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No Sanctuary in the Light: The Story of Temple Drake

Miriam Hopkins in The Story of Temple Drake (1933) (IMDB)

The Story of Temple Drake grapples with the unbidden, unsettling force of emergent sexuality.

One of the most remarkable elements of the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Story of Temple Drake (1933) is its inclusion in the folded insert of eight different advertisements for the film from the time of its release. Six of the eight feature lead actress Miriam Hopkins alone, while two include the looming visage of Trigger (played by Jack La Rue), the man in the film that rapes Temple and yet also captivates her in some undisclosed and perhaps ineffable manner.

Six of the advertisements focus on Temple in déshabillé, often emphasizing her bare arms or the deep-cut V of her negligee. Her face is at times stricken with fear, in other instances frozen in rigid defiance; in two cases, she is turned away from the viewer, the text declaring "I can never face the world again!" In one ad, her head floats in empty space, edited away from her neck and body, while a broad black line is drawn across her face—an act of dismissal or perhaps of violence, canceling her personhood, or feebly attempting to curb her alluring power, depending on your point of view.

But for all their graphic power as images, the accompanying texts are more troubling. A particularly verbose ad runs:

As long as there ARE girls like Temple Drake you ought to know about them! S-h-h-h! They have whispered about girls like this for generations…now of the first time somebody has the courage to frankly tell you about them! Temple Drake was the dramatic victim of her own desire!

The lasciviousness breathlessly implied by the excessive use of exclamation points is only further reinforced by the warning: "NOTE: Children not admitted. This picture is suitable for adult minds only." Another ad reads: "All the Drakes had a wild streak! Something bad in them that crops out when you least expect it… an inherent… unconquerable taint!" Another insists: "Women whispered her name—Men laughed—but remembered!" while another simply states "Women will understand."

Taken together, these ads reveal a fascinating and disturbing attempt to pre-characterize the culpability of a woman at the center of a story of rape and abduction. In doing so, the advertisements strive to provide explanation and justification where the far more canny and complex film itself supplies ambiguity and rich contradiction.

Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The ads insist that Temple is a confirmed type—a girl with a wild streak—that this is something she is, not a set of behaviors in which she engages; she simply is a girl "like this" and thus becoming a rape victim derived from her own misdirected and ultimately antisocial desire. She carries within her an "unconquerable taint"—which, besides being an intentionally ugly turn of phrase, presents a distressing view of personhood. Her surface beauty—all blonde curls and supple limbs—belies an underlying, inextinguishable corruption that threatens not only self-destruction but the integrity of the social fabric.

Most alarming of all is that taciturn ad that simply declares "Women will understand." Given the implicit causal explanation of a rape that emerges in the interstices of these advertisements, what are we to assume women will so readily understand? The image that comes to light within the pallid glare of such press is the familiar one of the contaminate female, whose enticing but mysterious sexuality connotes a corrupting disorder—untamed and perhaps untamable by masculine order except through domestic obligation. Before one even sees the film, Temple is portrayed as a girl "like that" in her enjoyment of the desire of others, a power deemed unfair and perhaps emasculating in its wanton efficacy.

This is not to say, of course, that the texts of the advertisements have no direct bearing on the film as such. Three of the ads emphasize that Temple (and indeed "all the Drakes") have a "wild streak" or "something BAD in them"—a quotation from the film itself uttered by Aunt Jennie (Elizabeth Patterson) attempting to convince her upstanding lawyer nephew Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) to leave Temple be. Stephen had proposed to Temple with encouragement from her grandfather, Judge Drake (Guy Standing), who serves as Temple's guardian since her father died in World War I.

In a relatively early party scene, Stephen asks her again. Temple refuses, claiming to have two irreconcilable sides to her nature. One part of her has wanted to marry Stephen since they were children and loathes the thought of him not being hers. But there is another part of her (what she terms another "me"). She doesn't understand the motives behind the deeds perpetrated by this darker side; she doesn't understand its desires; she merely knows that she hates it.

She claims that she must refuse Stephen in order to protect him from this sinister and furtive aspect of her being. Moreover, the inevitable implication is that she has no means of reconciling one aspect of her nature to the other, no means of controlling the disturbing contumaciousness, the wild streak, that resides within her. And thus, we get closer toward what the film accomplishes that the advertisements (with all their captivating assurances that the nature of "this kind of girl" will be revealed) fails to recognize. The Story of Temple Drake, for all its gothic trappings, grapples with an issue that far transcends the relatively circumscribed population of people that might be considered "that kind": the unbidden, unsettling force of emergent sexuality.

William Gargan as Stephen Benbow and Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake [© Courtesy Everett Collection (IMDB)]

The Story of Temple Drake is based on William Faulkner's Sanctuary, a novel its author referred to as a "potboiler" that he wrote specifically to attain the broader readership he felt his earlier great novels, including The Sound and the Fury, had not received. Despite his insistence on his mercantilist motivations, it is clear that Faulkner approached writing this novel with his characteristic care for psychological depth and the weight of history and circumstance upon his protagonists.

While it is typical for critics to insist that The Story of Temple Drake is only loosely based on the novel, the film is remarkably faithful to its source, considering the obvious impediments to representing onscreen some of the more salacious elements of Faulkner's narrative. The central episode of the novel, after all, is the protracted buildup to and aftermath of a rape. The film manages to realize many of the fine details of Faulkner's conception while also capturing the novel's refusal to explain away the imponderables of our desire, the impenetrable darkness that haunts our decisions, rendering them inscrutable even to ourselves.

The novel provides rather scant introduction to Temple. We read that she is a flirtatious college girl of 17 and is willing to sneak out with boys in a manner not permitted by her dorm. With this meager knowledge of her, we find her in the midst of her turmoil: trapped at a dilapidated house occupied by bootlegging men, all of whom seeming eager to violate her. The film, however, provides greater insight into Temple's confusion over her sense of self. Whereas the novel leaves Temple for large swaths of its length, the film is dominated by Temple and indeed, after a brief court scene introducing Stephen, Miriam Hopkins as Temple takes immediate control of the film.

We first see her arm reaching backwards through the barely opened front door of the home of her grandfather. We hear her speaking coquettishly to a suitor who clearly doesn't want the date to end; his arm enters our field of vision, his hand grasping hers. She fends him off, insisting that he is becoming too rough, and her full body enters the home and thus the screen. Slightly disheveled, she ascends the staircase, meeting her grandfather on the landing. He questions her reasons for being out so late and she gently flirts in that manner that a naughty girl does with an authority figure—at once innocent and yet mildly suggestive; she asks him to help her loosen the ties of her dress.

In the party scene that follows, before her interview with Stephen, we see her in a car with a young man, engaged in a prolonged kiss. She pushes him off, insisting they go in to the celebration. Her date objects, accusing her of getting him aroused and then providing him no relief. She smiles back at him. "Do I do that, sure enough?" she teasingly intones. Hopkins plays the moment with a curious combination of assurance and genuine curiosity regarding her power over the man. It ought not to be surprising that her declaration to Stephen occurs shortly afterwards.

James Eagles as Tommy Bassett, Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake, and William Collier, Jr. as Toddy Gowan (IMDB)

She doesn't seem to believe that her sensual power over men belongs entirely to her. And, of course, it doesn't. Part of that allure will dissipate once she has been taken by Trigger, once she has been consigned to a house of prostitution. Her allure depends not simply upon her unwillingness to comply fully with male desire; it is equally bound up in her relative innocence, the fact that she seems simultaneously unassailable and attainable—for the right suitor, of course. Every man she meets wants to believe that he is the right one.

The common-law wife of the bootlegger (Florence Eldridge) recognizes the danger Temple presents to herself and those around her—or rather the danger that arises from her being among men that are unwilling to play their roles in the games Temple orchestrates, whether she intends to do so or not. Her mere presence sets such games in motion. Or better yet, these games are always already in motion; the players emerge from the situation, driven on by some combination of biological imperative and the willingness of society to turn a blind eye to the depredations of sexual longing when that longing seeks to take advantage of a young woman discovering a hidden power that turns out to be rather little power after all.

This is the dark reality that Faulkner excavates in Sanctuary through its narrative structure. At times, as is typical of the author, Faulkner allows us inside the head of his characters. But in Sanctuary he tends to remove us from that space of insight just when the character seems on the verge of revealing what we most want to know: motive. Why does Temple flit around the dilapidated mansion in full view of the men instead of installing herself in some secret corner earlier in the evening? Why does she nearly dare her assailant to attack and then remain with him after the attack?

The film, of course, has no recourse to the inner thoughts of its characters. Rather, it attempts to get at the secret truth of its understanding of desire through the visible. The Story of Temple Drake, directed by Stephen Roberts and photographed by Karl Struss (whose previous credits include Murnau's Sunrise), awes the viewer with innovative lighting techniques, gripping pacing of scenes, and an expressive yet inscrutable use of the close-up.

One of the most striking scenes finds Temple secluded in a bedroom. The single source of light appears to be a lantern, throwing a lurid glare upon her. The light, upon closer scrutiny, actually derives from a source hidden below the prop lantern. This slight subterfuge suffuses the scene with a haunting lambency, creating shadows of expressionist length and depth.

But the true tour-de-force of the scene comes at its end. After one ruffian assaults Temple and is ushered out by another man, the bootlegger's wife, Ruby, berates Temple for her capriciousness, her willingness to waste the money and time of boys, and reminds her that now she is surrounded by men, dangerous men willing to take what they want regardless of whether or not Temple approves.

They hear the sound of approaching footsteps and Ruby blows out the lantern. We see the backlit silhouette of Trigger, smoking as usual, entering the room. He shuts the door behind him and for a brief but breathtaking scene, the only source of light appears to be the burning end of his cigarette. Of course, this is another clever trick developed by Struss. The burning embers of a cigarette would not show up properly on film stock of the 1930s. The actor must have substituted a pin light for the cigarette at the moment the door was closed.

The effect of this contrivance is stunning. The speck of red light moves slowly, directly toward the place where we know the bed to be, the place we know Temple lies. The movement of the light communicates more than mere directionality. We recognize the swagger and assurance of Trigger in the ineluctable trajectory of the burning cigarette. There is something curiously menacing about this man wandering in the dark with a lit cigarette zeroing in on what he assumes is the exposed flesh of an unprotected woman. The threat, by being understated, is all the more horrible.

As the ember sinks toward the bed, we hear Temple cry out as though she had been groped. A flash of lightning reveals yet another man in the room, there to chase Trigger out. The lamp reignites and Ruby illuminates the entire room. Once again, the characteristically long and harrowing shadow extends behind Trigger, but he and his intentions are brought to light. He is surprised and thwarted, for now.

The rape scene in the barn also depends upon lighting for its strange impact—light coming through the gaps in the wooden slats, falling in a flattering softness upon Temple's face while illuminating the straw surrounding her body in the harsh insistence of near-overexposure. The light comes in from all angles at once—there is no clear source, as though the entire barn were surrounded by floodlights. Shadows extend in every direction, defeating any concrete sense of perspective, providing the scene with an almost clinical quality.

Jack La Ru as Trigger (IMDB)

The light is at once accusing and forgiving, cynical and sympathetic. Whereas light in the earlier scene provided the exposure of the crime that derailed Trigger's attempt to carry it out, light here, at the moment of rape, reveals all and protects nothing. The light coming through the slats creates interstices of illumination and shadow as opposed to the alternation of darkness and the light of the earlier scene. Now there is no hiding in darkness and no sanctuary in the light. It is all too much to bear—for Temple and for the viewer—and at the moment of attack, the camera turns to black, shunting away the sight of the abomination, closing on Temple's scream.

Apparently, it was too much to bear for the film industry as well. The Story of Temple Drake has long been considered one of the films that so shocked audiences that it led to the tighter restrictions brought in by the Hays Code, adopted in 1930 but not enforced in any systematic manner until 1934. Between 1930 and June 1934, the code was entirely ineffective and relied upon directors to have the final say on the loose suggestions the committee made.

On 13 June 1934, however, an amendment to the code established the Production Code Administration under the guidance of Joseph Breen. Now films had to pass this censorship board or they would not be released. Moreover, earlier films had to be cut in order to fit the strictures of the code. This meant that many pre-Code films such as Mata Hari (1931) with Greta Garbo were subjected to cuts to suit the censorship, leaving behind no original uncut print of the films. Perhaps it is fortunate then that The Story of Temple Drake was considered to be too beyond the pale to salvage and thus banned outright. Now that the Hays Code is a mere memory, a bit of antiquated film trivia that had a huge impact on two decades of film production, we can view the scathing work—left unscathed by censorship.

* * *

Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray special edition of The Story of Temple Drake, a film largely unseen since shortly after its release in 1933. This release comes with three extras: a conversation between cinematographer John Bailey and the director of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts Matt Severson concerning archival material related to the film and the film's visual style; a discussion of Miriam Hopkins by film critic Imogen Sara Smith; and a discussion of the development and enforcement of the Hays Code by critic Mick LaSalle. All three extras are worth viewing but LaSalle's discussion is particularly engaging.

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