Guest blogger Emma Alsop writes:
For people looking for a traditional, family classic for a lazy Sunday afternoon, don’t look twice at the racy tale of a poor conflicted women in The Story of Temple Drake (1933). Starring Miriam Hopkins and mostly forgotten Jack La Rue, it was in an adaption of the controversial William Faulkner novel Sanctuary. The film was advertised as an account of “a girl’s sin and her redemption,” but it is much more; simply, a chronicle of sin, from alcoholism and bootlegging to rape, sex slavery and murder.
Surrounded by virtue and decency as the granddaughter of the uptight, conventional Judge Drake (Guy Standing) and with lawyer boyfriend Steven (William Gargan), young Temple (Hopkins) is caught within a world she is fighting to break from but is at the same time the only one she knows. She craves excitement, parties, wild men and sex, but the reality takes her by surprise. Uncontrolled by her aging and blinded guardian, Temple goes from one man to another; affairs controlled only by her and that never see the bedroom. One night, after a party, she persuades a drunk admirer to drive her to a nearby bar. Heavily inebriated, he crashes the car: with blood pouring from his head and Temple shaken but not hurt, they are found by two strange, shadowy men. The duo lead them through a thick forest to a remote and mysterious house masquerading as a makeshift speakeasy supplying bootleg liquor to the deformed, drunken misfits that attend it. Temple, forced by the booming thunder and lightning and approaching storm, takes refuge on the house’s veranda and looks in through a crack in the window. In the corner is the sinister Trigger, played spectacularly by La Rue, with his head down, a cigarette permanently between his lips accompanied by an odd twisted smile. He appears to dominate the other patrons and they all both fear and admire him. It’s a forgotten place filled with abuse, crime, sin and poverty.
As the rain begins pouring down, she is taken by an unsympathetic housekeeper to a secluded barn to wait out the night and protect her from the men circling like vultures. In the morning, Trigger silently sidles into the barn, stealthily avoiding the other men guarding its entrance. Drowsy, Temple hears the steady click of Trigger’s heels on the barn floor. Alone and friendless, Trigger rapes her. But sadly her troubles don’t end there. Strangely, her capturer–instead of abandoning his prey–takes her, broken and stunned, to a hotel to become his sex slave and prisoner. At first this newfound freedom and the thrills of the dominating and exciting Trigger keeps her in his clutches. Soon she is found sullen and oddly distant by lawyer Steven, but she refuses to leave Trigger to ensure the safety of her old boyfriend. That night after Trigger refuses to let her follow Steven, she shoots and kills him. At the trial for his murder, Hopkins plays Temple as shadowy and mysterious as her victim. She refuses to tell her story until the very end, wanting to shield her grandfather and Steven from the truth. But her final confession is viewed more as redemption then a crime by the filmmaker, and she is carried off by her lover in the final scene.
Although Miriam Hopkins is the most famous and well-known of all the actors, Jack La Rue steals the film. He seems to move almost in slow motion, making his action even more suspenseful and terrorising. Lit from bottom-up he is always followed by a menacing, overpowering shadow that increases his physical statue in the eyes of the viewer. He seems to radiate sex and horror, often pictured in the dark and seen as an intimidating and unpredictable shadow. It was not his last movie, but it was the only one where he was given any sort of major role.
The Story of Temple Drake appears to be a semi-religious pre-Code tale of a well-brought up girl and her fight between the sin of depression-era America and traditional Victorian virtues and norms. The difference with this portrayal is both its shocking themes of rape and sexual slavery as well as the beautiful and restrained methods the director uses to depict them, such as shadows, music and extreme close-ups. In addition, the amazing performance of the haunting talent, Jack La Rue, make it a pre-Code must see.
Unfortunately, The Story of Temple Drake isn’t currently available on DVD. What’s your favorite film that isn’t available? Let us know in the comments!
Emma Alsop is a classic movie-obsessed university student from Australia. Her current passion is the pre-Code era, and her aim is to make everyone love it as much as she does.