There Isn’t a Spanking Scene in… Les Liaisons Dangereuses (nor in The Game, neither)

Les Liaisons Dangereuses began life in 1782 as a scandalous novel by Pierre-Ambrose-Francois Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of amoral ancien regime aristocrats, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, take destructive pleasure in competitive seduction of the chaste and innocent.

After causing a sensation in pre-Revolutionary France, the book went into obscurity for two centuries, before it was dramatized by Christopher Hampton in 1985 for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hampton then adapted the play as a movie, Dangerous Liaisons, which was released in 1988, but his good screenplay was let down by disappointing central casting: matronly Glenn Close and reptilian John Malkovitch in the roles created onstage by Lindsey Duncan and Alan Rickman (and played by Annette Bening and Colin Firth in Valmont, the superior 1989 film version of the same novel).

The third scene of the play concerns a letter from Valmont to Madame de Tourvel, an attractively shy and prim wife who is the object of his wager with Merteuil. His seduction technique is the pretence of virtue, but the scene itself undercuts this by showing the circumstances in which the letter is written: he is in bed with a naked courtesan, Emilie (created by Mary Jo Randle in the stage version), and he spreads the paper across the small of her back, using her as what he later calls ‘a most talented desk’.

One thing that’s not completely clear from the script is how this is to be staged, but you can see here how they worked it out in rehearsals:

(That’s Rickman in a later performance, with Beatie Edney as Emilie.) But the film version, with Laura Benson as Emilie, made a small but significant alteration: instead of sitting astride her, Malkovitch’s Valmont put her astride him – or, as we would say, put her across his knee.

In turn, the movie was adapted into The Game, a stage musical by Amy Powers and David Topchik, and in 2003 it premiered in a production by Barrington Stage Company of Massachusetts. And although they changed one aspect of the letter-writing scene, the nudity, they kept one key point of the staging. Here it is in a later Barrington production from 2011, with Graham Rowat and Analisa Leaming, not bare-bottomed but in bloomers:

And since then, revivals across the world have taken different approaches to this bit of business, albeit not always quite as we would like:

In one Eastern European version, the ‘desk’ part of Emilie seems to have shifted southwards to an area that is perhaps not quite as practical, being somewhat rounder than the small of her back:

Done well, this is a fabulous piece of Faux-TK, and in 2018 the Russians certainly did it very well indeed:

So keep writing the letters, Vicomte!

More Than Three Billboards

In the Golden Age of Hollywood from the 1920s through the early 1960s, the movies usually featured a few spankings each year, and often the scene was deemed an important enough attraction to get into the newspaper adverts and onto the cinema lobby card displays. From time to time, they got even more prominence by being featured on the poster. The earliest examples I know of are the European poster for the 1924 Harold Lloyd comedy Girl Shy and the US one for Pajamas, the 1927 comedy in which the Roaring Twenties flapper cusped into the Depression Era spoiled heiress.

This trickle of billboard spanking continued to be just a trickle in the 1930s. The next one publicized the obscure 1933 comedy short Ducky Dear, starring future Charlie Chan actor Sidney Toler. Its working title was Too Many Wives, and since it had only two actresses in the cast, that may give us grounds to guess at the reason why the younger of them, Carol Tevis,

is being spanked here:

And in 1936, the full-length Taming the Wild was only a marginally more important film, but one that overtly pinned its publicity pitch on the fact that the heroine was going to be spanked, so the choice of lead image for the poster was a no-brainer.

And that establishes the principle that explains how the trickle became more than a trickle as Hollywood moved into the 1940s and ’50s: the progressive recognition by publicists that a spanking scene had pulling power, sometimes so much that it was chosen to be the defining image on the poster.

Public Deb No. 1 is an obvious and well-known example, but let’s take one that’s slightly less familiar:

Cross My Heart (1946), a remake of True Confession, the 1937 picture which infuriatingly ends mere moments before Carole Lombard, playing a compulsive liar, is spanked by her husband. No such luck for Betty Hutton in the remake:

By now, the publicity department was well aware of the usefulness of such scenes, and had a photographer on set to record the filming of the spanking and create illustrations for the story that was to be supplied to the press.

There were no great surprises in that story, which led off on the point that Sonny Tufts was a big guy, and quickly homed in on ‘the resounding smacks he produced in the scene, which was not marked by the slightest suggestion of restraint’. In other words, like almost every behind-the-scenes newspaper report of a Hollywood spanking, the story was that Betty Hutton was spanked for real and spanked hard. What was less commonplace was that the scene found its way onto the poster:

And so Cross My Heart became a movie that was about Betty’s character, Peggy Harper, being spanked by her fiancé, which is a fair interpretation if you accept that Peggy is basically a ‘naughty girl’ who has it coming to her according to the mores of the time.

Sometimes a spanking poster straightforwardly reflects the weight and significance the movie gives to the spanking scene it represents. And example from earlier in 1946 is the farce She Wrote the Book, in which Joan Davis (later spanked several times in her 1950s sitcom, I Married Joan) plays Jane Featherstone, a staid math professor who is persuaded to pose, for implausible reasons, as the author of a spicy novel, only to be knocked unconscious in an accident and wake up believing she actually is the said author. She proceeds to cause mayhem which leads inexorably to the following:

This is the movie’s climax, and resolution: Professor Featherstone gets into the situation with a knock on the head, and she is restored to her senses with a series of knocks on the other end. And the director, Charles Lamont (whose previous movie, Frontier Gal, also had a spanking scene for a climax), gives it its full due, with two separate camera setups and fifteen onscreen slaps. It was obviously a candidate for the poster.

And although an alternative option relegates the scene to an inset photograph,

09 she wrote the book

there remains something suggestive about the main image too, with those star-lines converging on one particular area of the good Professor’s anatomy…

Now let’s fast-forward a decade and a half and compare The Iron Maiden, a 1962 British comedy in the mould of Genevieve and The Titfield Thunderbolt which plays on the Brits’ unaccountable affection for antiquated transport – in this case, an old traction engine being restored by aviation engineer Jack Hopkins (Michael Craig). It’s his pride and joy, the ‘title character’ of the film, and it rightly takes center stage on the British poster.

10 Iron Maiden British poster

A subsidiary attraction showing some leg there is American airline magnate’s daughter Kathy Fisher, played by Anne Helm.

About halfway through the film, she gets into an argument with Jack, and he tries to give himself the last word by moving the Iron Maiden onto the road in front of her car – blocking her way. The headstrong rich girl takes it upon herself to move it, but loses control: the mighty engine careers down the country lane, flattening a policeman’s bicycle and helmet as it goes, and ends up crashing into a barn. Jack sits down on a milk churn and takes swift reprisals:

As the official synopsis puts it:

‘Both maidens suffer damage, the first runs into a barn and the second receives a good old-fashioned spanking from Jack.’

Whereupon the spanked maiden runs back to her parents in disarray,

and, after a private word between mother and daughter, Mom has to tell Pop, in front of an aristocratic British visitor, that the terrible Mr Hopkins ‘struck’ their daughter, and her genteel avoidance of the more precise word, spanked, results in the usual joke: she is asked where he struck the heinous blow, and stops herself just in time before she utters the indelicate word bottom. Mom at least ought to be sympathetic, because she’s played by Jeff Donnell, whose previous credits included Stagecoach Kid (1949), in which Tim Holt ‘struck’ her in the same place:

The stills cameras were in attendance when the scene was filmed,


but by all standards this is a much less important scene in the overall movie than the spankings in Public Deb or She Wrote the Book. It’s a much shorter spanking, around four seconds compared with thirty for She Wrote the Book and even longer for Public Deb. There are still two camera setups, but the first is mainly used for him putting her across his knee, and before the first of the seven slaps lands we cut to the second angle,

apparently in order to emphasize Anne Helm’s cleavage, not a usual focus of erotic attention in a spanking scene. It’s simply one of those rough moments, awkward for those involved and comical for those watching, in the story of a relationship that eventually comes right. It’s not in any sense a pivotal event or a focus for what the story is about. But you’d never guess that from the US poster, complete with a change of title and a new hot red dress for Kathy:

Perhaps that just goes to show that the movie’s real point of appeal, the iron maiden rather than the sore-bottomed one, just didn’t translate for American audiences.

What we’ve seen so far also illustrates a range of approaches to poster art: some painters created substantially new images (in the case of Public Deb, in a strikingly stylized idiom), whereas others basically copied photographs. For another example of the latter, which again elevated an incidental moment to the center of attention, take the 1956 musical The Vagabond King, in which Rita Moreno, who was the unspanked sister in The Fabulous Senorita four years earlier, finally catches up in the screen spanking stakes.

Rita plays Huguette, a spitfire of a tavern girl who is one of two love interests for the poet-hero, Francois Villon (Oreste Kirkop).

The other woman is Catherine de Vaucelles, a noblewoman out of his league, played by ‘queen of song’ Kathryn Grayson, of Kiss Me Kate fame but relevant here only as the indirect cause of somebody else getting spanked. Villon’s interest in her makes Huguette jealous, and she picks a quarrel which results in:

Again, this is an extremely brief and marginal spanking (about five seconds), though the trailer used an alternate and arguably better take with four slaps rather than the two that made it into the movie itself:

Again, the stills photographer was in attendance,

and one example of his work made it onto a lobby card:

The spanking also found its way onto the poster, but its prominence wasn’t overstated, so you’ll have to look carefully to find it:

(Hint: look to the far right end of the row of line drawings.)

Whereas in Belgium the scene got fully one quarter of the attention:

And the artist supplied a straight copy of the first of the on-set stills.

Mention of The Fabulous Senorita leads us to another example. The movie features the Mexican starlet Estelita,

who gets spanked,

and you can read all about why, and why she deserves it, here. The point for now is that the stills photographer

once again supplied the poster draughtsman with his source material. Or maybe that should be twice again!

Alternate poster options meant that the draughtsman had to do the job multiple times with minor variations, something we’ve already seen with one major variation in the case of the 1953 poster for the film version of Kiss Me Kate, and can see again with the 1957 British comedy Doctor at Large.

This is not so much a coherent story as an anthology of medical anecdotes built around Dirk Bogarde’s character, Dr Simon Sparrow, as he works his way through different practices and patients. The ones that matter here are the swanky town practice and the neurotic Kitty (Barbara Murray), who becomes hysterical and has to be calmed down, which Sparrow does in the original book by slapping her face and in the movie by…

It’s another very quick spanking (three slaps, about two seconds), but it does have some local impact (as well as on the relevant area of Barbara Murray) in that Sparrow has failed to consider the aphrodisiac effects of spanking on certain neurotic lady patients…

As usual, the actors also posed for stills that in this case were somewhat more effective than what the movie camera captured.

Again, the stills were turned into poster art in different styles and for different markets:

Both artists simplified the folds of the dress in the photographic original, eliminating the ridge of panty line where the pleats cross the elastic and frill underneath, and the British artist also made the relevant area slightly more curvaceous. But again, the mystery is why this scene in particular was chosen to stand for the film as a whole on the billboards of Britain and Germany. Not that I’m complaining, you understand…

One last example of photo reproduction will help to move us on to another dimension of the subject, and for it we turn to Too Young to Kiss (1951), in which pianist Cynthia Potter (June Allyson) poses as a child prodigy to get herself an audition, then finds herself having to go through with it, even though her pretended age renders her liable to…

For once, there seems to have been no stills photographer on set to capture the scene, so June Allyson and Van Johnson posed on another occasion, and in completely different costumes.

65 1951 Too Young to Kiss 3

For publicity purposes, that image is so much more apt than what happened on screen, with June dressed as a little girl but obviously not one, Van just, well, dressed and sitting on a piano stool to make the connection with the movie’s musical plotline. Of course it was going to end up in pole position on the poster, but not in the way we’ve been accustomed to so far:

By the 1950s, technology had advanced far enough for it to be feasible to use a photographic blow-up on a poster rather than resort to the more labor-intensive approach of getting someone to paint the scene, sometimes over and over again. Yet traditional practices only changed slowly, and even as movie billboard spanking passed its high watermark of the 1950s and started ebbing away, we find both approaches in parallel in posters for the film that was arguably the traditional Hollywood spanking scene’s last hurrah, and one where there’s absolutely no doubt that the spanking had every right to a prominent place on the poster. Because:

McLintock! might be described as a Western about the time when the Indians were dying out, but that description would be misleading. It’s really a Western about Maureen O’Hara getting spanked by John Wayne, a magnificent spectacle with the longest erotic build-up I’ve ever seen.

So wrote the celebrated British film critic Penelope Gilliatt in her review at the time of the London premiere in January 1964. As always, let’s trace the spanking’s route from sound stage to publicity billboard:

And the photographer was more active than usual. We only need to look at one example, but you can see all the set photographs together here.


The photo then underwent a bit of adjustment that today we’d call photoshopping, including a skillfully done change of legs for Maureen O’Hara and the much less perfectly executed removal of the coal-shovel.

And that’s what became the poster image:

But for other uses they also procured a close reproduction by a painter.

If that shows a slow take-up for technical innovation, it’s remarkable that it was even slower in Europe. In France, the commercial artist Georges Allard was engaged to paint a new poster for McLintock!, which he did altogether splendidly:

And likewise, Denmark opted not to use the photographic poster for Too Young to Kiss, and came up with their own artwork variant in a pleasing caricature style:

68 1951 Too Young to Kiss Danish poster

Sometimes new poster artwork had to be created simply because of the limitations of the photography. The McLintock! photo was tweakable to suit the studio publicists’ needs, but one where the hapless snapper handed them a hopeless piece of work was the 1955 historical melodrama Captain Lightfoot, based on a 1954 novel by W. R. Burnett and starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Rush.

Not that she looks anything like that in the movie! She plays refractory Aga Doherty, who in Burnett’s novel is often said to need a thrashing, but doesn’t actually get one. Whereas in the movie, when she defies Hudson’s character, her guardian, over an unsuitable young man, he asserts his authority in loco parentis:

Unlike some of the others we’ve been considering, this is a spanking played for what it’s worth: more than thirty seconds, two camera setups, seventeen hard onscreen slaps. It’s not a turning-point in the story, but it wouldn’t be out of place as part of a montage of scenes on the poster. But what the stills photographer brought back from the sound stage was:


So the US poster simply gave the scene a miss. But in Britain, the artist took a less hidebound approach to his photographic source material.

39 Captain Lightfoot British poster

Here’s a larger view of the relevant part of his work:

As you can see, Rock Hudson is drawn closely from the photo, but Barbara’s Aga is radically transformed, with more legs, a more prominent bottom and, most important of all, her face clearly visible. It’s a classic sow’s ear/silk purse conversion job.

One vital thing that we may be losing sight of is that this isn’t just a matter of how the studios decided to publicize their pictures by making use of the spanking scenes; done comprehensively, that would be a much longer article! This is about the smaller number of cases where the spanking became part of the most prominent element in a movie’s public identity: not just glossy stills outside the picture house, or enticing copy in the newspapers and fan magazines, but imagery that was reproduced and displayed in large scale, visible to every passer-by in the street.

Ellen Drew was famously reluctant to be spanked in the closing scene of Our Wife (1941), and even more reluctant to have any stills taken of the scene. Murphy’s law certainly operated for her: the spanking was covered in no fewer than three photographic sessions, one on the set and two more in the publicity studio.

10 1941 our wife 2

That one was used as the basis for the poster artwork.

And the poster in turn was transformed into a six-foot painting displayed in the foyer of the Gran Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires, to publicize the opening of Nuestra Esposa:

Is it any wonder that Ellen is blushing heavily there?

The other spanking movie that inspired theater managers to uncommon inventiveness was, inevitably, McLintock! When it played in Kansas City, the Uptown Theater featured an 18-foot display, with Maureen O’Hara’s bloomers replaced by a petticoat made of real fabric that fluttered in the breeze, as did her hair.

In England, Liverpool’s Gaumont Cinema went one better. A cut-out of the spanking was used as the centerpiece of an animated publicity display. Wayne’s right arm was detached so that it would move freely, and an electric motor powered it to go up and down, so that it gave the impression that Maureen O’Hara was being spanked. ‘This attracted a lot of comment from patrons,’ we are told. I bet it did – surely the most public publicity spanking of them all!

Flirty Daughter

Millionaire Hasim Bey, a would-be politician, is having trouble with his striking but spoiled daughter, Suna, who keeps getting herself on the wrong side of the police, confident that a hefty bribe from Daddy’s lawyer will extricate her every time. She is, of course, the title character of the 1963 Turkish comedy film Çapkın Kız (Flirty Daughter), played by the rising star and future UNESCO goodwill ambassador Turkan Soray:

The story gets started when she gets into an argument with a taxi driver, Ekrem, then causes a traffic accident that damages his car and costs him his job. He’s played by Tamer Yigit, and he will eventually prove to be something of a tamer in the English sense of the word. When he goes to demand redress from Hasim, the combination of persistence, forcefulness and honesty with which he does it so impresses the old man that he and his best friend are hired to keep Suna out of trouble, at a massive salary – and she’s such a handful that they fully earn every lira of it!

There is much comical chaos, including some accidental flashes of various characters’ stocking tops, and worse for the hostess of a party Suna attends with a boor, having given her official escort the slip: the lout (played by Ahmet Tarik Tekce) manages to step on the lady’s dress on the way in, which means…

His ill-mannered party antics then provide the sophisticates with much merriment, though Suna is evidently less amused by his style of dancing, which includes:

But that’s only a taster of what she’ll be getting from Ekrem…

Later she evades Ekrem again by swapping clothes with a beggar, only to find herself abducted by the King of the Beggars. He discovers that she’s not what she seems, because beneath her rags, incongruously, she is still wearing her own expensive underwear.

By now Ekrem has got her out of trouble so often that he’s starting to like her, and in the next sequence they dance together in a nightclub. To make him jealous, she allows the club crooner to dance with her too, and ends up letting him take her back to his place. When Ekrem intervenes to save her honor, an argument ensues, which ends with another accidental flash of stocking tops in an active moment:

There are several things indicating that the spanking was considered to be important, among them duration and complexity. It lasts for nearly 20 seconds, which is long by screen spanking standards, and there are 24 smacks, more than half of them onscreen – though it’s hard to judge exactly because the sound effects were put on by the foley artist afterwards and don’t always match up exactly with the movements of Ekrem’s right arm.

The complexity lies in the fact that the sequence is made up of more than one camera setup: after the master establishing shot, we cut to a low-angled close up of Suna that emphasizes her reaction to this new humiliation, but with Ekrem’s arm still spanking away in the background.

This isn’t a scene they just played once and moved on: it was given thought and care with a view to enhancing its impact, even though that meant Turkan Soray had to go over Tamer Yigit’s knee more than once.

Afterwards, he picks her up and forcibly carries her home to her father.

Fortunately Hasim approves everything Ekrem has done, including the spanking, and has Ekrem take her to her room and lock her in.

The spanking doesn’t do any immediate good: like most spanked movie heroines, she’s resentful and throws things. But love does eventually blossom between them as the story develops towards its happy ending.

There’s one other reason why we know the spanking was considered important. Turkish lobby cards of this period often used a standard surround design, including items of key imagery which appeared on each and every card for that film, and then dropped in pictures of individual scenes that varied from card to card. Here’s one of the cards for Çapkın Kiz:

No matter what the scene on the right, the top left always showed Suna being spanked!

Here’s the film, timed to start at the relevant scene. But it’s well worth watching the whole thing, and you don’t need to understand Turkish to follow the story.

(And go back to 29m if you want to see the bottom-smacking dancing at the party.)

To Be Spanked or Not To Be Spanked: That is the Question

In 1918, a troupe of French actors performed Le Médecin Malgré Lui in Cincinnati, and one element of the production amazed the local reviewer:

Sganarelle, the doctor, actually turns his plump little saucy wife over his knee and gives her a real spanking. Can anyone picture this on the American stage? Our actresses, no doubt, would send in a two weeks’ notice at the first rehearsal with a feeling that their dignity had been injured by so arbitrary a bit of stage business.

And, as we have seen, that was exactly what happened seventeen years earlier when Agnes Lane chose to resign rather than be spanked in Don Caesar de Bazan.

But as we also know, American mainstream culture was moving the other way: onstage, and in the new emergent media of movies and later radio and television, the middle decades of the twentieth century were a great era of spanking scenes. So far as I know, the first straw in the wind involved these two actresses:

On the left, Julia Marlowe; on the right, Florence Roberts. Both played the title role in the Irish playwright James Bernard Fagan’s historical romance Gloria, Miss Marlowe on a tour of the east coast in 1907-8, and Miss Roberts on the west coast in 1910 and in the midwest in 1914.

The play is set in Renaissance Italy, and its leading character is Madonna Gloria Capponi, an aristocratic coquette who holds that ‘If there be any better sport than hunting wild boars, it is deceiving men.’ The victims of her deception include two of her more ardent suitors, and it involves a cruel practical joke: to one of them, the gluttonous braggart Captain Bambazone, she administers an unpleasant and incapacitating but non-lethal mixture, and persuades him that he has been poisoned, Borgia-style; then she tells the other, the upstanding Englishman Sir Philip Lilley, that his rival is dead by her hand, and gets him to take charge of the body (actually the carcass of a wild boar in a sack) and bury it in secret. To add to the jest, she procures some officers to accuse her of Bambazone’s murder, and Sir Philip gallantly makes a false confession to protect her. Luckily for him, the hoax is discovered when the body is exhumed, and his response is to cut a switch and administer a sound spanking.

She swears vengeance and, with the help of the recovered Bambazone, has him ambushed and tied to a post, all ready for her to repay him in kind, with interest – whereupon she finds herself unable to raise the whip against him, because despite all her expressed inclinations and all her vindictive fury, she loves him. She falls into his arms and declares, ‘Though I hate you, I will marry you,’ and with that the curtain falls.

There were two reasons why Julia Marlowe did not withdraw her services out of a sense of injured dignity. One was that she was herself the producer, and Gloria was her own choice of play as part of a mainly Shakespearean season designed to show off her thespian talents. And the second reason, which also applied to Florence Roberts, was that the spanking takes place entirely offstage. After Sir Philip’s discomfiture, Gloria exits laughing at him, leaving him fuming in speechless indignation; having armed himself, he stalks off after her, and spanking and screams are heard from ‘off’; then she rushes back in a hysterical rage and he follows, still carrying the switch, which is now broken after what was evidently heavy use. The character of Gloria may be humiliated, but the actress didn’t have to share in it, just perform the part skilfully.

But once it became more common for spankings to take place onstage or onscreen, rather than discreetly hidden away in the theatrical equivalent of the woodshed, some actresses began to find it a little more challenging to maintain the distinction between themselves and their characters. Ellen Drew explained as much in a newspaper article she wrote (or had written for her by the publicity department) about her misgivings over the much hyped spanking scene in Our Wife.

The fundamental problem wasn’t to do with the pain of bring spanked, but the indignity:

My imagination started to work. I saw thousands of people sitting in theaters seeing Melvyn [Douglas] put me across his knee. I thought of Ellen Drew, all dressed up, trying to look as well as possible and suddenly to be publicly placed in a position that nobody could assume gracefully. I remembered once when a star complained that the director photographed the back of her head. I thought how lucky she was in comparison to me. The back of her head, indeed.

And indeed, the very last shot of the film has the camera zoom in on an area somewhat lower than the back of her head as the spanking continues, with a suggestively curvy ‘THE END’ caption fading up over it:

The director, John M. Stahl, talked her round by stressing that ‘Ellen Drew was positively not going to be spanked. It was a girl named Babe Marvin.’ At first, she demurred:

But, Mr Stahl, that’s my body draped awkwardly across Melvyn’s knee, and my legs kicking about.

Stahl instantly retorted that ‘the audience knows that Ellen Drew could not possibly be awkward. That’s why they will think of you only as Babe Marvin.’ And while that may seem a trifle glib, at least it made the key point of principle.

Other actresses were much more comfortable with playing characters who were spanked, and didn’t need to be told the distinction between the performer and the part. Take Betty Bronson, for instance.

She’s best known to history as J. M. Barrie’s choice to play the title role in the first screen version of Peter Pan (1924), but we know her also for playing the title role in the Elinor Glyn silent comedy Ritzy (1927), which is sadly now a lost film. Ritzy is the nickname of steel heiress Roslyn Brown, who is determined to marry a Duke and to that end gets her father to take her on a trip to England. Also aboard the ocean liner is Harrington Smith, the Duke of Westborough (James Hall), who’s traveling incognito as plain ‘Mr Smith’, which is inevitably an insuperable impediment to Ritzy allowing herself to fall in love with him.

To teach her a lesson, ‘Mr Smith’ arranges for his friend Algy to pose as the Duke and give her the rough edge of his tongue – which Ritzy capriciously interprets as ‘a romantic proposal’. ‘Mr Smith’ then interrupts her fantasies about becoming the Duchess of Westborough, and spanks her for being such a snob. It doesn’t have any immediate good effect, just makes her determined to go to the bad when she arrives in England – a course of action at which she fails absurdly and ends up having to be rescued by the Duke.

Betty Bronson had no complaints about her character being spanked. On the contrary, she mentioned it as the highlight of the picture in a form letter she sent out in response to her fan mail:

Ritzy fan letter

I’m a ritzy little girl who needs a good spanking and gets it!

It’s occasionally said that some actresses actively enjoyed being spanked and chose their roles accordingly when the opportunity arose: Dany Robin, for instance, spanked in Scheidungsgrund Liebe (1960),

or Sophie Desmarets, spanked in Demain, Nous Divorçons (1951),


or Lucille Ball, spanked four times in I Love Lucy (1951-54),

at least twice in its radio predecessor My Favorite Husband (1948)

and even, by Lionel Barrymore, at a fancy dress party for her 33rd birthday in 1944:

Whether the claim is true or not, their private lives are none of our business, but one thing that is indisputable is that some actresses had good professional reasons to be enthusiastic about appearing in a spanking scene: it was an acting challenge, and it would get them noticed.

We’ve already seen how the lovely Sharon Tate was disappointed when she was told that her spanking scene was going to be dropped from Dance of the Vampires (1967).


She wanted the scene to be left in the film, as ultimately it was, not just because she’d already had the trouble and discomfort of being spanked while making it, but because it was a prominent element of her role. And she wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

Angie Dickinson, who played Dr Kildare’s fiancée in the 1960s medical soap, was similarly pleased with a scene in the episode ‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’, which aired in March 1965, when Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) wants to plan their honeymoon, but she refuses to be serious about it:

So he put me across his knee and spanked me. It had everything, but we were running long so it had to come out.

She was sorry the cut had to be made, she told the press, because it was such a good scene. The spanking may have been undignified for her character, Carol Tredman, but it was something that Angie Dickinson was proud of.

And in the same vein, here’s Linda Evans giving a publicity interview, later in 1965, about the various aspects of her regular role in The Big Valley that she found especially enjoyable:

‘I ride a horse and I attack men and I hit people with my whip and I get spanked.’

19b Big Valley

Yes: that was one of the pleasures of the part for her! (You can read more about the episode here.) So most indications so far point towards the conclusion that actresses positively liked appearing in spanking scenes.

But it’s impossible to generalize. Another soap actress, Eileen Fulton, who played ‘superbitch’ Lisa McColl in As the World Turns for an astonishing fifty years (1960-2010),

was due to be spanked in a 1983 episode after throwing a cake in her screen husband’s face. The other actor was Robert Horton, who already had a screen spanking pedigree thanks to an impressive scene in Wagon Train (1960):


But he was not destined to continue in the same vein, because Eileen Fulton declined to do the scene; according to one account, she ‘stormed off the set, refusing to be spanked’. According to her own account, she told the producers, ‘I will not allow this kind of abuse. Throwing a cake is one thing, spanking is another.’ And faced with that obduracy, they changed the script so that the caked Horton caked her back.

And lest anyone infer that this is simply a sign of how times changed between the 1960s and the 1980s, let’s take a final example from the present century. Nowadays spanking scenes are fewer and farther between, because people are so much touchier about the subject, but it still gets talked about in the theater from time to time. A case in point is a Virginia production of Little Women in which Holly Anne Williams played Amy March:

One reviewer overheard a slightly startling assessment of the character from a nearby seat, and repeated it in her own admiring account of the actress’s performance:

As the youngest sister, Amy, Holly Williams does spoiled insolence so well that a woman in the audience whispered, “She needs a good spanking.”

But the actress wasn’t in the least embarrassed or offended by the backhanded compliment to the effect that she should be spanked. On the contrary, she proudly posted the quote on her website.

Spank the Spoiled Heiress

For around fifteen years, up to America’s entry into the Second World War at the end of 1941, spoiled heiresses ran riot through Hollywood and wound up across somebody’s knee in getting on for two dozen movies. Businessman’s daughter Kay Elliott (Alice White), described in publicity as ‘a girl you would like to spank’, was indeed spanked by Paul Page in The Naughty Flirt (1931):

Chain store heiress Jennifer Rarick (Marion Davies) was spanked by Leslie Howard in Five and Ten (1931):

Millionaire’s daughter Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) found herself over Clark Gable’s shoulder in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934),

and though several of Gable’s obituaries wrongly reported that it was over his knee, the outcome was not all that different:

New York socialite Sheila Curtis (Anne Nagel) had the narrowest of narrow escapes in A Bride for Henry (1937), when an unexpected arrival caused Henry Hull to break off before he’d got started:

And of course we mustn’t forget the advertising magnate’s daughter Kay Allyn (Anne Sheridan), the title character of The Footloose Heiress (1937), getting what one early reviewer described as ‘a real, resounding, old-fashioned spanking’ from Craig Reynolds:

(We can’t possibly cover them all, but further society girl spankings from this period are described more fully here, here and here.)

The trope also found its way into other media, such as Zane Grey’s novel, Lost Pueblo (1927), or the 1939 newspaper strip Joe Jinks, in which a thrill-loving millionaire’s daughter arranges to start a nightclub brawl, and is dealt with by the bouncer:

It became such a familiar scenario that it even started to influence the way people thought about the tiny minority of real-life madcap heiresses. A case in point is Colletta Mulvihill, a teenage oil heiress from Pittsburgh, who in 1934 got married to a truck driver for a dare, giving a false name and using the ring she’d received from another man who considered himself her fiancé. She quickly proved domestically unsatisfactory to her husband (‘She couldn’t even boil water’) and left him after just one weekend.

There followed several suggestions about what should happen to Colletta, none of them particularly surprising. A California newspaper, reporting an impending meeting with her mother to discuss having the marriage annulled, editorialized:

‘Many people will be old-fashioned enough to hope that the mother will turn the daughter across her knee and will give her a good spanking, preferably with a hair brush. The girl has achieved a great amount of publicity, but it has not been of the sort to reflect much credit upon her family.’

And the Pennsylvania District Attorney Joseph W. Nelson agreed:

‘She needs a spanking more than she does a husband – a good, old-fashioned spanking.’

Colletta protested: ‘It wouldn’t be fair to spank me unless they spank a lot of others first,’ she said, and mentioned some other real-life cases of heiresses swiftly walking out on unwise marriages. ‘Why pick on me?’

Well, Colletta, it was surely because your story had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood screwball comedy, complete with the elements of irresponsible japes and cross-class romance that were largely missing from the lives of those other rich young women. In the movies, spoiled heiresses typically got spanked. In real life, what the newspapers called ‘unspanked heiresses’ were the norm – which was the starting-point for the fiction, predicated on the view that, although they weren’t spanked, they should be.

In consequence, it’s not usually the parents of Hollywood spoiled heiresses who spank them, having hitherto neglected this supposedly key element in the process of socialization. Some other person needs to come into the equation – and that means aspects of the American class system often come into play. It’s a system that incorporated much more potential for social mobility than its contemporary British equivalent: in theory, anyone can be President, anyone can become rich and powerful, anyone can marry the boss’s daughter – meaning that, when she’s a spoiled heiress, anyone can spank the boss’s daughter too, as happens not only to Alice White in The Naughty Flirt but also to plumbing magnate’s daughter Alice Sullivan (Virginia Lee Corbin) at the hands of William Russell in The Head of the Family (1928),

and to airline owner’s daughter Mary Kent (Louise Latimer) courtesy of Owen Davis, Jr, in Bunker Bean (1936):

76 Bunker Bean

(’Louise is perfectly lovely, even when being spanked,’ opined an Iowa reviewer.)

The issue of social background comes across especially clearly in No Defense (1929), a movie we might think of as semi-silent but which the picture promoters of 1929 called ‘part-talking’ – and neither is wrong, though as it’s another lost film I don’t know whether our favorite scene was played with or without sound. The character who may or may not have been heard saying ‘Ouch!’ is Ruth Harper, played by May McAvoy.

She’s the daughter of a Boston financier who’s backing the construction of a railroad in California. She accompanies her father on a trip west to inspect the works, and stupidly lights up a cigarette near the explosives store. Even more stupidly, she refuses to put it out when told to do so by the site foreman, Monte Collins, played by Monte Blue. An argument follows and, not knowing who she is, he loses his temper and tells her, ‘For a nickel, I’d spank you.’ Ruth makes the usual response to such a threat, but in an unusual way: instead of telling him, ‘You wouldn’t dare’, she contemptuously tosses him a nickel. But as usual, it’s not a wise move, because he does dare:

And, as with Pajamas, the scene featured in the newspaper ads:

The spanking is essentially a way of starting off an east-west love story,

which is not so much the subject of the movie as the mainspring of its plot. When Monte later visits Ruth out east, he is shown to be unable to function effectively in Boston high society, which might be taken as an inversion of Angela in Pajamas being unable to function in the Canadian Rockies; but that’s not the point of the story. For us, the spanking scene might be the spectacular highlight of the show, but for most moviegoers in 1929 that would be the collapse of the railroad bridge during its dedication ceremony, with the crowds fleeing as two locomotives plunge into the Feather River below. As the works foreman, Monte is charged with criminal negligence and offers no defense, because by doing so he is protecting Ruth’s brother, who tried to save money by secretly using substandard steel in the construction. So what we are shown is that, though Monte is uncouth, he is also noble.

And that gets us to the heart of the matter. The social chasm between California and Boston may be wider than the Grand Canyon, and it would get wider still after the Crash. But when an American heiress is spanked, no matter whether it is done by a family employee like Monte or a resident of Hooverville like William Powell’s Godfrey, he’s always an Ordinary Joe rather than a vulgar pleb: a decent, upstanding common man reacting robustly to the follies and selfishness of the idle rich, because nobody’s better than anyone else, even though some spoiled rich girls may be worse. After all, as the pilot and adventurer Scorchy Smith said when he spanked a US senator’s daughter in 1946,

‘This is a democracy, isn’t it?’

Enter the Spoiled Heiress

The camera pans across glittering art deco skyscrapers, the riverside palaces of the super-rich illuminated as if in neon with the credits of the movie that is just beginning. Finally it comes to rest on the opposite bank, where a solitary human figure tends the fire outside a humble hovel. In about 90 seconds, the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey establishes the parameters of its Great Depression world where wealth and poverty live side by side.

Socialite Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) is competing in a scavenger hunt, and her challenge is to find a ‘forgotten man’. She offers the destitute Godfrey (William Powell) five dollars to come with her and be shown off at the Waldorf Ritz Hotel.

02 My Man Godfrey

The proposal offends him. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to take it up with my board of directors,’ he replies sarcastically, advancing on her. ‘And no matter what my board of directors advise, I think you should be spanked.’ She backs away and finds herself falling into an ash pile. It’s a moment lightly adapted from 1101 Park Avenue, the original 1935 novel by Eric Hatch, in which he more actively pushes her into a bush, but doesn’t mention spanking her – that was a detail added for the movie.

In 1930s Hollywood, it was generally acknowledged that rich girls were typically self-indulgent and inconsiderate, and consequently should be spanked. It’s a prospect, and sometimes a spectacle, whose appeal lies primarily in the humbling of the proud, and the context of the Depression, and the vast gulf between the richest and poorest in society, adds the especial relish that is evident in this example of Public Deb publicity from 1940:

Public Deb penniless

But the spoiled heiress in need of a good spanking had become a fixture of movie comedy even before the Wall Street Crash hit in October 1929. A convenient example is Pajamas, a silent released exactly two years and a day earlier, on October 23, 1927, and starring Olive Borden as Angela Wade, the daughter of a millionaire railroad owner:

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Olive had ‘a lingerie personality, for she is nearly always cast in roles calling for bathing suits, deshabille or South Seas negligee’. Or indeed silk pajamas, her attire for most of this particular movie, hence its title. And another newspaper expressed disappointment that, in her previous film, The Joy Girls, her character didn’t receive ‘a sound cinematic spanking for her gold-digging ways’. Well, that was about to be remedied, albeit not for gold-digging.

Pajamas 1927

Angela Wade was advertised as Olive’s first ‘rich girl’ part. She’s not the first spoiled and spanked heiress in the movies, but she’s the earliest to get a spanking that we can actually illustrate. Reports differ as to whether or not it’s a lost film; all I can say is that I’ve never seen it myself, so what I can tell you about it derives from those who did, back in the 1920s.

The story begins on Long Island, as John Weston (Lawrence Gray), owner of a struggling Canadian lumber firm, is motoring towards the stately Wade mansion, where he hopes to hustle up a business deal with wealthy Daniel Wade. Breaking every speed law in the New York statute book, Angela zooms up behind him in her more powerful car and, in an attempt to pass, forces him off the road. The confrontation that follows establishes their respective characters – irresponsible heiress and staid businessman – and comes to a climax when he threatens to spank her. She doesn’t stick around to give him the chance, but jumps into her car and speeds away, just as a motorcycle traffic cop arrives at the scene of the accident.

Weston’s stay chez Wade is cut short when news arrives that means he must return to western Canada at once. Luckily for him, Daniel Wade, being a millionaire, owns a private plane, complete with a pilot on the payroll, and offers his guest the use of it. Unluckily for Weston, this conversation is overheard by Angela, who’s still resentful about the spanking threat and decides to get her own back with a prank: she takes the pilot’s place, not even pausing to get dressed – and flies Weston across the continent still dressed in the eponymous silk pajamas.

They don’t make it: Angela loses control of the plane and they have to bail out; their parachutes deposit them in the treetops, deep in the wilds of the Canadian Rockies. Leaving aside the small matter of Weston’s pressing need to get home, there are three principal areas of damage: the plane is a write-off, Angela’s pajama pants are ripped in the rough landing and an area of her anatomy still covered by that garment becomes, shall we say, somewhat tender. All three casualties may be seen here:

Opinions differed about the spanking: some described it as ‘glorious’, but others complained that the slaps were laid on rather mildly; some spoke of Angela getting ‘the shock of her life’, while others were disappointed that she seemed rather unresponsive. (This was arguably part of a broader reaction to Olive Borden’s acting in general: lovely to look at but not much of a performer, was the consensus.) The studio publicists evidently regarded it as the highlight of the movie,

and they duly produced what was, so far as I know, the first American film poster to feature a spanking scene:

But they seem to have been confused about the scene, in several ways. For one thing, the poster wrongly implies that the spanking happens right after the car crash earlier on. Some reviewers, who obviously hadn’t actually seen the film, were misled into stating that Angela is indeed spanked then and takes her revenge with the plane prank. Others seem to have been expecting such a scene, felt let down when it was only a threat and then were pleasantly surprised when eventually it happened after all.

The publicity also span it as a typical romantic spanking, part of the bumpy progression of two young people towards love and marriage:

‘She learned the meaning of love only after she had been spanked (in her pajamas) by a young hustler to whom her millions meant nothing.’

And, of course, they do end up together. But the scene is arguably more important as the start of a rough life-lesson for a pampered rich girl who is, says Weston, as ornamental as her pajamas, but who is forced to learn basic practicalities now that they are stranded in the wilderness.


So the overall story is about the girl who has everything, and who then has it all taken away from her. And that marks an important change of emphasis from the kind of story that was being told about similarly irresponsible young women only a few years before.

I have argued elsewhere that Hollywood was equivocal about flappers, in a way that the press mostly wasn’t, because a significant section of the movie audience were flappers and might not appreciate the message that such young women, implicitly including themselves, deserved to be spanked. That problem was solved with the spoiled heiress stereotype who began to emerge in the second half of the 1920s, because, although the characters behaved in more or less the same way as screen flappers, they had fewer direct counterparts in real life, and most pertinently, among the moviegoing youth of America. We shall observe the resultant proliferation of heiresses, and their usual fate, in the second part of this article.

A Touch of (Lower) Class

The Woman in Question (1950) is an intriguing British murder mystery which turns on the unreliability and partiality of human memory: as implied by the American title, Five Angles on Murder, the main story is told in flashbacks of the different versions of events told to the police by five witnesses – which means we see the same conversations and encounters told from various points of view, never matching up exactly with one another.

The first two police interviews are with the murdered woman’s charlady, Mrs Finch (Hermione Baddeley), and her sister, Catherine Taylor, played by Susan Shaw, seen here in the film,

and here, gratuitously, in one of her later roles:

Mrs Finch, who regards Catherine as a ‘little madam’, describes, in terms favorable to herself, an altercation between them which ends with her saying, half sotto voce,

‘Cheeky little upstart, coming round here addressing your betters in that tone.’

Then the police interview Catherine, and get an equally slanted account of the confrontation, in which she is polite and Mrs Finch an aggressive harridan who yells after her as she ascends the stairs in dignified silence:

‘Cheeky little upstart! What do you mean by coming round here addressing your betters like that. Good spanking, that’s what you want. That’s what I’d give you if I was your mum!’

Part of the point of these two different accounts of Mrs Finch’s parting shot is, obviously, that each woman wants to present herself as being in the right; but there’s also a subtler issue of class and status there. Mrs Finch regards herself as Catherine’s ‘better’, a decent, salt-of-the-earth woman who rightly despises this freeloading minx. Catherine, on the other hand, considers herself a more refined sort of person, and portrays Mrs Finch as a nasty vulgarian. A key part of the effect is the omission, or addition, of the reference to spanking.

There’s a strand of British attitude which regards spanking as a plebeian phenomenon, something only done by the lower classes. This notion doesn’t withstand sustained scrutiny (for instance, there’s much anecdotal evidence about spankings administered by and to members of the British royal family, and you can’t get much less vulgar than that), but it can be found in works of class-conscious fiction from Britannia of Billingsgate in the 1930s through Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75), the BBC sitcom lampooning the Cockney bigot Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) – later reincarnated in the US as Archie Bunker of All in the Family. He has a troubled and complicated relationship with his married daughter Rita, played by Una Stubbs.

In the second episode, shown on June 13, 1966, Alf gets into a state when Rita wears something fashionable:

‘What’s the matter? That skirt – that’s what the matter. Blimey, you sit down in that and they’ll see all your washing.’

In other words, it’s a miniskirt short enough to show her panties. Not an issue for Rita, nor, one suspects, for Una Stubbs, who started her career as a dancer. But for Alf:

‘If I was your husband, I’d tan your backside before I’d let you go out like that.’

And in a 1974 episode, she teases him and he threatens, ‘I’ll slap your bum!’

And in America, a nation which pretends not to have a class system but actually just has a different and more complicated one, spanking likewise tends to be a practice associated with the more disadvantaged strata of society – the black community, for instance.

But in fiction, perhaps a closer transatlantic equivalent would be hillbillies like the Yokum family in Al Capp’s long-running newspaper strip Li’l Abner (1934-77):

The same trope found its way into 1950s spicy cartoons:

I know I deserve a spanking, Pa, but can’t Clem do it?

And it bubbled under in the rags-to-riches sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71), in which Grandma Clampett occasionally threatened Ellie Mae (Donna Douglas) with a spanking, and eventually did spank the hick con artist Emaline Fetty (Gayle Hunnicutt) in a 1966 episode (unfortunately offscreen, but you can see the aftermath here).

Things get really piquant when they cross class boundaries, as with the spanking reference in The Woman in Question. But we should pause over one aspect of Mrs Finch’s alleged remarks: a good spanking is ‘what I’d give you if I was your mum’. Likewise, Alf Garnett says he would tan miniskirted Rita’s backside ‘if I was your husband’. So there is an acknowledged inhibition about who has the right to spank a girl who is thought to need it, which generally works to keep the better class of British girl out of danger. But there are exceptions…

The strip serial School for Snobs ran in the British girls’ comic Tammy for two years from 1972 to 1974, and was written by Pat Mills and John Wagner, who also drew it and was later best known as the co-creator of Judge Dredd. The story takes place at the Hermione Snoot School for Young Ladies – a finishing school which aims to cure its teenage pupils of the evils of snobbery. Hermione Snoot herself is the headmistress and a total plebeian stereotype, complete with an ever-present pendent cigarette at her lips. Among her charges is Cynthia Masters, who has been sent to the school by her wealthy father,

In the episode in question, the girls are set a test in their cookery lesson: to prepare a meal for a very modest sum. Cynthia blows her entire budget on an inessential item,

and then cheats by putting the cost of rest of the food on her father’s account, believing that ‘no one will ever know’. The resultant meal wins acclaim, which she accepts without any hint of modesty: ‘No challenge is too difficult for someone of my class.’ But her father sends the grocery bill to be dealt with by Headmistress Snoot, and so Cynthia is found out. (‘Oh no! How could Daddy be so beastly?’) Then it emerges that she simply threw away the food she didn’t use, and that really does it. ‘I’m a mild-mannered old bird,’ says the headmistress, ‘I don’t usually get upset, but if there’s one thing that makes me do me blinkin’ nut it’s seeing good food wasted! You know what you want, don’t you?’ Cynthia replies, ‘Er – what?’ and the answer is:

And I guess the moral is that, in Britain, spoiled rich girls should at all costs avoid coming under the authority of the ‘lower orders’.

It’s noticeable that ‘rich girl’ stories don’t tend to work the same way in America. There are exceptions, like the Li’l Abner strip showing what happens to the socialite Mimi Van Pett when she considers marrying into the Yokum family. But in general, the spoiled heiresses of American fiction lead lives of greater risk, as we shall discover next week.