Hollywood cottoned on quickly to the flapper phenomenon, but was a lot slower on the uptake when it came to newspaper recommendations about what to do with them. The earliest known flapper in a movie was Ginger King (Olive Thomas), a senator’s daughter sent to a strict boarding school who ‘flirts her way into a life of sin’ according to the publicity for the 1920 film entitled simply The Flapper.
But the first flapper to be spanked in the movies, so far as we know, was the nameless one played by Judy King in Harold Lloyd’s comedy Girl Shy, which wasn’t released until April 1924, a good two years after the American fourth estate had decided that the best way to deal with flappers was…
And Girl Shy isn’t even a ‘flapper movie’ in the strictest sense. Lloyd plays the central character, Harold Meadows, who is shy with the ladies in real life but is writing a book purporting to tell The Secret of Making Love. The foreword declares:
‘It is very easy to win the heart of any woman, provided you know the correct method to use. I have therefore written this story of my love affairs – that you may learn about women from me.’
By way of illustration, the film stages two self-contained vignettes from the book representing Love Affairs nos. 15 and 16, showing the different courtship techniques supposed to be effective with two particular feminine types. First, Harold takes on the ‘vampire’, or vamp as we would now say: method – indifference. Then it’s the turn of the flapper, who gets rough treatment culminating in…
… and the instant result is her complete and unconditional adoration.
It’s all total fantasy, of course, and one of the European posters wryly underlines that the spanking is entirely in Harold’s mind’s eye:
For the premise of the film is that bashful Harold is not a successful lover at all, and the story is about how he eventually finds the courage to woo his first ever girl, wealthy Mary Buckingham (Jobyna Ralston) – which does eventually entail carrying her off from her wedding to another man…
… but does not require him to tame her with a spanking.
So this isn’t a film about a flapper in any meaningful sense: the flapper character is incidental, simply a stereotype in an inset sketch that’s only loosely related to the central concerns of the picture. The sketch itself draws on the association, by then well established in the press, between the flapper and the spanking she is deemed to need; but the story has much more to do with recent Hollywood spanking scenarios than it does with the core concerns of the flapper spanking craze.
Prior to Girl Shy, the handful of early 1920s film spankings we know about take place in the context of courtship and marriage: they don’t deal with the generation gap and the taming of headstrong, irresponsible youth, but with how to handle a wife. In The Primitive Lover (1922), a husband wins back the affections of his estranged wife through ‘primitive’ treatment that climaxes with a spanking.
And in Don’t Doubt Your Husband (1924), released the month before Girl Shy, Helen Blake (Viola Dana) does doubt her husband Dick (Allan Forrest) when he invites an attractive lady painter to decorate their home. Ultimately she realizes her jealous mistake and ends the picture by asking him to give her a spanking that reviewers of the time variously characterized as ‘vigorous’ and ‘playful’:
(We can’t see for ourselves, because the film is lost, as is the spanking scene in The Primitive Lover, not to mention all of the other movies I’m going to talk about from here on in…)
So in Hollywood, it was wives rather than flappers who were being spanked, a point that may be underlined by this scene from Painted People (1924):
On the right is the quintessential flapper actress, Colleen Moore. But getting the spanking is her mother, played by Mary Alden.
And Girl Shy, although it features a character who is explicitly identified as a flapper, and who gets spanked, doesn’t really change that pattern, because the spanking is the culmination of the process of courtship; it is almost, in fact, the story of The Primitive Lover in miniature. The true flapper spanking movies made their debut the following year, and the key debutante is Constance Bennett:
That’s her in the role of the city flapper Betty Smith in My Son, based on a successful stage play by Martha M. Stanley and released in April 1925 while the play was still running on Broadway. In the movie, Betty arrives on vacation in a fishing village in New England, where her satin bathing costume causes a sensation. She encounters Tony Silva (Jack Pickford), breaks up his romance with a local girl and induces him to steal jewellery from her own mother (Dot Farley) to fund their elopement to New York. The core of the story is how Tony’s mother (played by Alla Nazimova, the top-billed star of the picture) saves him from seduction and a life of crime: it’s a mother love melodrama in which the flapper is the antagonist rather than the central character.
Betty Smith was much enjoyed by those who saw the movie: ‘Constance Bennett looks unusually attractive in the role of the flapper, and plays this part very lightly and convincingly,’ wrote one reviewer, while another called her ‘hard, slim, pretty, sensuous, with that disturbing hint of decadence with which she so subtly invests all her flapper roles’. One critic even extolled the unparalleled beauty of her rear aspect as displayed in her scandalous swimsuit. No doubt that added something to the appeal of a scene towards the end of the picture, which is succinctly described by another contemporary writer:
‘Constance Bennett meets the worst possible fate for a flapper. Her mother spanks her.’
Because this flapper isn’t at the center of the story’s appeal and doesn’t carry the weight of its emotional complexity, this is pretty straightforward stuff: she’s a bad lot, and she gets what she deserves, from the person best qualified to administer it. It’s a very different matter in the true ‘flapper movie’, where she is the principal character and so has to be sustainably likeable rather than merely attractive like Betty. And to see how that might fit with a spanking scene, we turn to a pair of flapper movies released on the very same day, November 15, 1925.
The more exotic of the two was We Moderns, based on a not notably successful stage play by Israel Zangwill. Set in London, it deals with the tension between the modern-minded flapper Mary Sundale (Colleen Moore) and her old-fashioned parents. She’s a member of the Blue Bohemians, a group of young sophisticates who mock and despise all conservative and conventional attitudes.
The movie is famous for its scene of a jazz party aboard a zeppelin which crashes at the climax, something Zangwill unsurprisingly did not attempt to achieve onstage. And it also features another scene of particular interest to us that isn’t in the original play: as one critic put it, ‘Her father puts her over his knee and smacks her.’
It happens because Mary is pursuing a modernistic writer, Oscar Pleat (Carl Miller), in defiance of disapproval from not only her titled parents but also her salt-of-the-earth boyfriend John Ashler (Jack Mulhall). On the whole, they are in the right, because Pleat is a married man and regards her as just a bit of incidental sexual amusement. Her father, Sir Robert (Claude Gillingwater), threatens to tweak Pleat’s nose, and Mary is confined to her room in an effort to prevent the liaison. She escapes, but gets caught, and the upshot is that she ends up getting some old-fashioned treatment across her father’s knee.
Meanwhile, Don’t! brought the generation gap story to home-town America. Sally O’Neil plays Tracey Moffat, a flapper who jibs at the petty prohibitions placed upon her by her parents, as summed up in the one-word title.
‘She couldn’t follow every rule – so she broke them all! She drove her parents back to good old-fashioned spanking – but she’ll give you the most hilarious time of your life with her mile-a-minute escapades!’
At one point in the movie she goes off for a joyride with a boy in a car, but they have a crash and she has to walk home. And when she gets there, her mother (Ethel Wales) has something for her:
The entire cast gathered round to watch this scene being shot, and, we are told, they ‘obviously enjoyed the spanking much more than did Miss O’Neil’, no doubt because the scene was, said a contemporary, ‘probably the most realistic performance of home life and duty ever screened’.
Realistic it may have been, but reviewers arguably erred when they called the spanking ‘effective’, for its actual effect is to provoke Tracey to an ultimate act of rebellion: she absconds from the parental home.
And that is the fundamental difference between these two flapper movies and My Son. When Betty Smith gets her reportedly gorgeous rear spanked, it is the picture’s last word on her: justice is done. But Mary and Tracey are both spanked in the middle of their respective movies, and they then go on to further comic adventures, which the audience continues to enjoy.
The American press, firmly believing its own stance that flappers should be soundly spanked, tended to take the side of the parents when they reviewed these pictures. Here’s a Utah paper’s take on the relevant scene in We Moderns:
‘Claude Gillingwater is seen as her father and the best thing he did was spank his silly daughter with his shoe in a manner very much in vogue, we understand, in the mid-Victorian period. It was the only sensible thing he did.’
And here’s how Don’t! came across in Indiana:
‘To her, her father and mother were conveniences to enable her to have a good time, but her parents thought differently, and administered an old-fashioned spanking to dismiss all doubts as to their attitude.’
And to a degree, that’s fair comment, because the ultimate end of both stories is that the flapper is converted to a more conservative view of the world: Mary marries her steadfast John Ashler, and once she gets her freedom from rules and restrictions, Tracey realizes that she doesn’t actually want it after all. But even so, they don’t come to this epiphany through being spanked.
Here’s a somewhat less dogmatic press comment about We Moderns:
‘The moralization of the piece is not all directed to youth. Parents also receive a spanking, as they should.’
That’s a metaphor, naturally – it’s only Mary who actually receives a spanking in the movie – but it makes the point that the films are less one-sided about the rights and wrongs of the situation than other reviewers liked to think. That’s because in the end, a flapper movie will only please if it allows us to enjoy the central character’s escapades, rather than asking us merely to be outraged by them. We may also enjoy the imposition of conventional morality, both in the interim descent of hand, shoe, or hairbrush and ultimately in the flapper’s achievement of a more mature attitude to life; but the important thing is that the films don’t play to only one point of view.
Newspaper attitudes were more likely to fall on the parental side of the argument, simply because the people who bought newspapers were more likely to be parents themselves, or at least older than most flappers. But the movies catered to a broader clientele, including a lot of young women who were themselves flappers. Many a newspaper, after running a ‘flappers should be spanked’ story, received aggrieved letters from flappers whose parents had taken the advice. These girls might not care to support films that advocated the same treatment, so Hollywood had a commercial incentive to be just a little more liberal than the press, and try to accommodate different takes on the phenomenon. And that’s why Hollywood was slow to follow the papers’ lead and start spanking flappers.