"I've seen three generations of them in my time. They're a stiff neck lot, most of them. Proud and all that. There's a wild streak in them. Every now and then, one of them comes along like Temple -- with something bad in them. Something wrong. Maybe Temple will get over it but there's not one of them that's had it, didn't end up in the gutter."
No Pre-Code movie list is complete without The Story of Temple Drake
and there's a very good reason for that. The picture is in a class by itself insofar as the seamy, sleazy and gritty nature - - never mind the fact that it, coupled with Convention City
, a sex comedy, helped to bring on the Production Code and usher in a new era of filmmaking.
The Story of Temple Drake
is based on a William Faulkner work called "Sanctuary," which is about the rape and abduction of a Mississippi college age girl from a prominent local family. Published in 1931, "Sanctuary" was Faulkner's critical and commercial breakthrough but the novel was highly controversial due to its overriding theme of rape. While it was generally agreed that the book proved Faulkner was a highly talented writer, most reviewers found the book horrific. While the general consensus in Hollywood, an industry that always kept one eye on those bestselling and/or notorious works, was that "Sanctuary" was unfilmable, Paramount had no such qualms.
Flush with stars at the time but cash strapped, Paramount snapped up the rights to the story and cast Miriam Hopkins, who had created quite a stir in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
and Trouble in Paradise
, in the title role. Not coincidentally, both pictures made a tidy profit for her studio. Her popularity alone didn't make Miriam a perfect fit for the role of Temple - - like Temple, she too was a Southern belle (born in Savannah, Georgia and raised in nearby Bainbridge, Georgia), descended from a wealthy and notable family (her great-grandfather was the fourth mayor of Bainbridge and helped establish the local Episcopal church). She possessed the wild, carefree beauty that Temple had; Miriam could also portray longing, abject fright, and sad resignation.
|Surely someone named Trigger is trustworthy|
Perhaps the most important part outside of the title character was the role of Trigger, the man who rapes and abducts Temple. Called "Popeye" in Faulkner's book, the name was changed for obvious copyright reasons. Paramount assigned the part to George Raft, who was making a name for himself in the parts of gangsters and heavies. In fact, Scarface
, in which he portrayed coin-flipping Guino Rinaldo, released the year before Temple Drake
made Raft into a star. He, however, wanted nothing to do with Temple Drake
, feeling that Trigger was a sadist and playing such a role would ruin his reputation and effectively finish his career. His biographer claims that Raft told Paramount he would the film only if the studio put $2 million into his account, a not-so little insurance policy to support him if the film did indeed torpedo his burgeoning career. Instead, Paramount put him on suspension in February of 1933 and cast instead Jack La Rue, an actor who had been cast in Scarface
but, due to his deep voice and height, had been replaced by -- you guessed it -- George Raft.
As fair warning, spoilers lay ahead!
|Nothing good can come of this|
The opening credits of Temple Drake
give us glimpses into what's to come, with the dark, moody lighting and the flashes of the broken down, decrepit house.
The first we see of Temple isn't actually all of her but rather her arm as she's attempting to wrangle herself away from a date at three a.m. by getting through the front door. It's clear that she's laughing and having a wonderful time, while her date is anxious to continue what they've started. When she does make it through the door, she's literally on fire with the empowerment of control -- sexual and otherwise. Her grandfather, who is her guardian and also judge of their town, tries to reprimand her for staying out late and, in general, being wild but she quickly wraps him around her finger. It's clear that she has been doing this - - wrapping males around her finger -- for a long time.
|Temple playing with one of her dates|
She's presented to viewers as basically a good girl but a flirt or a tease. She enjoys playing games with her many dates but she apparently stops short of ever allowing them their way or consummating the relationships. Life for Temple Drake, up to this point, has been nothing but fun with little to nothing raining on her parade. It's only fitting that when tragedy (or comeuppance as some might see it) strikes, it does so with an actual lightning strike and terrible rainstorm.
Attorney Stephen Benbow has been in love with Temple, as apparently are most of the men in their town, and even proposed to her in the past but she has refused him. She obviously likes him a great deal, if not feels romantically toward him, but rebuffs him because she believes she is "no good." As town gossips speak freely about how "wild" Temple is, we have to assume that she believes this because she's heard it for so long. And also because Stephen, as a straitlaced and very responsible young man who works with her grandfather and sits at home with his elderly aunt and helps her knit, is deadly dull in her eyes. It's another confrontation with Stephen, during a dance, that starts the ball rolling into her eventual downfall.
|Temple and Stephen before the literal storm|
Desperate to escape Stephen's pleas for matrimony, monogamy, and fidelity, Temple leaves the shindig with a drunken acquaintance named Toddy who, in short order, manages to crack up their car and get them picked up by the menacing looking Trigger and clearly stunted Tommy who take them back to the rundown house seen in the opening credits. She isn't keen to accompany them into the woods and back to their place but Toddy, not drunk enough, only wants another drink and has no issue busting into the bizarre band of redneck-y characters that are playing a game of cards in the house. All the males, except for Toddy, are leering at Temple in such a way that watching the picture today, more than 80 years after it was filmed, is an uncomfortable experience. Things will only get worse.
Toddy is knocked unconscious when he attempts to defend Temple and her honor from one of them, who wants the pretty college girl, dressed in sheer, wet clothing, to sit on his lap. As all the men in the house are due to take a truck into "the city," Trigger - - clearly the alpha male -- decides that Toddy will be carried out to the truck and taken to the city but Temple will stay put. The only woman in the house, an old-before-her-time and understandably bitter Ruby, who is forced to wait on the men (one of whom is her maybe legal husband) and keep her baby, whom she refers to as "it," in the wood box so "the rats don't get it," has a mixture of both pity and resentment to the classy Temple. She's jealous of Temple, warning her to stay away from Ruby's own man, condescending of Temple, lecturing her about the type of girl -- tease -- she is, but also tries to protect her by sending her to the barn, with Tommy, to sleep as Trigger has stayed behind.
|Ruby is having none of Temple's angst |
Up to this point, the film has been dark and utterly disturbing. Knowing the subject matter, and having heard about the infamous rape scene, waiting for it to come is almost unbearable. The rain, with accompanying thunder and lightning, the spooky house, knowing that a bad man is hiding somewhere, along with the highly effective lighting, are all precursors to the horror movies that would see popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. These scenes alone reminded me so much of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
that I felt outright fear while watching. The Story of Temple Drake
did it first, and without a bit of gore.
It turns out that while Tommy is "off," he's a decent enough person overall. He sits in the barn with a gun to watch over Temple.
he next morning the sun is out and the mood of the picture lightens considerably - -but only very, very briefly. We see feet heading to the barn and we're in no doubt that it's Trigger, who has apparently waited long enough to claim Temple and her virginity. He skulks around the sleeping Tommy to pounce on his prize. The scuffle awakens Tommy who, after poking his head around to see what's going on, is rewarded with a bullet to his head, killing him instantly. We see Tommy fall, we see Trigger close the barn door and approach on the frozen Temple. She screams and then the screen goes blank.
Next time we see her there is no doubt as to what happened. She has tears streaming down her face and appears comatose in the car next to Trigger. He apparently likes her and is taking her away to "the city," where he has a room in what is clearly a bordello. He's going to turn Temple out.
Meanwhile, Ruby's partner, Goodwin, finds Tommy's body and notifies the sheriff, who immediately suspects that Goodwin himself is the killer and promptly arrests him. Ruby saw Trigger driving off with Temple and correctly deduces that Trigger must have killed Tommy in order to snatch Temple. Goodwin, afraid of Trigger's wrath, would rather stay mum and face the hangman than turn snitch on Trigger.
It's Stephen Benbow who is assigned to represent the indigent Goodwin and he eventually gets Ruby to tell him who actually shot Tommy. He goes looking for Trigger at the "house of ill repute" and is shocked to find Temple there, lounging about in a negligee and clearly for hire. Seeing that Trigger is prepared to shoot Stephen, she tells Stephen she went with Trigger willingly and is living with him, and working for him, willingly. To further prove her point, she gives Trigger a bit, wet kiss. Stephen is heartsick and leaves, but not before handing both of them a subpoena to appear in court.
|Living in a bordello and dressed like this . . . hmmm.|
It all becomes too much for Temple who packs up to leave Trigger. Trigger, who actually believed that Temple might have feelings for him that don't include revulsion and outright hatred, tells her she will never leave and slugs her. She shoots him with his own gun and takes off for home.
She goes to the courthouse, where her grandfather is upset that Stephen would actually subpoena his granddaughter for a trial involving someone like Goodwin. Temple does not want to take the witness stand, even to save an innocent Goodwin from the hangman's noose, because then everyone will know how far she's fallen. Stephen believes the right thing to do is provide testimony that she saw Trigger shoot Tommy but when he calls her to the stand, he cannot bring himself to ask, knowing that her reputation will be forever ruined. It's Temple herself that tells the story and it's Temple who tells the judge that they cannot find or question Trigger because she killed him. She then faints, as all proper ladies in the 1930s did when it just became too much. Stephen scoops her up and tells her grandfather that he should be proud of her for what she did and fade out, with the assumption that Temple's reputation won't be permanently ruined and Stephen will marry her.
|Temple on the witness stand|
Not surprisingly, The Story of Temple Drake
was banned in Pennsylvania and Ohio. New York would only agree to show it if the scenes involving sex and violence were reduced to a minimum (seriously, was there much left to the film?) So controversial was it that when the Hays Code went into effect, Joseph Breen ordered that the film never be re-released and the movie did not resurface for more than 20 years.
Amazingly, the film was reportedly significantly watered down in order to pass the censors in the first place. As such, the film version is quite different than the story in the novel, which has very different endings for Temple, Stephen Benbow, Trigger, and Goodwin.
I found Miriam Hopkins to be perfectly cast in this role and absolutely mesmerizing. Despite being 31 years old at the time of filming, she captures the flirtatious manner of the spoiled and aimless Temple as expertly as she captures the crushed, defeated, and resigned Temple post-rape. Her face is such a masterful window of emotions that even with no speech following Stephen Benbow's defection after finding her and Trigger, the viewer knows very well that was the last straw. The fact that she wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for this performance is infuriating and very likely more due to the scandalous and salacious story than anything else.
|Jack La Rue as Trigger|
It feels almost wrong to say this but I found Jack La Rue electrifying as Trigger. The camera captured his menacing approach and focused on his deep, mesmerizing eyes. He's a bad guy, no doubt, and probably has zero redeemable qualities but he's got that something. Some say The Story of Temple Drake negatively impacted his career, as George Raft had predicted, but looking up his credits showed him working throughout the 1930s and 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s. Would he have become leading man material without Temple Drake
? That's a hard question to answer but La Rue was Bogart before Bogart was Bogart.
The Story of Temple Drake
continues to create debate even to this day. Was Temple a willing participant in her rape? Did Trigger satisfy her bad-boy/bad-girl fantasies? Was the rape merely an excuse for Temple to leave town and kick up her heels as a prostitute? Did she kill Trigger because he had her motivations nailed?
Anything is possible. Even before the Production Code was put into place, the censors in 1933 only allowed certain aspects to be shown and suggested. It's too bad on the one hand but thank God on the other that the film was made when it was. A year later, The Story of Temple Drake
would never have seen the light of day, much less gotten to a soundstage. It does make you wonder what pictures might have come out of Hollywood had the Production Code never existed, if The Story of Temple Drake
is a model to base a theory on.
Regardless of what Temple's motivations may or may not have been, she's ultimately portrayed as a victim. A victim of Trigger. A victim of society and cultural norms at the time. She's just an average gal at the start of the film, one that is enchanted by her own domination over men who really will do anything to sleep with her. And one with natural and normal hormones and hormonal impulses. Were she not in a small town in the late 1920s, when the story takes place, and not the granddaughter of Judge Drake, Temple could sow her wild oats and not be scandalized for it. Were she allowed to do that, and not suffer the guilt of turning Stephen Benbow down because she's "no good" and can't promise that her urges won't impact their relationship, she may never have ended up in Trigger's path to begin with.
I find The Story of Temple Drake
one of the most intriguing, puzzling, unsettling, and unusual of the Pre-Code era. It's not a happy film and therefore not satisfying in the feel-good sense but it's brilliantly told and made, directed by the solid hand of Stephen Roberts, excellent camera work by Karl Struss, and wonderfully acted all around with the aforementioned Hopkins and La Rue, aided by Florence Eldridge as Ruby, William Gargan as Stephen Benbow and even a small part for the amazingly underrated Louise Beavers. The New York Times, back in 1933, found The Story of Temple Drake to be "a highly intelligent production . . . grim and sordid but . . . enormously helped by its definite dramatic value."
Interestingly, Miriam Hopkins had mixed feelings about the film in her later years, saying that she felt she needed to shower after viewing it for the first time in years and commending viewers in 1972 for sitting through it.
The Story of Temple Drake
is not available on DVD as far as I know and is shown only rarely on TCM. At one time it was available to view on Amazon Prime and was available in its entirely (75 minutes) on YouTube. It's worth the search.