I love pre-code movies for many reasons, but I think I’ve seen the best one on record this week. Watching “The Story of Temple Drake,” was the best 70 minutes I’ve ever spent. I’ve heard all the talk about the movie and was so happy that Turner Classic Movies premiered it this week. The movie based on William Falkner’s controversial book, “Sanctuary,” was a sensation when it was first featured, and I think it is still a sensation. I have heard it said that it was this movie which introduced the Hays Code.
This gem was withdrawn by Paramount shortly after its release, which I find a little strange because although Temple was all things “sinful,” in the end she redeems herself by doing the right thing. After this movie most pre-codes were a lot more tamed. But let’s get down to the story.
Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is a southern belle with all the trimmings, but is known around the small town as the town slut. But all the men know that she’s just a tease. She “fires a man up….& poof…” as one of her suitors put it. It’s a dangerous game, but Temple is having a party with it. There is one suitor, a lawyer, Stephen Benbow, (William Gargan) who thinks seriously of Temple and wants to marry her. But when he asks her to marry him, she relents; the fast and loose girl act is just too good to give up. Temple tells him, “I’m no good,” “it’s just something inside me…” Temple’s spirit is willing, but her flesh is winning the battle. She hates her “Hyde” side, but at the same time, she can’t help giving into her dark side. The battle of the ages.
Temple has always gotten her way, and gotten out of trouble with no trouble at all, after all her grandfather is a judge. An old judge who can’t see past “his spectacles…” as his black maid put it. The maid goes on to say, as she irons Temple’s underwear, “If he (the judge) did her laundry, he’d know all about her (Temple).” It’s a funny scene. At a party one night, Stephen is putting the cards on the table, but Temple wants out. She just had to run from all that is good in a man, and his good intentions. She grabs one of her many suitors, who is so stoned, he can’t see straight, and goes in search of more liquor. They both get in a car and drive at high speeds and the car crashes. Little did Temple know that her life was coming to a crash as well.
When Temple and her drunken suitor come to, they realize they are in the backwoods of the town. A menacing figure comes out of the woods, aptly named Trigger, played by gorgeous Jack LaRue. Trigger has a friend along with him, a backwoods, half-wit young man, who is ridiculously drunk and is there at Trigger’s beck & call. Temple is alarmed, but knows she has the power to make even these dark characters do as she says. She quickly pulls out her “my grandfather is a judge,” card. Only in this case, it doesn’t work. Turns out Temple and her friend have found liquor alright, they are now face to face with harden bootleggers, and one, Trigger, is going to be sure he gets his way. He will destroy Temple forever. Temple’s games with “boys” end when she confronts “men” who don’t play that game.
The lighting, settings, atmosphere, & cinematography in this film allow the tension to build and we are well aware that something dangerous and dark awaits Temple. In the scene when she is fearfully approaching the bootlegger’s old southern mansion, there is lightening and rain, and a heavy wind that howls as if warning Temple of the horror she is to face. As the camera moved around the characters in the house, dressed in rags, drinking in excess and in a stupor, & a crying baby in a draw to keep the rats from biting him, reminded me of current day crack dens. It was gloomy and one can only imagine what the genteel Temple was thinking. It was a world so far removed from her safe world. The evoking close-up shots of the characters will send chills down your spine.
Miriam Hopkins as the tease, turned terrorized & catatonic victim is electrifying! Jack La Rue as the stop-at-nothing predator is flawless! I have to wonder how this beautiful man with such talent didn’t land more roles. This pre-code gem is the motherload of Pre-code films. It’s not tamed like those pre-codes that followed when the Hays Code was enforced. In this film you see drinking in excess, promiscuity, misogyny, & violence, and let’s not forget the skin, enough to shock the pants out of a depression era audience. If you haven’t seen this one, you must. It’s hard to find a copy of this gem. TCM just premiered it, and I hear it’s all around the Internet. This film will stay with you for a long, long time.