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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Story of Temple Drake (Blu-ray)
The Story of Temple Drake (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // December 3, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 24, 2020 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Story of Temple Drake (1933) was a scandalous pre-Code drama, adapted from William Faulkner's lurid 1931 novel Sanctuary. After the implementation of the Production Code in July 1934, the Paramount production vanished from distribution. It never aired on television, was never released in any home video format, and pretty much remained unseen until the Museum of Modern Art undertook a restoration in 2011.

As pointed out in the extra features, pre-Code movies were not genre-specific. As the term is used today, it refers to movies made from the dawn of talking pictures through mid-1934, movies that, seen today, are often startling in their frank sexual content (including casual sex, sexual violence, interracial relationships, abortion and prostitution), their grim and graphic violence, propensity of anti-heroes (e.g., gangsters), and strong independent women.

Many pre-Code movies have always been famous, pictures such as Scarface (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and even King Kong (1933), which either always had eyebrow-raising content, or had scenes that were subsequently censored but usually restored since. But, in recent years, film buffs have become fascinated with more obscure - and sometimes even more lurid - pre-Code films, of which The Story of Temple Drake is one example.

The picture is interesting throughout, but it strikes me as less dramatically satisfying than the best or even most representative pre-Code titles, this despite its notoriety. It seems a film more for students and fans of pre-Code cinema rather than one likely to hook more casual viewers into this sometimes jaw-dropping era of filmmaking. Beyond obvious examples like Tarzan and His Mate (with its nudity, sexuality, and incredible violence), my go-to pre-Code example to the uninitiated is Warner Bros.' 3 on a Match (1932), a genuinely startling, shocking film with many of the same aims as Temple Drake.

On the cusp of womanhood, Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is the flirtatious daughter of a respected Mississippi judge (Guy Standing). While maintaining her virginity, she nonetheless has developed a reputation carousing at all hours with a steady stream of hot-blooded suitors. Lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) wants to make an "honest woman" of Temple, but she declines his proposal of marriage.

Following a town dance, she and alcoholic suitor Toddy Gowan (William Collier, Jr.) drive deep into the countryside, his drunkenness leading to a car accident in the middle of nowhere. Disoriented, they're taken to a dilapidated plantation home described in some sources as a speakeasy, but its occupants are really more like squatters. The motley gathering includes drunks and criminal types, including Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel) and his girlfriend, Ruby (Florence Eldridge, Mrs. Frederic March); genial dimwit Tommy (James Eagles); and gangster Trigger (Jack La Rue). With Toddy drifting in and out of consciousness, and the men unsubtly eager to have sex with the alluring if terrified Temple, she's anxious to leave, but a raging thunderstorm prevents this.

Temple goes along with Ruby's suggestion that she'd be safer sleeping in the barn, but the following morning Trigger rapes Temple (offscreen) and shoots Tommy dead when he attempts to intervene. Believing her life ruined, she offers little resistance when Trigger effectively kidnaps her and they begin rooming in a brothel managed by a woman named Reba (Jobyna Howland). Toddy disappears and newspapers falsely report that Temple left town to visit relatives. Lee is arrested for Tommy's murder, and after the court assigns Stephen to defend him, the lawyer is shocked to find Temple shacking up with Trigger, whom he suspects actually did the deed.

The picture falls in line with many pre-Code titles about women, almost contradictorily condemning her "loose morals" in the early scenes while extolling her brave last-minute redemption, a torturous act of selflessness common in films of this type. The evolution of this character, from frivolous rich girl to gutter trash to damaged but redeemed upholder of the family name, is fascinating, and Hopkins's performance, while as variable as her accent (odd, considering she was raised near the Georgia-Alabama border), is often riveting.

The performances are all over the map, with some actors, like Eldridge and Pichel, in-synch with the material and generally naturalistic, while others seemed trapped in early-‘30s style theatricality. Gargan, for instance, delivers a typical early/mid-‘30s style performance, but nonetheless a good one that rises to the material. Jack La Rue's placid-faced gangster, his unblinking eyes like eggs, yet capable of swift and terrible acts of violence, is likewise in line with the period. Indeed, his features alone are like a caricature of a ‘30s Hollywood gangster, so much so it's his face that turns up in myriad cartoon parodies of gangster movies, more even than Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney.

Faulkner's novel, apparently written mainly to attract publicity and bring attention to his more serious, earlier works, was even more explicit: in the novel, the Trigger character is impotent and rapes her with a corncob. The movie is disturbing more by suggestion than what audiences actually see; the feeling of dread at the rundown plantation is palpable, with its seedy, horny drunks fighting over who'll get to screw poor Temple first.

The film in some ways moves in unclear directions. Does rape arouse/awaken Temple's heretofore untapped sexuality? This does not seem to be the filmmakers' aim, yet it's clear that she hasn't explicitly been kidnapped, either. What later would come to be known as Stockholm Syndrome isn't at play, but rather she seems to regard herself as so "soiled" by her assault that she can never return home. The movies abrupt end offers a bizarre "happy ending" of a sort, but one that leaves unresolved Temple's fate, both legally and whether she'll ever be allowed back into her cocooned past life.

Video & Audio

Criterion's Blu-ray of The Story of Temple Drake sources a 35mm internegative transferred at FotoKem under the supervision of Twentieth Century-Fox. (Fox presumably acquired all rights to the material for their 1961 remake, directed by Tony Richardson.) The image is impressive, as is the mono audio, culled from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative. The black-and-white film, in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is accompanied by optional English subtitles and is region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

The supplements are mostly good, if a bit disappointing here and there. Critic Mick LaSalle discusses the film in terms of its place within pre-Code trends, offering a short history of such films; Imogen Sara Smith focuses on Hopkins's performance, and the role of women in these pictures; and cinematographer John Bailey and archivist Matt Severson (of the Margaret Herrick Library) pore over archive material, including unusual storyboards and correspondence from the Hays Office. This latter featurette is good conceptually but feels awkward and staged. It reminded me of the superior practice of Criterion in the laserdisc days where they'd put hundreds of pages of documents on the disc for viewers to sift through at their leisure. Here, instead, we listen to two people talk about some of what's there, which isn't as effective.

Parting Thoughts

More for hardcore film buffs than general viewers, but still an impressive work from an all-too-brief era of liberated American film, The Story of Temple Drake is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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