Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From the SBBN Archives: The Story of Temple Drake (1933)


Back in August of last year, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s BBFF Stacia at She Blogged by Night took a summer sabbatical to go pearl diving in the Caribbean, and asked me to water the plants at her blog on a couple of occasions…not to mention picking up the out-of-date newspapers that had piled up in the driveway.  Because security is a bit lax at the SBBN complex, I was also able to borrow a few goodies from her film vault: one of them, Madam Satan (1930), was even the subject of a guest post at her blog proving I’m positively brazen when it comes to old movies.

Another Pre-Code gem that I was also able to obtain a copy of was the 1933 melodrama The Story of Temple Drake—a very watered-down adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary (which was brought to the screen a second time thirty years later in a version starring Lee Remick and Yves Montand).  The titular heroine, played by Miriam Hopkins in what may very well be her finest hour onscreen, is a Southern debutante of good family (her grandfather [Sir Guy Standing] is a local judge, father a war veteran) who enjoys a “fast” reputation among the eligible young men in town…and is gossiped about a great deal by other bluenoses of the community.  Temple’s flirtatious, to be sure (a choice bit of graffiti scrawled on a wall in the movie reads: “Temple Drake is just a fake/She wants to eat and have her cake”), but this doesn’t deter the romantic intentions of defense lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), who has proposed to Temple on several occasions—only to be turned down flat each time.

Out joyriding with young Toddy Gowan (William Collier, Jr.), Temple and her date for the evening wind up cracking up his automobile and are stranded (Toddy’s got a head wound that should probably receive medical attention) until they are “rescued” by a gang of bootleggers headed by Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel).  Temple and Toddy are taken back to Goodwin’s hideout just as a torrential rainstorm commences, and there they are introduced to Goodwin’s “mob,” including a dangerous mug named Trigger (Jack LaRue), who has lascivious designs on Ms. Drake (he’s not the only one—the whole male contingent in that household should wear name badges reading “reprobate”).  Goodwin’s common-law wife, Ruby Lemarr (Florence Eldridge), provides temporary protection when she confronts Trigger after he’s invaded the bedroom Temple is changing clothes in.  Ruby then leads Temple outside to a barn, telling her she’ll be safe.

The slow-witted Tommy (James Eagles) has kept watch over Temple during her stay in the barn, but Trigger manages to sneak in via the hayloft and invade our heroine’s personal space…and I do mean invade.  He shoots and kills Tommy when the boy discovers Trigger’s made himself at home, and then proceeds to rape Temple.  A traumatized Temple is then taken to a nearby town where—either out of fear, shame or just plain helplessness—she becomes the kept woman of the gunman in a rented room located in a boarding house managed by a “Miss Reba” (Jobyna Howland).

Bootlegger Goodwin is arrested for Tommy’s murder, and because he refuses to obtain legal representation, lawyer Benbow is assigned to defend him pro bono.  Goodwin won’t help his case, however, adopting the code of omerta because he fears retribution from Trigger.  Ruby won’t see her man hang for a crime he didn’t commit and tips Stephen off to Trigger’s whereabouts…and arriving at the boarding house, he is positively gobsmacked to see Temple in Trigger’s room.  Temple alibis Trigger, saying he was with her the night of Tommy’s murder…and after Stephen leaves, we learn that Temple lied to protect him from Trigger’s wrath.  Announcing her intentions to leave Trigger, Temple ends up shooting the mobster when he threatens her life.

Stephen is trying his best to defend Goodwin, even to the point of asking the judge (Henry Hall) to dismiss the case on grounds of circumstantial evidence.  His request is denied, but before he begins his defense he gets word that Temple wants to see him.  Temple, subpoenaed by Stephen to testify on Goodwin’s behalf, pleads with the lawyer not to put her on the stand…because if she testifies, she will also have to confess to the murder of Trigger…so what will her admirer do?

An article over at Film Threat about The Story of Temple Drake states that “it is not a very good production” and “is much less interesting than its sordid reputation would suggest.”  The individual responsible for this critical opinion wisely chose to leave his/her name off to stave off any ridicule they might receive on my end—I think the film is fascinating from start to finish, an atmospherically amoral tale of a woman’s seamy descent into Hell.  It’s one of my favorite pre-Codes, and has remained in the memory ever since I first saw it via a crappy VHS tape that I obtained from a collector friend…sadly, the tape did not survive the moves back-and-forth between Savannah, GA (birthplace of star Miriam Hopkins) and Morgantown, WV.  (The amateur psychologist in me can't help but wonder whether this reviewer watched it through a pre-Code prism or the jaded attitude of most film critics of this generation.)

I’ve never really been a huge fan of Miriam’s—mostly because she had an uncomfortable tendency to go overboard with the histrionics—but Drake is definitely a film worth mentioning on her cinematic resume.  (I also like her more mature performances in two later Paramount classics, The Heiress [1949] and The Mating Season [1951].)  A cocktease who doesn’t deserve what happens to her but nevertheless is forced to make difficult choices, Temple is one of the most intriguing of silver screen ladies and had the film not attracted the notoriety it did upon its initial release it wouldn’t be too out of sorts to suggest that Hopkins’ performance was worthy of an Oscar.  Jack LaRue’s performance as Trigger has received criticism as being rather one-note—but I think that’s mostly due to the way the character was written; scenarist Oliver H.P. Garrett (and Maurine Dallas Watkins, uncredited) probably saw no need to add much nuance to a man who’s really there to do a dastardly deed and then receive his just desserts after doing so.  Besides, director Stephen Roberts’ (shout-out to a West Virginia native!) close-ups of the menacing LaRue make him an unforgettable villain.  (George Raft was initially approached for the part but declined—allegedly he was concerned that playing Trigger would ruin his career but seeing as how the movie received limited distribution he probably would have gotten away with it.)

I’m also quite supportive of actress Florence Eldridge’s turn as Ruby; she captures nicely a woman who’s been beat down so often that any gesture of defiance or offer of help seems grandiose on her part.  (I love her crisp response to Hopkins’ query as to why her baby is kept in the wood box: “So the rats don’t get it.”)  The Film Threat piece also slams the movie for its less-than-flattering portrayal of the bootleggers in the film (suggesting a kinship between them and the villains from Deliverance) but with the exception of one or two characters none of the males in Temple Drake come off too well, something I attribute to Faulkner’s jaundiced worldview of his native South. (I’ve noticed, for example, that no one says much about the fair-weather Toddy, who comes to after his ordeal in the baggage area of a train station and then lights out back to Virginia as fast as his cowardly legs can carry him, leaving Temple to her own devices.)  TDOY fave Grady Sutton turns up briefly as one of Temple’s admirers at the dance, and it’s always nice to have him onboard.

Temple Drake was seen only briefly during its initial release but its controversial subject matter and adult themes got it banned in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and when the Motion Picture Production Code got its full head of steam the movie was branded a “Class 1” film offender by the Production Code Administration’s head honcho, Joseph Breen.  (Class 1 films were movies that were withdrawn with all deliberate speed and then never re-released again.)  It languished in obscurity for many years (except for a few 16mm prints owned by collectors) until The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ coaxed the Museum of Modern Art into collaborating on a restoration print that was shown at MoMA and TCM’s Classic Film Festival in 2010.  TCM aired it in September of last year, but if you missed it some generous soul has put it up on YouTube in a less-than-stellar print than Tee Cee Em’s.  It is truly a memorable film.

1 comment:

Cliff Aliperti said...

Fantastic write-up of a pre-code favorite that in my opinion deserves the reputation. I love pre-code Hopkins and think this would make a sexy as hell double-feature with Jekyll & Hyde. Jack La Rue received criticism? Shoot, I thought he was iconic in a part I think of almost in tandem Bogie's Duke Mantee. Great recognition to Eldridge too, she really is dreary here as the rat quote you selected makes quite clear!

Wasn't as big of a fan of Madam Satan, but I've only watched it once so far. After that bizarre is about as far as I'm willing to go yet.