One of the spiciest of the pre-code movies ever made was “The Story of Temple Drake” based on William Faulkner’s decadent novel, “Sanctuary” which was considered a scorcher for its time. Published in 1931, the novel dealt with rape, bondage and murder, and can probably be compared to today’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy in its notoriety. By the standard of the studios and the production code it was considered to be one of those books, like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” some 15 years later, a work that was too hot for the screen and could not be made into a movie. Yet, just two years after its publication, Paramount purchased the rights and it arrived on the screen, though not without some fine major tuning and modifications. The Hays Office refused to allow the studio to name the novel in any way, subsequently during the opening credits it reads from a “novel by William Faulkner.” Still the film remains one of the most controversial and wicked of pre-code films. Faulkner, it is said, based his novel on a true story and wrote it expressly as a commercial venture to sell books with no consideration of artistic intent.
Temple Drake, pre-code favorite Miriam Hopkins, is the granddaughter of an influential judge in a small Southern town. Temple has a ‘bad reputation’ with the boys always ending the evening in the bad seat of an automobile. Her name even ended up on a men’s room wall with some choice descriptions. Stephen Benbow is a local up and coming lawyer who is in love with Temple and wants to marry her but Temple admittedly has the devil in her and is not looking to settle down. Party girl Temple does go out on a date with Toddy Gowan and late one night driving, with too much to drink, at high speed Toddy loses control crashing off the side to the road with both Temple and Toddy tossed from the vehicle. Shook up but not badly hurt they are found by Trigger (Jack La Rue) the snappy dressing leader of a nearby bootlegging gang and Tommy (James Eagles) a teenage boy with mental issues or as they use to say, he’s a bit slow.
Trigger forces the couple to go back to a decaying southern mansion where his gang of bootleggers operate and live. The next morning Trigger kills young Tommy who was protecting Temple from any harm. He then brutally rapes her. Soon after Trigger takes Temple over to Miss Reba’s place, a whorehouse, where she will be Trigger’s sex slave. When Lee Goodwin (Irving Pinchel) a member of Trigger’s gang is accused of murdering Tommy, lawyer Benbow is assigned to defend him though Goodwin, who is innocent, won’t talk, fearing Trigger will kill his kids.
Back in those days there was no name for what became known as the Stockholm Syndrome, a victim coming to identify with and have feelings for her captor, but here we have Temple willingly staying with Trigger who both forces her to prostitute herself and be his own personal sex slave.
Temple only finds the courage to leave after Benbow discovers it was Trigger who killed Tommy and he confronts the gangster in his office. Temple saves Benbow’s life by acting as if she’s in love with Trigger and wants to stay with him. After Benbow leaves in disgust Temple decides to leave Trigger but the hoodlum assaults her one more time. As it turns out it was one time too many. She shoots Trigger, killing him, and escapes back home. In order to prove Goodwin innocent Benbow must get Temple to take stand which forces Temple to expose her sordid past to her hometown and finally admitting to murdering Trigger.
“The Story of Temple Drake” is a classic example of pre-code excessiveness that led to the tightening of the Production Code. Promiscuity, heavy drinking, excessive violence, steamy sex and exposed skin all make for one hot humid 75 minutes of celluloid. I doubt there could have been anyone more appropriate for the role of Temple Drake other than Miriam Hopkins. She manages to convey her character, as Mick LaSalle writes in “Complicated Women,” from a flighty girl, and rather transforms her into someone noble” by the end of the film. Forced by Benbow but more by her own conscience, she admits on the stand that she willingly stayed with Trigger and that the law will never find him because she shot him.
Hopkins made some other steamy pre-code films. Who can forget her seductive slut Ivy seducing Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll, while removing her clothes and sitting on the edge of the bed barely covered in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Then there was what may be her most controversial pre-code, the Ernst Lubitsch comedy “Design for Living” where as Gilda Farrell, Hopkins cannot decide which man she loves them most and gets the two men (Gary Cooper and Frederic March) to agree they should all live together.
Jack La Rue made a career out of playing underworld thugs but never quite made it to the big time. La Rue was passed over in favor of George Raft in Howard Hawk’s “Scarface” and again lost, this time to Humphrey Bogart in “The Petrified Forest” after Leslie Howard insisted on Bogie recreating his stage role. La Rue did appear in such films as “My Favorite Brunette,” “Footsteps in the Dark,” “East of the River” and most prominently in the Brit Noir “No Orchids for Miss Blandish.” Coincidently, La Rue got the role of Trigger after George Raft got a bit nervous about playing the part and backed out. To say the least he is chilling in the role.
In addition to the two leads the other most outstanding feature here is the cinematography of Karl Struss. Struss began his career as a still photographer studying under Clarence H. White. His work was eventually noticed by Alfred Stieglitz with eight of his works being published in the prestigious Camera Works photographic journal. His still work appeared in such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1919 he moved to Los Angeles where he became a still photographer for Cecil B. DeMille. One year later he made his first film as a cinematographer. Other films include, “The Sign of the Cross,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Island of Lost Souls” among many others.
In Temple Drake Struss sets the tone with a dark gothic soft focus look where anything can and does happened. His lighting of Jack LaRue in extreme close up enhances LaRue’s character’s evil intent dramatically. The entire look of the film is moody with a dirty depression era feel.
The film was directed by Stephen Roberts whose career was shortened due to his early death at the age of 40 in 1936. His last film was “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” with William Powell and Jean Arthur. He never made a truly great film but again his career was sadly cut short and his status is decidedly unclear.
In 1961, the film was remade with the original title of the novel, “Sanctuary” integrating Faulkner’s sequel “Requiem for a Nun” with Lee Remick now in the role of Temple Drake along with a cast that included Yves Montand, Bradford Dillman, Strother Martin and folk singer Odetta. It was Directed by Tony Richardson. I don’t believe the film has ever been released in a home video format though I know TCM did broadcast at least once.