One of the spiciest of pre-code movies ever made was The Story of Temple Drake. It was 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 on screen. Subsequently, during the opening credits it reads from a “novel by William Faulkner.” Still, the film remained and 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 boys, her always ending the evening in the back seat of an automobile. Her name even ends up on a men’s room wall with some choice descriptions. Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) 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 (William Collier Jr) and late one night, driving with too much to drink, the car at high speed, Toddy loses control crashing off to the side of 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 a decaying southern mansion where his gang of bootleggers operate and live. The next morning Trigger kills young Tommy who was attempting to protect Temple from harm. He then brutally rapes Temple. 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. 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 anf admitting to murdering Trigger.
The Story of Temple Drake is a classic example of pre-code excessiveness posing as a morality tale, that led to the tightening of the Production Code. Promiscuity, heavy drinking, bondage, excessive violence, steamy sex and exposed skin all made 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. As Mick LaSalle writes in Complicated Women, she “first plays Temple as a flighty girl, and rather than transform her into someone noble, Hopkins assures us of her flawed character throughout.” Forced by Benbow, but more by her own conscience, she admits on the stand that she willingly stayed with Trigger and 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, 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, whereas Gilda Farrell, Hopkins cannot decide which man she loves 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, the role of Duke Mantee 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 under Clarence H. White, a founding member of the Photo-Secession movement. His work was eventually noticed by Alfred Stieglitz, with eight of his works being published in the prestigious Camera Works photographic journal. Struss 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 he worked on include The Sign of the Cross, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island of Lost Souls among many others. In The Story of 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 as a directo 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. The film starred Lee Remick 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 TCM did broadcast at least once. Sadly, it’s a minor effort.
This post is part of the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon. For more takes on the films and life of Ms. Hopkins please check out the link below.