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The Story of Temple Drake

by Glenn Erickson Dec 10, 2019

The most notorious pre-Code shocker comes to Criterion — and proves to be a superior drama with an entirely mature, sound outlook on the political issues around women’s sexuality and personal freedom. Taken from a raw novel by William Faulkner, this tale of rape and terror stars Miriam Hopkins in one of the bravest, best performances of its era. Truth-telling like this always comes at a price — Temple Drake was a prime target for the oppressive Production Code, with the result that Hopkins’ achievement was banned and unseen for over thirty-five years.


The Story of Temple Drake
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1006
1933 / B&W / 1:33 Academy / 71 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date December 3, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldridge, Guy Standing, Irving Pichel, Jobyna Howland, William Collier Jr., Elizabeth Patterson, James Eagles, Harlan Knight, Jim Mason, Louise Beavers, Grady Sutton, Kent Taylor, John Carradine.
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Written by Oliver H.P.Garrett from the novel by William Faulkner
Produced by Benjamin Glazer
Directed by
Stephen Roberts

 

Talk about a topical, essential movie for 2019. With the help of Criterion, the pre-Code sizzler The Story of Temple Drake emerges as far more than a spicy treat from the year when the illegal immigrant K. Kong climbed the Empire State. In her video analysis, Imogen Sara Smith goes far beyond the usual surprise at the film’s direct approach to the subject of sexual predation. With some help from Mick LaSalle, we get a terrific argument why the era of the unchallenged Production Code — 1934 through the middle 1950s — was the real Dark Ages of American cinema.

The movie is as explicit about a sexual crime and sexual domination as was made in the U.S. until the 1960s. It could be produced against the advice of the Production Code because it was sourced in the story Sanctuary by the respected author William Faulkner. In a small Southern town, wealthy young party girl Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) plays the field. She turns down the marriage proposal of young attorney Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) for reasons she herself doesn’t fully understand. She doesn’t sleep with the men that take her out drinking and dancing, but she isn’t convinced she’s worthy of Stephen; she believes the gossip that she’s one of the wild Drakes. Feeling self-conscious at a party, Temple lets the inebriated Toddy (William Collier Jr.) take her on a car ride. She knows she can handle Toddy, but he crashes their car as a rainstorm commences. She ends up in an isolated ruin of a farmhouse, in the hands of a group of lowlife moonshine smugglers.

 

There Temple attracts the attention of the criminal bootlegger Trigger (Jack La Rue), who shields her from his drunken cohorts only to save her for himself. Trigger rapes the helpless woman, and takes her with him when he returns to his rooms in a bordello back in town. At first stunned by disbelief, Temple is too terrified to resist — she’s seen Trigger kill a man, and it’s made clear that he’ll kill again. When Stephen eventually tracks her down, Temple pretends that she’s with Trigger voluntarily, to protect her fianceé. But the whole mess will soon be made public, at a trial. What possible ‘normal’ life could Temple Drake have then?

The serious drama The Story of Temple Drake is quite an achievement — beautifully directed and (especially) filmed. The extended sequence of Temple’s night among the bootleggers is basically a horror story. Soaked in a thin dress and practically naked, she’s incredibly vulnerable, and fair game for a score of criminal louts no better than savages. Actor-director Irving Pichel is one of the leering crooks who takes her by the hand, intending to rape her without a second thought. His advances are prevented by the slovenly cook Ruby (Florence Eldridge), who gives Temple a coat but sneers at the notion of ‘good women with money.’ The details from the book are frightening too. Ruby keeps her baby in a firewood box, as protection from rats.

 

The Story of Temple Drake has a fantastic visual look, as shot by the highly artistic Karl Struss, of the previous year’s Island of Lost Souls. Instead of that film’s misty overexposed look, Struss soaks Temple Drake’s nightmare scenes in extreme lighting effects. With expressionist shadows emphasizing the very real threat to the essentially innocent Temple, the show is just as disturbing as any horror picture of the time.

We know that the show’s images were heavily pre-planned; the film’s superior visual qualities could very well be the work of the art department, and Karl Struss. The Auteur Theory takes a serious blow when we learn that the director is Stephen Roberts, who died at an early age after a prolific career of silent comedy shorts and a string of ’30s features that fall into no discernable pattern: Temple Drake is its own very special item, clearly made with care, taste and discretion in the knowledge that the censor watchdogs would be at its heels.

Perhaps director Roberts should take a bow simply for aiding his star Miriam Hopkins — it’s her picture all the way. Temple Drake is a daring character, and Hopkins’ performance is no less remarkable. Even beyond the excellent script, Hopkins understands Temple Drake, and invests her with innocence and integrity even as the woman makes bad decisions. Temple is indeed perhaps looking for trouble, but surely not the kind she finds, delivered into the hands of an unprincipled, thoroughly slimy underworld thug.

Hopkins’ contribution is what makes the movie important instead of trashy. Even more than in modern movies, we can see how women are made to carry the burden of guilt in a society that tolerates sexual violence. Ruby’s derogatory remarks against Temple cut deep, but she’s a victim of the same injustice. A judge’s daughter will likely escape the consequences of her foolishness, when an unmarried ‘white trash’ woman like Ruby would be assumed to be sinfully guilty.

Jack La Rue had been imported to Hollywood to play major gangster roles that instead went to bigger stars. As a minor hoodlum in the very good pre-Code film Three on a Match, he’s given exactly one decent medium shot, and comes off looking like a depraved version of Humphrey Bogart (who plays an unscrupulous crook in the same scene). In Temple Drake La Rue finally got his big gangster part. Trigger is an oily thug with considerable sex appeal, of the ‘wrong kind,’ your mother would say. La Rue’s creepy stare has a built-in perversion factor. The threat from Trigger is real — no interruptions intercede to stop the rape.

Had Temple Drake not been banned and locked away, perhaps Jack La Rue would have been remembered as one of the great Depression-era movie gangsters, along with Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni. La Rue’s low-rent scumbag Trigger is surely more realistic than those glamorized hoodlums.

Presumably only a fraction of the audience had read Faulkner’s Sanctuary, but word of the book’s ‘blue passages’ surely circulated. In the book, Trigger’s name is Popeye, and because he’s impotent, he rapes Temple with a corncob found in the crib where he takes her. The movie skips Temple’s ordeal, being forced to have sex with men while Popeye watches, but it does scatter some corncobs at the scene of the crime for the benefit of readers. That connection can’t have helped Temple Drake with the censors, as scandalous lies about the infamous Fatty Arbuckle case had focused on a supposed rape by similar means.

The Story of Temple Drake will surprise viewers that think of pre-Code films only as naughty fun. A few pre-Codes did flirt with nudity just because they could. When stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young were placed in ‘morally compromising’ situations, the treatment was often just as hypocritical as movies made under the code.

Women are constantly being sexually threatened in escapist entertainment, but this film goes all the way, dramatizing the emotional and social aftermath of rape. Bluenoses don’t recognize or respect dramatic honesty. As Temple Drake didn’t play coy games with its salacious content, it was singled out for condemnation. When Code Enforcement arrived in July of ’34, it was included in a group of pictures that were denied a PCA seal and simply banned.

I haven’t seen Tony Richardson’s 1961 Sanctuary starring Lee Remick and Yves Montand.

Unlike the merely naughty Murder at the Vanities and the trashy Search for Beauty, Temple Drake is much more than a daring novelty. It now plays as a story way before its time — the sexual politics of Temple’s predicament are not compromised by obsolete attitudes. This is possibly Miriam Hopkins’ greatest role — she carries the entire, difficult drama.


 

Related thoughts: Jack La Rue’s career soon disappeared into small, often un-billed roles. The banned Temple Drake had been unseen for thirteen years when La Rue went to England to star in a ‘shocking’ Brit noir called No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Although sourced from a separate salacious book, Blandish plays as a veritable repeat of Sanctuary, with an almost identical plotline — an heiress on a date with a playboy falls prey to kidnappers, and is handed off to a powerful criminal who, instead of demanding a ransom, prefers to keep her as his sex companion. The heiress responds by falling in love with him. If that’s not complicated enough, Robert Aldrich eventually remade No Orchids for Miss Blandish as The Grissom Gang.

Temple Drake can be (unfairly) pigeonholed with other Politically Uncorrect movies with similar content. The less accomplished No Orchids for Miss Blandish and The Grissom Gang are so involved with gangster intrigues that the idea of a woman who ends up falling in love with her kidnapper/rapist becomes a side issue. The more sensitive Temple Drake has more in common with two more- focused films, Jack Garfein’s Something Wild (1961) and Pedro Almodóvar’s ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). Both have attracted considerable PC condemnation — each is about a brute male that kidnaps a woman and holds her prisoner, ‘until she responds with love.’ I like to debate the notion that these pictures actually reflect truths about relationships, but it’s a tough, uphill sell and I’m not sure I understand it fully myself.

Anything is possible. Although not as severely damaged as Carroll Baker and Victoria Abril in the two movies mentioned, Temple Drake has definite personal problems. Mere awareness of her sexuality has brought her to believe she’s a wild creature destined for some socially scandalous fate. The fact that Temple’s fianceé eventually understands and accepts her, places the show far above the hypocritical Production Code — or knee-jerk PC dismissal.

As a sidebar, let me mention one more film, the Italian La Moglie Più Bella  (The Most Beautiful Wife) from 1970, starring Ornella Muti and Alessio Orano. The rather brutal story shows the conservative truth of what constitutes lawful marriage in many parts of the world, where women are routinely murdered for not submitting to patriarchal authority. Young Mafia thug Alessio Orano wants the poor but beautiful Ornella Muti for his wife. He gets what he wants partly by bribing her father, but also by more direct means. He kidnaps her, holds her prisoner and rapes her. Local laws hold her responsible — as she is no longer a virgin, she’s unfit for marriage to anyone else, and therefore has no choice but to marry him. That’s the real basis of ‘family values’ in traditional marriage, and arguments about reproductive rights in general: women are expected to yield to powerful men. Nobody will defend them. End of story.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Story of Temple Drake is a beautifully restored HD encoding; we wish that the visually fragile Island of Lost Souls could have survived in this condition. Temple Drake on Blu compares well with Paramount’s nitrate studio print that was screened at UCLA so long ago. The image retains the film’s silvery sheen, and the scenes with filters and focus effects don’t succumb to excess grain. When the film’s tone shifts from the bright party at the Drake mansion, to the hellish ruin of a house out in the country, Temple knows that she’s ‘not in Kansas any more.’ The rich audio is either from original elements, or beautifully restored.

Ironically, being banned may have helped to preserve The Story of Temple Drake so that it could be revived intact, decades later. Quite a few pre-Code pictures were granted seals for re-issue, but only after objectionable material was discarded. Studios simply edited out the offending scenes, and threw them away. Original versions of movies as important as Arrowsmith (John Ford) and Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian) were not kept, leaving the only existing prints with jarring, frustrating censorship jump cuts.

Criterion’s extras are exceptionally good this time around. Cinematographer John Bailey and Matt Severson peruse Temple Drake storyboards preserved at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, showing us that the extreme expressionist design for the rape scene was fully pre-planned. Bailey also praises Karl Struss’s beautiful use of backlight ( ↓ ). In two separate, excellent video essays, Imogen Sara Smith and Mick LaSalle delve deep into the film’s sex politics, praising Miriam Hopkins’ code-defying performance and the film’s artistic integrity.


 

LaSalle and Smith make a fine case against the common argument that The Production Code ‘improved’ American movies by forcing writers and directors to find clever, witty ways to express sensuality and sex without being crudely direct. This argument is repeated whenever somebody wants to score debate points about ‘the good old days’ of movies, and it’s just plain wrong-headed. Most movies in the pre-Code era were no different from those made earlier or later — they told stories without strong sexual themes, without casual nudity or salacious content. Those fine writers that specialized in double-entendres or clever symbolism to avoid direct sex content were just doing what they  normally did.

The fact is that the PCA was taken over by zealots that created positions of power for themselves. They fired up church protests, and then used fear of local censorship to get Hollywood to voluntarily accept their authority as to what constituted ‘acceptable’ movie content. It enforced a narrow, conservative, Judeo-Christian viewpoint on Hollywood for the next twenty years, and beyond.

Movies were infantilized, and a case can be made that they kept Middle America infantilized as well. The Story of Temple Drake is an extreme example, but the fact is that the PCA spoon-fed America for the next twenty years, with a fairly consistent diet of status-quo conservative propaganda. I guess that’s why I admire movies that said NO to the tyranny:  the noir subversives and the political dissenters. Back then, bucking the system was risky business.

Thank you Mr. Chairman, the soapbox yields. I strongly recommend The Story of Temple Drake.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Story of Temple Drake
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
All-new Supplements: Video conversation between cinematographer John Bailey, and Matt Severson of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; video essays by critics Imogen Sara Smith and Mick LaSalle about the film, censorship, the Production Code, the complexity of the film, and its central performance by Miriam Hopkins; Insert folder with original salacious ad art and an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 7, 2019
(6152drak)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.