Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the naughty Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972). We’ll be covering some of her most delightfully Pre-Code films (all released by Paramount) over these next five weeks, and you don’t want to miss a single one! So far we’ve covered The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932), and Trouble In Paradise (1932). Today…
The Story Of Temple Drake (1933)
A wealthy but neurotic Southern belle finds herself trapped in the hideout of a gang of vicious bootleggers. Starring Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, and Florence Eldridge. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett. Based on the novel by William Faulkner. Directed by Stephen Roberts.
The dark and infamous screen adaptation of Sanctuary (1931), one of Faulkner’s most controversial novels, The Story Of Temple Drake stars Miriam Hopkins in her most Pre-Code role to date: a promiscuous Southern belle who is raped by a bootlegger, becomes his fallen woman, and shoots him when he threatens her one true love. Banned in several states in its initial release, the film has been in and out of circulation for decades, and has never been commercially available in the US, despite its popularity on TCM and among the Pre-Code community. This one’s not for the kiddies; it’s hotter than Hades and grittier than gravel.
“Respected Judge Drake dotes on his granddaughter, Temple Drake, who he believes does no wrong. He wants public defender Stephen Benbow to marry Temple. Despite the salacious rumors of Temple’s carousing – which he doesn’t believe but are nonetheless true – Stephen loves Temple and has asked her to marry him several times, [but] she [is] always turning him down so that she can continue to carouse with any man who has enough money to keep her happy. One stormy evening when she is off with one of those men, Toddy Gowan, they end up stranded at the secret out-of-the-way den of a bunch of bootleggers led by the vicious Trigger. While Toddy abandons her in this situation, Temple, for the first time, is scared for her safety. An incident with Trigger threatens to ruin Temple’s reputation for good if anybody were to ever find out. When one of the bootleggers is murdered [and] another [is] accused of that murder, Stephen is assigned to defend him. Temple has to decide how best to save herself and Stephen in this situation, while Stephen has to decide if his love for Temple or his sense of public justice is more important.” (This brief summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)
I found an abridged synopsis because I didn’t want to spoil the whole plot. (At least, not right away.) The film is undeniably Pre-Code, and though vastly different from the book, which I must admit to not having read, many people were surprised that the story was even adapted in the first place. Hopkins plays a Southern belle from a reputable family whose carnal ambitions (despite her implied virginity — they can’t have her be full on whore… yet) keep her from committing to the lawyer, Gargan, who loves her. One evening she gets into a car accident with a drunken beau and is taken to the lair of a gang of seedy bootleggers, one of whom is Trigger, played with terrifying menace by Jack La Rue, who rapes Temple in the barn and kills the young buck standing watch. When one of the other gang members is arrested for the murder (whose wife is played by the great Florence Eldridge), Gargan goes to get the real story from Trigger. And who does he find in Trigger’s room? Temple Drake: tarted up and decidedly fallen. While Temple manages to keep her love alive (to quote the Rodgers and Hart song), she and Trigger are summoned to testify. After Gargan leaves, Temple tries to escape and shoots Trigger in defense of her life. The last few minutes of this fast paced film take place in a courtroom. Will Temple confess, exonerating Eldridge’s husband while simultaneously ruining her reputation?
The film is very sexual, and the heat never really lets up. Yet, it’s not a fun heat like some of the other Pre-Codes we’ve covered on Film Friday. There’s a tawdriness about this film that makes it incredibly uncomfortable — in the most entertaining way possible. A lot of this is the casting. La Rue, as I mentioned above, is brutally terrifying as the towering bootlegger who ‘ruins’ Temple Drake. He’s a dastardly unlikable character; and the film makes no bones about it, no attempts to make him likable or relatable. This frank storytelling is very refreshing, and does wonders for keeping the plot’s trajectory tense. But a lot of this smarminess is cultivated by the look of the film, which remains perpetually dark, even in Hopkins’s closeups, and invokes the tropes one would associate with the horror genre. (In fact, this film may even be scarier than Jekyll and Hyde, partially because we don’t know what vile act is going to happen next!) The whole thing is quite masterful, and should impress even the snobbiest of 21st century audiences (in which I include myself).
Of course, the most exciting feature of this film is Miriam Hopkins, who gives the best performance I’ve ever seen from her. She runs the gamut of emotions — coy and flirtatious at the start, shocked and petrified in the middle, tense and overcome by the end. Her portrayal of Temple Drake is never artificial; she layers every look with spoken and unspoken thoughts, creating a nuanced performance out of a character who could easily become a common stereotype. It’s breathtaking, and while she’s great in the naughtily flippant comedies (as we’ll see next week), her range as an actress, as adroitly demonstrated here, may surprise you.
All Pre-Code lovers need to see this film. Check for it on TCM or subscribe and comment below if interested in obtaining a copy. It is highly recommended.
Come back next Friday for one more Pre-Code Hopkins film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!