Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: The Story of Temple Drake

My first connection with The Story of Temple Drake (1933) was a still photo of one of the scenes from the film in a coffee table book of Hollywood films that I owned as a young teenager. The picture is almost black, the only light coming from a small oil lamp in the dingiest of decaying rooms, and being illuminated by this tiny flicker are actresses Miriam Hopkins, Florence Eldridge and a rickety old metal frame bed. Both females look haggard and much the worse for wear. The photo fascinated me. I had no idea what the film was about but it looked like a really creepy horror movie. Intrigued, I dug a little deeper and found The Story of Temple Drake was based on a 1931 William Faulkner story called Sanctuary. So off I went to the local library and checked out a musty smelling, decades old edition of Faulkner's story. With each page that turned my eyes widened. At fourteen, I had seen and read some racy stuff but not something under the guise of high literature! It was years before I actually got to view Temple Drake and it was definitely worth the wait.

Temple Drake is a wild buck of a girl who lives during Prohibition in the Deep South. She is a well to do debutante and granddaughter of a wealthy and influential local judge. Of her many beaux (the word fits perfectly in this part of the film) is a young and devoted attorney, Steven Benbow, of whom her grandfather heartily approves. "you know Steven," he says to the young suitor, "I'd feel better about Temple, if I knew she had someone steady and reliable like you to take care of her...She's a good girl, Steven." In the next scene, we see Temple, hair and evening dress disheveled, sneaking into the house she shares with her grandfather at four o'clock in the morning and giddily saying good night to a man who in NOT Steven. The next time we see the saucy wench she is doing some passionate necking in a convertible with her frat boy paramour. But instead of a tramp, we find out that Temple Drake is just a big tease who likes to get the fellows all hot and bothered. She's the belle of the ball. The first fifteen minutes of the film could have served as Miriam Hopkins', who plays Temple, screen test for Scarlett O'Hara, a role for which she was considered.

As the film progresses, our girl Temple and her drunken boyfriend are involved in an auto accident on a back road after leaving a country club dance. When they come to in the darkness, they are approached by a couple of shady figures, one of which ogles Temple with his flashlight, shining the torch from top to toe on her figure. With a major rainstorm approaching, the two are taken to a dilapidated, crumbling, isolated old plantation house where Temple is greeted with the leering and lecherous eyes of a group of bootleggers who use the house as their hideout and operations center. Among the group is a lone woman, the bitter, careworn moll of one of the thugs, whose baby is kept in the wood box so "the rats don't get it." She does her best to keep the men from literally ripping the dress off Temple's body. With the help of an inbred, half witted man-boy, Temple is kept safe in the barn. The next morning she awakes from a restless night in a horse stall, to find the meanest, most menacing of the goons, Trigger, coming toward her. When the half wit tries to help, Trigger shoots and kills him (They don't call him Trigger for nothing). He then rapes and kidnaps Temple, taking her to a bordello called Miss Reba's place, in Memphis.

The Story of Temple Drake is a lost pre-Code masterpiece. When the Production Code finally took effect, the year after the film's release, Joseph Breen, the Codes administrator, wouldn't allow it to be re-released and it didn't get back into circulation for decades. It is truly one of the most adult films of the era, even though a watered down version of Faulkner's tale (in the book, Trigger's character is impotent and rapes Temple in the barn with a corn cob!). The scenes at the bootleggers coven are by far the best. They are dark, somber and weird. Hopkins' Temple is truly horrified while at the same time fascinated with all the depravity around her. She finds herself drawn to Trigger's machismo, no matter how fearful she is. The feel of the pre-Depression, rural South is exuded very effectively. Hopkins, a Georgia native, uses her most authentic drawl as the over-ripe belle who goes from getting her way in all life's aspects, to becoming the sex slave of an oily hoodlum. Cinematographer Karl Struss makes an effectual use of close ups between Hopkins and a cigarette lipped Jack LaRue, who plays Trigger, when denoting upcoming intercourse.

Full praise must go to Miriam Hopkins. As Temple, she uses the full range of the multi-emotional bag of acting tricks for which she is famous. But unlike many of her later roles, she doesn't have to go over the top to prove she is the star of the show. That's definitely a given. She has a pre-Code sexiness that is lacking in her films of the late 30's and 40's. Jack LaRue's Trigger is both overtly masculine and alarmingly dangerous. Finally as Ruby, the white trash bootlegger's woman (its never established that they are married), Florence Eldridge (Mrs. Fredric March), gaunt and wan, reeks of world weariness and exhaustion. Merely surviving and keeping her man take all the energy she can muster.

Any pre-Code or Miriam Hopkins fan who has never seen The Story of Temple Drake is in for a wonderful treat. The raw earthiness of this lurid tale combined with skilled film making create a rare gem of early 30's American cinema. The film was remade in 1961 under the original Faulkner title, Sanctuary, but it doesn't hold a candle to this little seen classic.


  1. Oh my gosh! I've wanted to see this for ages and never thought to look on youtube. Thank you, thank you thank you!! I'm off to go watch it now :D

  2. I love Miriam Hopkins but have never seen this film unfortunately. I love her best in We Three with the terrific Joel McCrea, a most underrated actor especially in the 30s before Sullivan's Travels. I look forward to grabbing this film sometime as some pre-code films are really good fun... YouTube, here I come....

  3. One never thinks about searching on YouTube! Thanks a lot for this entry, very intriguing!

  4. What an amazing find! Thank you for bring this to our attention. I had heard of this one but thought I would never get a chance to see it--thank goodness for cinemaphiles on You Tube! It's gems like these that make you realize how the Hays Code strangled Hollywood creativity for so long. A terrific essay again that shows your love for films and your ability to inspire others to see little known classics.

  5. What an incredible story you painted with your use of word! I'm so glad you posted this, Rupert! This is one film that needs to be added to my "Must See" list!
    Justin ;-}

  6. Excellent commentary! I watched it for the very first time this afternoon, on Youtube, per your suggestion. VERY racy!

  7. Love pre-codes Rupert and you have me going to utube right now to watch this one! I have never even heard of this movie. First one you caught me on. Great post!

  8. This was shown at the TCM Film Festival. (Which I wish I could have afforded to go to. One of these days . . . .)

  9. Rupert,

    Thank you , THANK YOU!!
    I had never seen this movie before and your piece on it was spot on.

  10. You are more than welcome Connie. I really enjoying writing this piece, as the film was such a hoot!

  11. I felt bad for Temple, and so many of these pre code movies seem to judge females harshly.
    Keep writing Rupert.

  12. I love The Story of Temple Drake, it's my favorite pre-code film(and I LOVE my pre-codes)it's just so sleaztatic. Miriam Hopkins is great in it, but Jack La Rue makes the movie for sleazeball gangster in a film ever.



Related Posts with Thumbnails