Jack La Rue
|Released by Paramount Pictures | Directed By Stephen Roberts
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- I’m going to go ahead and just quote Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood on this one:
The Story of Temple Drake is a model of pre-Code immorality in at least three ways. First, the open questions posed by the narrative would neither be raised nor answered under the Code. Did Temple enjoy the rape? Did she willingly prostitute herself for Trigger? The inquiries alone are invitations to profane thoughts, occasions for sin at the moment of utterance. Second, the questions are truly open, unanswered, not closed by the narrative. The degree of Temple’s complicity in her rape and culpability for Trigger’s murder is unresolved. Third, the one lesson taught by the story of Temple Drake is the poetic justice in unlawful vengeance. In being raped, Temple receives just comeuppance for her sexual teasing for advertising promiscuity while being ‘just a fake’. The rapist-murderer Trigger is the agent of an unholy but just retribution, an avenging angel who shows this girl that she can’t have her cake and eat it too. If Temple doesn’t enjoy her degradation, the audience should.
The Story of Temple Drake: Shame, or Lack Thereof
I’ll go ahead and warn you now, this is one where it’s impossible not to get bogged down into the details. And The Story of Temple Drake, if you haven’t figured it out from just the scrawl above, is one of the most sordid, weird and deeply fascinating films of the pre-Code era.
Set in the small town of Dixon somewhere in the deep fried portion of the South, Temple Drake is about the youngest scion of the Drake family. It’s a distinguished bloodline, with grandfather being the most respected judge in the county, but there are rumors about Temple, that the blood in her is too hot, and that trouble is coming, in one form or another.
Temple Drake is a flirt, or, to convey that in a more modern parlance, a cocktease. Our first sight of her is just such a hint, her hand delicately pulling on the inside of the door while her whispers playfully beg a suitor to let her go inside and get some sleep. She’s gotten him riled up, but finds it more fun not to seal the deal. She won’t even enter the frame for the audience– we, too, are being messed with!
Once inside she’s confronted by her grandfather, demanding to know where she’s spent the night; she deflects by asking him help her unhook her dress. Whether you read this as a mere diversionary tactic or Temple using sex to get her way– incestuous as it may be– either will help inform the rest of the movie. The boundaries here are tenuous… and highly illicit.
Temple’s being courted by do-gooder district attorney Stephen Benbow. Besides having a highly goofy name, he suffers as a lover for simply being too dull. We see one scene of him spending his evening around the fire with his decrepit grandmother, content to listen to her ramble on about those Drakes and how they have ‘fire in the blood’ or such nonsense. He couldn’t look any more prematurely domestic if his chair rocked.
And so Temple must refuse his offers of marriage. Her life is one of finding the line between good and bad and doing a balancing act on it, and there’s no room for auntie there. The last time she refuses Benbow makes her so distraught that she rushes out of the party with a particularly hammered individual to hit the local moonshiners. This results in a car crash, and the movie verges from the domestic to the surreal.
Because no film gets to be called ‘Southern Gothic’ without one dress-soaking thunderstorm, just such a thing breaks out. Drake spies into the moonshiner’s dilapidated mansion (the same one shown under the beginning credits) and finds a crew of rowdy drunks, some blind, some clearly mentally deficient, and one who chomps on a cigarette. He’s got eyes that spell trouble; that’s Trigger.
The way Jack La Rue plays Trigger is killer, plain and simple. And, uh, not just because he’s a killer. He’s a model of impassivity. There are no broad smiles after a murder, nor does he leer at Temple with exaggerated lust. He’s a presence, a force. His looks are completely carnal, like a man who only sees what he wants in the world. His powerful body follows closely behind to make sure he gets it.
Temple enters the house, where the group of men each take turns either making a pass at her or clearly implying that they believe making a pass takes too much time. Horrified, she’s sheltered in her room by Ruby (Florence Eldridge), the only other woman there and tougher than dirt. After the men keep busting into Temple’s room to get a view of her in her delicates and then further press their ideas about sexual congress, she’s snuck out into the barn among the shucked corn. She’s guarded by Tommy (James Eagles), the only redneck among them with any sense of kindness to him.
But what I said before about Trigger is true. He sneaks into the rafters of the barn and lowers himself into the corn crib. Temple, who sees him enter, is either too petrified to scream or perhaps too intrigued. When Tommy opens the door upon hearing a noise, Trigger shoots him point blank and makes his way for the frozen woman.
If you were thinking at this point that The Story of Temple Drake is notorious merely for its rape scene, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
As it turns out, our next scene with Temple and Trigger shows the two of them on the run. Temple is frozen, but it’s not out of fear; she’s chosen to run away with Trigger to ‘the city’. Her face doesn’t have a look of trauma, exactly, but maybe something along the lines of a deep seated realization. What’s happened has destroyed her illusions about life forever, one way or another. Trigger takes her to a motel room and keeps her there. Or, more likely, she just happily stays.
Back in Dixon, her grandfather assures everyone that Temple’s visiting family in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Benbow sets to work on the defense case for moonshiner Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel) who is accused of Tommy’s death. He refuses to speak out for his own defense because he knows that Trigger will come after him. Benbow, for being as straightlaced as he is, is also extremely determined. He heads into the city and finds Trigger, and, in his stead, Temple.
The confrontation between the three is perfect in just how much is conveyed in looks and pauses. Temple’s negligee speaks volumes enough, and Benbow’s heartache upon entering the dingy hotel room is palpable. To cap it off, Temple throws herself onto Trigger when she notices him going for his gun. She saves Benbow’s life, but only further proves whatever thoughts he may be having about how low she’s sunk.
After Benbow leaves, Trigger brags about his hold on Temple. But he doesn’t see she’s in the other room packing; she’s realized that it’s time to face the music to her family and friends. Trigger becomes enraged, feeling that she led him on by making him think there were emotional connections in their relationship that didn’t just begin and end with their reproductive organs. There’s a tussle; Temple shoots Trigger dead.
Temple returns home in time for the final witnesses in Goodwin’s murder trial. Benbow is told in no uncertain terms that if Temple takes the stand, she will lie– or she may just confess to killing Trigger. But if she doesn’t take the stand, an Goodwin will go to the death house for a crime he didn’t commit.
The scene at the end of the recess where Temple essentially gives Benbow his choice is only a few seconds long, but William Gargan does some amazing work here. Most of the film he’s done an excellent job between playing Benbow as a guy who possesses a great passion for his job and someone whose external state betrays almost none of that. It’s only when his sense of justice is wronged does he ever snap out of his pleasant state of neutral, and by the end of the picture he’s just spiraling. In a few seconds walk from the judge’s chambers to the center of the courtroom, he has to choose between damning an innocent man and the life of the only woman he loves.
And, because of who he is, he calls her to the stand. It’s difficult for Benbow to get the questions out, but he appeals to Temple’s sense of history and the dignity of her family’s name. Though he sits back before asking the fateful question, she demands to answer it anyway. She confesses where she’s been, and admits to killing Trigger.
Temple collapses onto the floor in the form of the crucifix. She is picked up by Benbow, once again recreating the famous depiction of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus like we saw in The Miracle Woman. Equating Temple’s confession with the acts of Jesus– hell, she doesn’t even renounce her philandering, but merely confesses to it– is, well, blasphemy at the very least.
She’s sacrificing her reputation for an innocent man, sure, but the whole bit couldn’t help but remind me of Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man (1983). Verhoeven’s mission in making that movie was to insert as much symbolism as he could manage into the film under the belief that it would get him a free pass from critics. One wonders if Drake‘s director Stephen Roberts felt that by inserting weighty symbolism into such a sordid tale would somehow class up the film’s content, giving it an aura of sophistication, even if the symbolism feels unearned.
Or, hell, it may be sincere, saying that a woman confessing to less-than-saintly desires deserves pity and elevation. She’s sacrificed her social standing, her dignity, and her family name to do The Right Thing. Surely she deserves not just pity, but as Benbow implores her grandfather, for everyone ‘to be proud of her’. And it’s not like the film isn’t filled with other metaphors and nuances, from the broken down mansion in the film’s credits which indicates Temple’s life trajectory, or Ruby’s baby being kept in the wood box to keep the rats out– much like Temple, a box can only do so much. The movie clearly wants to expand itself beyond its own story to take on a sense of timelessness while often slipping then-common film narrative techniques to become more dreamlike. The touches I mention give the film a sense of yearning for finding some deeper truth about human motivation and desire and tying it all together in a few final, offbeat moments.
(Or I could be reading too much into it, but I’ll be damned the day I admit to that!)
The Story of Temple Drake feels like an excellent time to talk about censorship, since this film is a turning point for it. William Faulkner’s Sanctuary had been dubbed ‘unfilmable’ by the Hays’ Office, though that didn’t hold back the cash-strapped Paramount. The studio was forced to change the title from the original (notably the name of the novel doesn’t even appear with Faulkner’s credit in the movie, instead saying ‘Based on A Novel by’), but by keeping the main character’s name and putting it front and center, it wasn’t hard for the movie-going public to put two and two together.
The content still had to be censored– read a summary of Faulkner’s Sanctuary and you’ll know that it would be hard to make that into a movie today without running head first into a hard NC-17 rating. What’s weird is the ways it had to be censored. Censorship coming from the Production Code Administration functioned as a mediary between the artistic strides (and baser impulses) of the movie studios and public morals organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency. Paramount wanted to make the movie, so the Code Office had to find ways to make it palatable; it wasn’t until mid-1934 until the Office could just tell Paramount ‘no’ and the studio would have to live with it.
Again, back to the Faulkner original: the rape in the corn crib is actually played quite differently, as Trigger (named ‘Popeye’ in the book, changed for copyright reasons and because, hey, Trigger is a great euphemism) actually conducts the act with the aid of one of the corncobs. In the book he is impotent, and his slavery of Temple is an act of control. He takes her to a brothel and prostitutes her out, watching the ensuing couplings to satisfy both of their sexual appetites.
Youuuuu can’t show that in a 1933 movie. So changes were made– no impotence, no brothel. Because of censorship, the book’s impotent pervasive evil becomes on film a smoldering insatiable sex object. The corncobs, in the book a tool, become a symbol of virility. This kind of censorship can be called making the best out of a bad situation, but still illustrates the limits of censorship as well.
That also leads us to the film’s finale. Without getting into specifics, Sanctuary takes a notably downbeat tack of Temple lying, allowing the innocent Goodwin to die, and Trigger being executed for a murder he was innocent of. In the movie, again, she couldn’t get away with her life of illicit love, even if she didn’t kill Trigger, and Trigger really couldn’t get away with killing Tommy and raping Drake, even if he was hung later on.
The book seems to be arguing (from my limited experience with it) that being upper class allows you to be lower class for a while without punishment, while the poor suffer for these transgressions. However, because the movie must tie up loose ends, Temple’s confession is elicited by appealing to her class. Where the book says that class will damn you, in The Story of Temple Drake, it’s drawing on a family name and honor that can elevate and redeem you. Crazy, right?
Censorship pressure from both the Code Office and the Legion of Decency wasn’t just about cutting out dirty bits or eliminating blue jokes. Often censorship was done under the belief that it was elevating the material; good honest movies made good honest people. Showing sin and vice is fine as long as its punished, but Temple Drake is far too effusive for that. The film, marketed for its lurid content and its connections to an even more lurid novel, spit in the face of what the censors stood for, and surely helped provoke the reckoning that lead to the Code Administration having a stranglehold on American cinema for three decades hence.
For all its notoriety, I found it difficult to pin down The Story of Temple Drake. So much of the film is contained in ellipses, as many actions and characterizations must be inferred rather than spelled out to make them palatable for the screen. It’s not so much of a drama, but a character study of Temple Drake, a woman whose desires and needs we can only read in Miriam Hopkins’ terrified expressions and trashy (and trashed) negliges.
I mentioned above that it’s impossible not to get bogged down in the details of The Story of Temple Drake, and that may be because that’s where the weird, twisted heart for the story lies. This can be aggravating at times, sure. The film heavily relies on closeups of Hopkins and La Rue, their faces filled with fear, loathing or desire. It makes Temple Drake less of a drama and more of a mood piece for much of its middle section. As a movie, it feels like a disjointed intersection of symbolism and outrage, but provides so many dead ends and turnabouts that playfully nudge at the attentive watcher. For all its flaws, imposed or not, it remains a fascinating and indisputably unique experience.
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Trivia & Links
- As mentioned above, the movie is based on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary from 1931. Although not technically a remake, there is an awful 1961 film version of the book starring Lee Remmick. It’s even more obscure than today’s movie, and only remarkable in how it changes the story’s message into one about how sometimes black women must sacrifice their lives to save those of pretty white girls. It’s great, really.
- Jack Vizzard’s autobiographical book on the life and times of the Production Code, See No Evil, mentions this early on:
Of all the pictures that were occasionally cited as having brought on the Code single-handedly, the two two most frequently mentioned were The Story of Temple Drake and Convention City. They can be taken as symbols of a small hoard of other films that continued to be thrown, like pies, into the face of a public suffering in the throes of the deep Depression.
Be that as it may, the proof of all this pudding is the fact that the motivation of her repentance was a cause of some anguish to the Code people in those early days. The girl never came back to a correct set of values. She was lauded and made to seem sympathetic not because she disavowed her black experience, but because she wanted to restore what she had withdrawn from the bank of ancestral integrity.
- The Acidemic Film Blog identifies The Story of Temple Drake as the first David Lynch picture, and pegs Temple’s troubles as an insidious form of Stockholm Syndrome. The review is excellent and touches on everything I did (and much more) in way fewer words. An excerpt about the film’s atmosphere:
The deliberately exaggerated, stilted, somnambulistic and theatrical manner in which the actors speak and move might be construed as bad theater but in the context of the era was probably a deliberate distancing effect, to equate the sequence more with dreams than reality (i.e. Lynch’s room with the dancing dwarf where everyone talks backwards), and thus spare the viewer from taking it all too seriously and going home traumatized (for viewers of that era, this was probably the equivalent of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE). The constant cutting to Drake’s horrified reactions smacks of cheap exploitation after awhile (it’s an old editing trick to cover up mismatched footage) but as a result they conjure up the pungent aftertaste of those old Dwain Esper road show pictures like MANIAC, or our associations of bad video dupes and poverty row dinginess with sleazy violence… and we get a real sense of Temple’s feeling completely trapped in this squalor, as we remember feeling trapped in our parent’s houses as kids, watching these old movies on video over and over to pass the time, anxious to escape the tedium of suburbia, yet terrified by the wildness waiting in the big city.
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera talks about how the film had initially cast George Raft as Trigger, with the actor resisting and calling it ‘career suicide’. (And he may have been right!)
- In case you couldn’t read the graffiti that Benbow finds on the bathroom wall at one point, here you go: “Temple Drake is just a fake / she wants to eat and have her cake”.
- On the same note, the actor who plays Drake’s grandfather in the movie is named Guy Standing, which I will never stop finding hilarious.
- The original review at The New York Times names it as ‘a highly intelligent production’.
- Mick LaSalle in his book Complicated Women calls this one out for Temple’s sexual energy and how she gets away with murder by the end. He explains about Hopkins:
When the prosecutor asks where they might find this Trigger, she answers, “You can’t… You’ll never find him. I killed him.” And then she faints. With another actress, this might have been pure melodrama. But Hopkins doesn’t play the usual emotions nor does she ask for sympathy. She plays Temple merely as terrified, morally clueless, and odd. We watch as her senses overload and then shut off.
- Frank Miller, in his book Censored Hollywood, notes that the film’s censor, in desperation to recompense the acts being shown, “tried to get Paramount to add an epilogue showing Temple as a welfare worker in China.”
- Mondo 70 compares the movie to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and rightfully so, I think). They also have this poetic ending, too nicely written not to quote:
[E]ven a bowdlerized, happy-ended version of Sanctuary was way too strong for the Legion of Decency types who already had enough clout to demand cuts to Temple Drake. The fact that a major Hollywood studio would even think of taking on Sanctuary, when it certainly wouldn’t just two years later, is what we love about the pre-Code era, even when we admit its limitations. Better a truncated Sanctuary in 1933 than none at all, which is what we would have gotten in 1935. There’s a poignancy to the incompleteness of pre-code cinema, whether on the individual level of variously compromised films or the overall sense of the period as a dead end or a path but partially taken before the road was blocked. Had The Story of Temple Drake appeared last year, it would have been condemned as a travesty on the level of the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. As a product of 1933, it deserves a lot of the credit it gets from posterity.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- I guess ‘surprisingly obscure’ would be a misnomer for a film so filled with rot and vice. I assume there’s either a rights issue or a problem with prints that keeps this off home video [UPDATE: Lou Lumineck said basically that Fox is sitting on releasing this film on video, which, if you follow pre-Code at all, isn’t much of a surprise since Fox sits on enough movies that they should be able to reach the moon soon], because I’m sure this could still move quite a few units on its reputation alone. As it is, your best bet for getting a hold of it is on YouTube, though it may be worth the trouble to find a better looking version somewhere else.
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