Quits, little girl – shake on it
FAITH: I’m sorry, Jerry. I deserved a spanking.
JERRY: Good for you!
And it would have been good for us, too… if only the film survived, or if there were any known photographs of the spanking scene!
Let’s console ourselves with another look at Barbara Kent, from a different angle, and in an outfit that certainly wouldn’t meet the Uplift Society’s standards of decency.
And then let’s pass on to the optimistic thought that we may still get to see the spanking scene one day, in one form or another. To begin with, take a close look at the bottom right-hand corner of the ‘moral education’ photograph, and you’ll see the notation ‘DE 59′: an abbreviation of the title and the serial number of the picture. Very few photographs from this 70-minute film are available, none of them showing the spanking, but evidently at least 59 were taken. Some would have been portrait shots of the stars, but it’s reasonable to think that the studio, Warner Brothers, would have wanted coverage of the major scenes and incidents. And the spanking was certainly reckoned to be among them. As one early reviewer pointed out:
‘The best scene … is when the hero takes the heroine over his knees and gives her a good spanking.’
What’s more, spanking was already a recognized publicity gimmick, and in the years 1929-31 Warner’s released spanking imagery for five of their movies, to wit, No Defense (1929),
In the Next Room (1930),
Spring is Here (1930),
The Naughty Flirt (1931)
and God’s Gift to Women (1931):
The point about the recognized usefulness of spanking pictures in publicity is reinforced by the fact that only two of those five (No Defense and The Naughty Flirt) actually featured a spanking scene in the final release print. So even though they apparently decided not to go down that route in selling Dumb-Bells in Ermine, it remains very likely that a photo of the scene was one of the 59+ taken, and it could still be in existence somewhere in the studio archives.
But it’s still a lost film, right? But does that mean one whose every print has irretrievably disintegrated, or just one that’s proving uncommonly difficult to locate?
For a glimmer of hope, let’s register that the movie has a single modern review on IMDB, dating from 2003. But it’s a glimmer that may be just a will-o’-the-wisp. The reviewer’s main motivation was evidently an intense antipathy to the actress who played the grandmother, Beryl Mercer. There are some very broad evaluative comments about various actors’ performances, but almost everything said could have been tricked up from general knowledge of their other work, along with a plot summary like the one in Screen Stories. The only specific thing to suggest that the author might actually have seen the film is a remark about the ‘excruciating’ sound of Mercer’s ‘whining voice’ – but even that is something he has evidently heard and hated in other performances of hers.
So if you have a print of Dumb-Bells in Ermine, and are not just an internet fraudster advertising bogus wares that don’t actually exist, then please speak up. There are quite a few people around who would like to watch this film!