The opening credits of The Story of Temple Drake inform you that it’s scripted by Oliver H.P. Garrett “from a novel by William Faulkner” without telling you its name. If you’re scratching your head, it’s the 1931 bestseller Sanctuary. If you had seen this film in 1933 – which would have been your last chance to see it for decades – you would have known that Paramount didn’t dare name the notorious novel and that some states and venues refused outright to show a film derived from such sordid and scandalous material.
Over 85 years later, Criterion brings a glittering restoration to Blu-ray, and the general public has another chance to see what the fuss was about. In today’s context, it’s a lively and vivid pre-Code melodrama that relies on two qualities: the performance of Miriam Hopkins and the gorgeous photography by Karl Struss, master of German Expressionism.
The film opens in a courtroom in a town of the American South called Dixon. The young court-appointed defense attorney, Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), jumps up to object to the judge’s prejudicial summation. Sitting behind Benbow in a tight three-shot is a black man in undistinguished work clothes. We may well conclude that he’s Benbow’s client and that he hasn’t got a chance. It’s a subtle detail that tells us about social context, and it’s gone in the flash of an edit.
A detail that lingers a bit longer is in the next scene, where Benbow is being encouraged by a different judge, Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing), to stop beating his head against brick walls for his clients. As the judge speaks, he produces a liquor bottle and pours himself a drink. This is one of those details much clearer to the 1933 audience than today, for Prohibition wasn’t formally repealed until the end of that year, so it was still in effect. In other words, the judge is shown casually violating the law.
As critic Imogen Sara Smith points out in an extra, the villainous bootlegger who will be introduced later in The Story of Temple Drake may well be the judge’s supplier, thus decisively linking the supposedly upstanding and most powerful elements of society with the criminal low-lifes long before they’ll be linked by our heroine, the judge’s granddaughter Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins). This is her social context, an already corrupt and predatory one through which she glides, respectable and untouchable.
The judge and Benbow discuss that she’s turned down Benbow’s marriage proposal, and we quickly learn from a montage of town gossip and her behavior that this child of privilege thoughtlessly strings along many men and is considered a tease. She tells Benbow, “man to man”, that she’s got two personalities at war inside herself and that she refuses his proposal because she thinks too much of him and wishes to spare him from her demons.
Things literally take a dark turn that night when a drunken semi-boyfriend (William Collier Jr.) turns over their car on a forest road on the way to a bootlegger’s hang-out in a falling-down Gothic plantation. They’re hardly injured but are roped into the grim festivities, where every leering man makes a play for the frightened Temple, who’s soaking wet because a thunderstorm is bursting around them for punctuation amid the slatted Expressionist shadows and other unholy lighting effects. In one bravura shot, the screen goes black except for the cigarette’s tip.
The other actor who makes an impression besides Hopkins is Jack La Rue as Trigger, as scary and affect-less an amoral gangster ever to grace early 1930s cinemas. He and Hopkins are often presented in competing close-ups staring straight into the camera, which alternately adopts their subjective positions as his sheer physical presence dominates her.
The whole plantation sequence is extremely menacing and discomfiting, thanks to the photography, the performances, and the direction of Stephen Roberts, who has introduced the camera’s forward mobility from the very first shot and maintained it consistently while keeping a firm hold on his actors.
Comes the dawn, and viewers may think Temple Drake has managed to escape the night’s queasy threats. Unfortunately, as she sleeps in a barn of more latticed crisscrossing shadows, her real troubles begin in what’s really a kind of horror sequence that also includes a death. The Story of Temple Drake has transmogrified from a small-town social study to an Old Dark House thriller in which the worst happens. In the liner notes, Geoffrey O’Brien states that here, at least, “the film hews very closely to Faulkner’s text, with uncanny results. If the film had not been taken out of circulation, this extended sequence would doubtless have long since been acknowledged as a peak of early-thirties filmmaking.”
The subtle presence of corncobs behind Temple’s head is a nod to one of the novel’s unsavory details that couldn’t be filmed or even mentioned, although it must be added that Garrett’s script changes many details – for the better, according to critic Mick LaSalle’s extra. For example, the implication that Temple falls in love with a rapist (not the impotent corncob man but yet another character) is nowhere to be found in this film, where Temple gives every impression of being paralyzed into submission by her situation.
Then a near-catatonic Temple is whisked off to what seems to be a brothel. A lot more happens in this 70-minute film before a dramatic courtroom scene finally provides catharsis in a manner very different from the novel, which includes a lynching.
Rape (like lynching) was a topic almost entirely avoided in mainstream Hollywood cinema. After the Production Code crackdown of 1934, it became even more invisible as a violation of taste and decency – and to avoid boycotts and public condemnation. This pre-Code film is, therefore, among the very few studio-era talkies to make it a central theme. The next example would be Jean Negulesco’s also controversial Johnny Belinda (1948), for which Jane Wyman won an Oscar as a deaf-mute woman who literalizes the unmentionable nature of the act.
It’s significant that Negulesco directed that, for this young Romanian-born painter was just breaking into films in the early ’30s when he was commissioned to sketch storyboards for the crucial rape scene in The Story of Temple Drake, in order to provide an idea of how such a topic could be filmed in a manner acceptable to censors. His vivid boards are shown in an extra, and he, too, was clearly influenced by German Expressionism. Looking at the art, cinematographer John Bailey makes the connection with the woodcuts of Kathe Kollwitz. Thus, we can trace a direct line between German Expressionism, the 1933 film, the 1948 film, and Ida Lupino’s independent take on the same topic in Outrage (1950).
The Story of Temple Drake was considered so sordid that it was impossible to reissue after 1934, and it basically vanished until a 2011 restoration by the Museum of Modern Art. Today, as Smith points out, it comes across as a serious drama, not a salacious or scandalous one, and a film predicated on Hopkins’ many-shaded performance as she matures from an airhead with thoughtful undercurrents to a woman humiliated and enraged.
Temple is afraid of the scandal that comes with telling the truth (an element that hasn’t dated, unfortunately), and one crucial decision of the screenplay is to make it her choice to testify after Benbow loses his nerve at the last moment. She has to find the nerve for him and herself, and thus she reclaims control over the narrative of her life.
Hopkins, an epitome of elegance and intelligence, took lots of ballsy pre-Code chances, as witness her work in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933). Wikipedia’s article on The Story of Temple Drake quotes her on the role, as reported in Allan R. Ellenberger’s Miriam Hopkins: Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel (2017, University Press of Kentucky), in which she stated, “That Temple Drake, now, there was a thing. Just give me a nice unstandardized wretch like Temple three times a year! Give me the complex ladies, and I’ll interpret the daylights out of them.”
Today’s viewers may also reasonably ask who the heck Stephen Roberts is and why haven’t we heard of such a fine director. The answer is that although he directed more than 100 films, they were all shorts until he started features in the early talkies. He died suddenly in 1936 at only 40 years old. He followed The Story of Temple Drake with the beautiful, bittersweet, wistful pre-Code character study One Sunday Afternoon (1933) with Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, which spawned two significantly different remakes by Raoul Walsh. We can only wonder what would have become of Roberts’ career.