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,
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!