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Between 1930 and early 1934, in the years after Hollywood's transition to sound and before the Production Code imposed a moral policeman to censor the content of Hollywood movies, was a lively period referred to as the Pre-Code era. While there was no explicit sexual activity or violence shown onscreen, many films indulged in lurid suggestions of promiscuity and bad behavior, and some even dared suggest that sex was a part of American adult lives.
The Story of Temple Drake, produced in 1933 (at the height of Pre-Code sophistication and confidence), is one of the most daring and disturbing of these films. Mick LaSalle, in his book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, describes the film as "humid with sex, a sense of animal-like motives beneath the surface." Based on William Faulkner's notorious novel Sanctuary (first published in 1931), it stars Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake, the wild child granddaughter of a moralistic old judge (Sir Guy Standing) blind to her good time lifestyle and her attraction to reckless bad boys. He still harbors fantasies that nice boy Stephen (William Gargan), an idealistic attorney who defends indigent clients pro-bono, will one day marry Temple and calm her restless nature, but Temple has other ideas. Her impulsive, self-destructive nature lands her in the back-road hideout of hillbilly bootleggers and their big city gangster partner, a sneering, savage thug accurately named Trigger (Jack La Rue).
Bad girls go to hell in so many of these movies but Temple isn't bad so much as rebellious and "loose," a pleasure-seeking young woman who defies convention. She just wants to have fun and ends up a prisoner of the most depraved gang this side of a seventies drive-in thriller. "Hopkins first plays Temple as a flighty girl, and rather than transform her into someone noble, Hopkins assures us of her flawed character throughout," observes LaSalle. True to the genre, Miriam Hopkins strips off her wet gown to her skimpy silk skivvies, but this isn't some playful bit of cheesecake. She's literally stripped of her defenses and at the mercy of men who take their turns leering and then fight over her like dogs over a piece of meat; she's safe until the fighting stops and the top dog goes in to take his spoils.
Some of the elements of Faulkner's novel had to be toned down for the screen, yet what remains is still extreme even by the standards of the most adult Pre-Code movies. Unable to show the violence or the violations explicitly, director Stephen Roberts brings the camera in for uncomfortably intimate close-ups, surreptitiously putting us into point-of-view of both Temple and Trigger as he marches into her personal space and, as she screams and the screen fades to black, overpowers her. It's the start of an ordeal that includes rape, murder, prostitution, and systematic degradation. None of it is shown onscreen, of course, but the implications are unmistakable, as is the state of shock that comes over the once bubbly, lively Temple like a shadow of shame and pain. "Hopkins doesn't play the usual emotions, nor does she ask for sympathy," explains LaSalle. "She plays Temple merely as terrified, morally clueless, and odd. We watch her senses overload, then shut off."
Jack La Rue came to Hollywood by way of Broadway, leaving a successful career to test for the lead in Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932). Though he lost the role to Paul Muni, he stayed in Hollywood and carved out a career playing thugs and gangsters, often with a seductive and dangerous edge. Trigger was his most darkly menacing role and, along with the lead in the 1948 British noir thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish (another crime thriller that pushed the envelope of sex in the cinema), his most memorable screen appearance.
The Story of Temple Drake was released in 1933, just before Joseph Breen and the new Production Code Administration arrived with the power to censor Hollywood films. When the Code went full force the next year, The Story of Temple Drake and many other films were pulled from the screens rather than submit to drastic cuts or reshoots. And while periodically revived in festivals of Pre-Code movies, it has been more difficult to see than many of the less daring but more famous Pre-Code films of its time. It has yet to be rediscovered by many fans of the era.
Miriam Hopkins was a guest at a screening of The Story of Temple Drake at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. According to LaSalle, after the screening, the sixty-nine-year-old star quipped to the women in line for the ladies' room: "Ya'll suffered through this but I suffered most. I think I should be allowed to go in first." Even in retirement, Hopkins had sassy style. She passed away later that year.
Producer: Benjamin Glazer
Director: Stephen Roberts
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett (screenplay); William Faulkner (novel "Sanctuary"); Maurine Dallas Watkins (uncredited)
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Music: Karl Hajos, Bernhard Kaun (both uncredited)
Cast: Miriam Hopkins (Temple Drake), William Gargan (Stephen Benbow), Jack La Rue (Trigger), Florence Eldridge (Ruby Lemarr), Sir Guy Standing (Judge Drake), Irving Pichel (Lee Goodwin), Jobyna Howland (Miss Reba), William Collier, Jr. (Toddy Gowan), Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Jennie), James Eagles (Tommy).
BW-72m. Closed Captioning.
by Sean Axmaker
Sources:"Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood," Mick LaSalle. Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.IMDb