Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stubs - The Story of Temple Drake

The Story of Temple Drake (1933) Starring: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldridge, Sir Guy Standing Directed by Stephen Roberts. Screenplay by Oliver H. P. Garrett. Based on the novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner (New York, 1931). Produced by Emanuel Cohen. Run time: 72 minutes. US. Black and White. Drama

It’s easy to get the impression that Pre-Code Hollywood films were full of nudity, sex, drugs, murder and gambling, but in reality, for the most part, they dealt with very similar topics to those made from 1934 to 1968 when the Production Code was in force. Every film made and released between 1930 and 1934 is technically Pre-Code, though that moniker is usually reserved for films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933), meaning that its subject matter would not be dealt with at all or not dealt with in the same way after 1934.

The Code, which was Hollywood’s attempt at self-censorship, grew out of what were seen by some as excesses on the screen, in dealing with topics like sex and violence, as well as off the screen scandals that popped up in the film community. Perhaps the two best known are the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor and the charges of rape leveled, but never proven, at Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the death of actress Virginia Rappe.

Just as Major League Baseball had set up the office of Commissioner to right its image following the Black Sox scandal in 1919, Hollywood turned to Will Hays, former Postmaster General, to guide it. With pressure from state censorship boards and the Catholic Legion of Decency, Hollywood adopted a code by which the studios agreed to subjects and situations their films would and would not deal with.

Hays was brought in to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the precursor to today’s MPAA, in March 1922. He spent the majority of his time trying to convince state censorship boards not to ban or censor Hollywood movies. At that time, the states required the studios to pay the censor boards for each foot of film excised and for each title card edited. Add to that, studios also had the expense of duplicating and distributing separate versions of each censored film for the state or states that adhered to a particular board's decisions.

The original code, or what Hays called "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls," was written to reduce the likelihood cuts would be required, since each board kept their standards a secret. Hays’ set of guidelines did reduce the calls for the Federal government to get involved.

The Production Code was actually written in 1929 by Catholic bishops and lay people, including Joseph Breen, and presented to Hays, who was enthusiastic about it. However, the studio heads were not. From 1930 to 1934, they worked under the Code, but largely ignored it, that is until Breen was brought in as its enforcer. Films like The Story of Temple Drake led to the code's enforcement.

The novel the film is based on, Sanctuary, was one of the first novels that established William Faulkner as a great American novelist. Controversial because it dealt with the subject of rape, it was considered his commercial and critical breakthrough as an author.

Sanctuary by William Faulkner. A book the Hays Office didn't think should be made into a movie.

Making a movie about such a book was not without controversy. George Raft, an actor who turned down more parts than anyone I’ve heard of, refused to play the role of Trigger (Popeye in the novel). Paramount suspended him for his refusal.

And of course, the Hays Office had its problems with making such a novel into a movie. Joseph I. Breen, who was in charge of public relations for the Hays Office, admitted in a memo dated March 17, 1933 that he had not read the novel but was convinced that people would say that the filmmakers had adapted for the screen "the vilest book of the present years." Any reference to the book was forbade in advertising for the movie.

After a preview screening, the Hays Office gave a list to Paramount of cuts it wanted made, but more about those later.

In the film, Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is the granddaughter of Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing) in the Southern city of Dixon. No exact location is ever given, but the novel takes place in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) comes home late and runs into her grandfather, Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing).

Temple is a wild child who teases men, but does not sleep with them. Despite that, reputable lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is in love with her and asks her to marry him. But Temple thinks Stephen is too serious and turns him down.

She would rather cavort with other suitors, including Toddy Gown (William Collier, Jr.), who’s preoccupation with Temple is only surpassed by his love of drink. When Temple and Toddy arrive at a party, she ends up dancing with Stephen, who gets too serious on her again. In order to escape, she asks Toddy to take her someplace and he has liquor on his breath and on his mind.

Toddy Gown (William Collier, Jr.) thinks he's on top of the world.

Speeding through the country roads, it isn’t long before Toddy crashes the car. In these pre-seatbelt/air bag days, the couple is thrown from the car, but except for a cut on his head, they both don’t seem worse for wear. A tough bootlegger named Trigger (Jack La Rue) and his simple-minded sidekick, Tommy (James Eagles), are the first to find them and Trigger tells Tommy to take them back to a nearby speakeasy run by Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel), which is in a dilapidated southern mansion.

Tommy (James Eagles) leads Temple and Toddy to a speakeasy after their accident.

Temple doesn’t want to go, but she has no choice. A thunderstorm is brewing. When they get to the house, she doesn’t want to go in; the room is full of men, which now includes Toddy, who are sitting around getting drunker by the minute. But it starts to rain and she eventually comes in through the kitchen, hoping the woman of the house, Ruby Lemarr (Florence Eldridge), will be more sympathetic to her plight. She isn’t.

Unhappy with her predicament, Temple turns to Ruby (Florence Eldridge) for sympathy, but her pleas fall on deaf ears.

Temple, being the only single woman in a room of men, is manhandled. When Toddy tries to defend her honor, he is knocked out unconscious, leaving Lee to defend her. Ruby takes some pity on Temple, who is in over her head, and takes her upstairs to one of the bedrooms where she can get out of her wet clothes.

The men have to make a pre-dawn delivery to the city, but still have time to try and put the moves on Temple. It takes shotgun wielding Tommy to keep them at bay. Trigger insists on taking Toddy with them, but is as insistent that Temple stay there.

Feeling that she might be safer out in the barn, Ruby moves her in the night. Even with Tommy sitting by the door, shotgun across his lap, she has a hard time getting to sleep. The next morning and the men are back from their delivery in the city and Temple is still out in the barn.

Trigger returns and, sneaking through the haylofts, gets around Tommy’s protection. However, Tommy hears him and does check on what’s going on. Trigger shoots him for his troubles and then rapes Temple.

The rape of Temple by Trigger (Jack La Rue) as shown in the film.

But the torment doesn’t stop there. Trigger takes Temple with him to the big city to Miss Reba’s (Jobyna Howland) place, a brothel where he has a room. He tells Temple she’s free to leave, but he doesn’t let her. The time Trigger and Temple are at Miss Reba’s is left vague. It could have been a matter of days or it could have been weeks. We’re spared the details, but they are there quite a while as she gets new clothes and doesn’t try to escape, no doubt feeling that her reputation was ruined forever and she couldn’t go home.

You can argue Temple goes away with Trigger willingly, but
 when given a chance to attempt an escape, she does nothing.

Judge Drake, who doesn’t know Temple’s true nature, plants a story in the press that she’s visiting relatives in Pennsylvania. Toddy, who wakes up in a Dixon warehouse the morning following the storm, skips town.

And they might have stayed hidden from sight, except for the murder of Tommy. Lee is charged with the crime and Stephen is assigned to defend him. But Lee is afraid of Trigger and won’t talk. He is doomed to be convicted, but Ruby offers that Trigger and some girl were there that night. She suggests Trigger might be at Miss Reba’s and Stephen, armed with a subpoena, goes looking for Trigger.

He bluffs his way into the house and enters Trigger’s room where he is shocked to find Temple. Stephen is prepared to fight for her honor, but unbeknownst to him, Trigger has a gun on him. Seeing Trigger going for his revolver, Temple intercedes. She tells Stephen that she is there on her own will and is in love with Trigger. Stephen doesn’t like what he hears, but he leaves.

Temple does her best to convince Stephen (William Gargan) that she's happy in her life with Trigger.

Trigger is fooled by Temple’s play and is surprised when she is preparing to leave him. But Trigger isn’t done with Temple and throws her down on the bed. Unfortunately for him, it’s right on top of his gun. Temple shoots and kills Trigger. Temple manages to avoid detection and sneaks out of Miss Reba’s, hails a cab and is driven the 100 plus miles back to her hometown of Dixon.

Meanwhile, Stephen is trying to defend Lee, who still refuses to speak on his own defense. During a brief recess, Stephen is confronted by Judge Drake, who doesn’t want Temple to have to testify. Temple tries to convince Stephen not to call her by telling him what she’ll have to confess to in the trial, including the murder of Trigger. But Stephen feels compelled by his duties to call her.

But when she’s in the witness stand, his love for her prevents him from questioning her, knowing that it will lead to ruin, and dismisses her as a witness. Suddenly Temple, knowing right and wrong, confesses about all that has happened to her, including being witness to Tommy's murder, being raped by Trigger and finally her killing Trigger to get away.

Stephen can't bring himself to question Temple when she appears on the witness stand.

After she’s said everything, she faints. Stephen picks her up and carries her out of the courtroom, telling Judge Drake that he should be proud of her because he is.

The Hays Office had already pronounced their concerns about making Sanctuary into a movie and even things in the film that hinted at some of the action in the novel had to be changed after Previews. In the book, Popeye, the rapist, uses a corncob to violate Temple. In the original version, there were shots in which a corncob was picked up and looked at following the rape scene. The location of the rape was moved from a corn crib to the barn and no mention of corncobs or references to corncobs or corn cribs were allowed.

A shot of the hat rack at Miss Reba’s filled with men’s hats was also cut from the film, in an effort to keep it from too obviously being a house of prostitution. Also cut was Miss Reba’s line “I got some of the biggest people in town right here in this house spending their money like water” and "Just got back from church myself." Reba’s use of the word chippie (slang of the day for a young woman of low moral character) was covered up with a clap of thunder.

Likewise a line of Ruby’s that she could pay "Lee's" lawyer with sexual favors was also cut from the final film.

There was even some disagreement about handling Temple’s testimony on the witness stand. The matter of how long she was at Miss Reba’s had to be dealt with somehow. Originally, in her confession she states "No, I wasn't a prisoner" was excised. Instead, when she admits she stayed at Miss Reba's place, the judge interjects, "a prisoner, you mean," and her response is an ambiguous stare.

An epilogue showing Temple doing welfare work in China was suggested, but the Hays Office rejected the idea, insisting she not be shown working as a missionary and feeling it is obvious she is not a fugitive from justice.

The success of the film depends on the performance of Miriam Hopkins. While I’m not all that familiar with her work, she shows a wide range as Temple goes from being a vivacious tease to a Stockholm syndrome survivor. After her rape, Temple seems to succumb to Trigger’s will. While it might be argued if she is willingly going away with Trigger, the fact that she makes no effort to escape shows that the spark in Temple is gone.

Temple does get out from under Trigger’s influence, but only by committing a murder she will apparently not be tried for. Killing someone is something that the pre-rape Temple wouldn’t have been capable of doing.

Hopkins began making films in 1930, debuting in Fast and Loose. The following year, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hopkins played a prostitute, Ivy Pearson, and even though her part was eventually cut down to five minutes of screen time, she still received rave reviews. Her big break came in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which she plays a beautiful and jealous pickpocket, Lily.

She is somewhat known for her Pre-code films, like The Story of Temple Drake and Design for Living (1933), her third and final film with Lubitsch directing. In that film, she is supposedly engaged in a menage a trois with Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Hopkins was approached about, but turned down, the role of Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night (1934).

An actress known for her versatility, Hopkins would appear in Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn, The Heiress (1949), The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Chase (1966), in which she played Robert Redford’s mother. Her final film was Savage Intruder (1970). She would die of a heart attack in 1972.

Jack La Rue was a Broadway actor who was discovered by Howard Hawks. Brought to Hollywood to play a gangster in Scarface (1932), a role he lost to George Raft, he was similarly replaced by Humphrey Bogart in the film version of The Petrified Forest (1936). A poor man’s Bogart, La Rue would never achieve the fame of the actor he was sometimes confused for. He did have a long career appearing in A Farewell to Arms (1932), 42nd Street (1933), Captains Courageous (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). He was the narrator for the television versions of Lights Out for 32 episodes in 1949-50. His last film was Paesano: A Voice in the Night (1977).

La Rue’s Trigger represents the dark side of the pseudo-Bogart persona he evokes. But Bogart never played a character like Trigger. He may have played gangsters in many, many films, he may have been a murderer, but he never portrayed a rapist. This is a thankless role and La Rue does his best with it.

The other characters don’t carry as much weight, so to speak, but two are worth noting. William Gargan, who portrays Stephen Benbow, had been in films since 1929’s Lucky Boy and had appeared in Rain (1932) and would appear in films throughout the 1930’s and 40’s. Later, Gargan would find some success on television in the Martin Kane, Private Eye and The New Adventures of Martin Kane, which ran for 39 episodes in 1957-58.

Sir Guy Standing, who portrays Temple’s grandfather, Judge Drake, served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve throughout the First World War and reached the rank of Knight Commander (KBE) in 1919. After becoming a stage actor in Britain and the US he moved to Hollywood in 1933 under contract to Paramount Pictures. The Story of Temple Drake was his first of about 18 films. His last role was in Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937). He would die from a heart attack after being bitten by a rattlesnake while hiking in the Hollywood Hills.

As with the book, rape is at the center of the controversy surrounding the film. While I haven’t read Sanctuary, the rape in it is supposedly depicted in much more brutal terms, committed with a corn cob. Still, in the movie, Temple Drake’s rape, at the hands of Trigger, is portrayed in some ways as her comeuppance for having wielded the promise of sex to get what she wants from the boys in her life. That all works until she comes across Trigger; he is not a boy, but a man who doesn’t take no for answer. He takes what he wants.

His murder is presented as Temple’s only means to escape his negative influence on her. With Stephen complicity, she seems destined to escape punishment for the crime, something else censors within and outside the industry would have problems with. I’ve read reports that The Story of Temple Drake is responsible for the enforcement of the 1930 Production Code, since the film proves that the studios couldn’t be trusted to police themselves.

Fast paced, so much of the action is not depicted, but is rather inferred. The audience has to fill in the gaps the movie leaves, but it makes it easy to connect the dots. In the end, the film is really more of a character study than a morality play. We don’t see anything that wouldn’t appear on television today, granted on cable, but there is nothing on the screen that most people would consider obscene by today’s standards.

My interest in the film is based on the fact the title is frequently mentioned when Pre-Code films are discussed. I knew about its notoriety going in, which is one of the reasons I wanted to watch it. I also knew not to expect a 1930s version of something I’d see on Showtime or Netflix, but I was a little surprised at how tame it really looked when all was said and done.

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