The Story of Temple Drake: Notorious

As the title card comes up, the movie has already begun, with a frontal view of a dilapidated plantation house, its ivied columns sporadically lit up by a raging storm. Spectators at the time of the film’s release who were familiar with the source novel would have recognized the ominous dwelling as the “gutted ruin rising gaunt and stark out of a grove of unpruned cedar trees . . . known as the Old Frenchman place.” But any moviegoer could have linked it to recent terrors of the screen: an old, dark house just like in The Old Dark House, a residence whose shuttered seclusion might conjure The Most Dangerous Game or Island of Lost Souls. A warning is posted at the outset: be prepared for something very bad to happen here. 

The keynote is dread, and anyone paying to see The Story of Temple Drake in 1933 would likely have gotten the message, by hearsay or by advertising that promised a picture “suitable for adult minds only,” that the horrors in store were sexual in nature, straight from the pages of the “novel by William Faulkner” that the credits refrained (at the Hays Office’s insistence) from identifying by name. Sanctuary (1931)—or, as writer Lamar Trotti described it at the time, “probably the most sickening novel ever written in this country”—had given Faulkner the notoriety his previous masterpieces The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying failed to achieve. He would later assert that the book was commercially calculated—“I . . . speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer, and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine”—a disclaimer to be regarded with the utmost skepticism. 

Nothing about Sanctuary suggests artistic indifference. Faulkner—clearly savoring the outrageousness of what he is permitting himself—could not have more deliberately undermined the myths surrounding southern gentility and white female virtue. A veneer of aristocratic tradition barely disguises a morass of corruption, resentment, and violence permeating upper and lower reaches alike, from county courthouse to bootleggers’ den to Memphis bordello; no potential sanctuary is left untainted. All this is conveyed in a tone both brutal and grotesquely comic, and Faulkner’s mediumistic capacity to drift in and out of different characters’ inner states imparts eerie fluidity to the spiraling nightmare. The challenges of Faulkner’s circuitous storytelling—with the most shocking plot points needing to be teased out by the astute reader—did not prevent Sanctuary from becoming a best seller, nor deter Paramount from buying the rights despite obvious obstacles to its screen adaptation.

Doubtless only a small portion of spectators had actually read the novel, but its central story was sensational enough to have spread by word of mouth. It might easily have been pared down in the telling to the form of a classic pornographic fantasy, a dirty joke inflected by social rancor: a self-indulgent upper-class tease gets her comeuppance when she is raped by a thuggish gangster, and learns to like it. Many of the most indelible details clearly could never be filmed: that the gangster, Popeye (renamed Trigger in the movie), syphilitic and mentally stunted, was impotent and that the rape was effected with a corncob, or that Temple, adrift in a traumatized alcoholic daze, would be induced to have sex with another man while Popeye watched. Nor was it likely that Temple would be shown finally giving false testimony that would consign an innocent man to a lynch mob. (All that, and much else, would be duly left out, although at a crucial moment some strategically placed corncobs in the corner of the frame deliver a knowing wink to the initiated.)

“The team of filmmakers achieved a Faulknerian ambience such as few films have managed, while adding their own sharp observations and satiric touches.”

Even a greatly modified version of the book was inherently a provocation. Will Hays remarked: “We simply must not allow the production of a picture which will offend every right-thinking person who sees it.” Nevertheless, The Story of Temple Drake found its way to screens, heralded by publicity that was a fine instance of pre-Code ballyhoo: “S-h-h-h! They have whispered about girls like this for generations . . . Now for the first time somebody has the courage to frankly tell you about them! Temple Drake was the dramatic victim of her own desire!” Often credited with inciting full enforcement of the Production Code a year later, the movie was barred from reissue for decades. Like many films of that transitional moment, it bears the marks of the conflicts surrounding its production. But for all its internal contradictions—and considering that Sanctuary had its own share of contradictions—the restored Story of Temple Drake impresses as a work of unsuspected power. Indeed, the blatant juxtaposition of those inconsistencies, those alternate story lines and doubtful motivations, effectively calls into question any fixed conclusion. 

The team of filmmakers—including the director, the short-lived Stephen Roberts (One Sunday Afternoon, Star of Midnight); producer Benjamin Glazer; screenwriter Oliver H. P. Garrett (with uncredited assistance by Maurine Dallas Watkins, author of the play Chicago); cinematographer Karl Struss (an associate of Alfred Stieglitz’s who had worked on F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise); and future director Jean Negulesco, enlisted to create storyboards for the rape sequence—achieved a Faulknerian ambience such as few films have managed, while adding their own sharp observations and satiric touches. Although it deviates, as it must, from Sanctuary’s narrative, rerouting the story toward more redemptive territory, Temple Drake manages a distinctive fusion of drab thirties-style realism and gothic nightmare. It incorporates harsh details from the book (the baby kept in a wooden box to protect it from rats, the derisory graffiti about Temple on a men’s-room wall) and finds elegant ways to imply what cannot be said (a brothel evoked by arty bits of nude statuary and tinkling piano music from an unseen parlor). Faulkner is said to have expressed his gratitude for the way the project turned out.

The film opens with a brilliantly abbreviated montage of perspectives on Temple Drake, a prelude that also quickly sketches the society she inhabits. The idealistic young lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), frustrated in pleading the case of a black defendant by a biased judge, seeks advice from Temple’s grandfather, the venerable Judge Drake (Guy Standing), who reaffirms the necessity of abiding by local traditions. Switching to the personal over a glass of bourbon, he urges Benbow to marry Temple, and learns that she has already rejected the lawyer for being “too serious.” “She’s a good girl,” Judge Drake intones doubtfully. 

After a quick fade, we meet Temple, in the form of Miriam Hopkins—or rather, in the form of her left hand, reaching around behind her to open the door of the family home while she flirtatiously fends off the advances of her unseen date. The hand slides uncertainly on the door as she moves toward him—“Of course I like you”—and then away: “You’re too rough.” Having definitively shut the door on him, and now in full view, she pauses with what seems a little smile of satisfaction, clouded almost instantly by the hint of a darker mood. A moment later, scolded by Judge Drake for getting home so late, she wins the old man over with some coy cajolery: “Darling, won’t you unhook me?” 

With this two-minute vignette, Hopkins takes full control of the character and of the film. The way she backs into the scene and plays out a choreography of enticement and rejection before we even get a look at her, then continues with a flitting repertoire of reactions, establishes from the start a character whose trajectory will be a succession of jarring emotional shifts. At every turn, we will be obliged to read her in a different way, and in the process to register her own difficulty in reading herself. The script makes it explicit when she explains to Benbow at a properly airless formal dance that she has “two mes,” of which the more shadowy is something she can’t talk about: “What it wants, does, or what’ll happen to it—I don’t know myself. All I know is I hate it.” Seconds after saying this, she will switch gears again and tear off on an impulsive ride in search of bootleg liquor. 

The question of what to make of Temple’s conduct and motives will be the film’s unrelieved preoccupation. When she is not on-screen to be studied, she is generally being talked about and judged by others, whether it is Benbow’s Aunt Jennie explaining that the Drakes have always had a “wild streak in ’em”; or Temple’s date, the idiotic frat boy Toddy Gowan, getting into a quarrel in a roadhouse with another of her rejected suitors; or the black maid who observes, as she irons Temple’s distressed lingerie, that the girl needs a better guardian than an “old grandfather can’t see past his own specs—if he done the laundry, he’d know more about that child.”

As Temple and her sodden escort Toddy drive down the road with the radio going, we might be in a generic thirties cautionary tale of youth gone wild, but from the moment they crash into the tree laid as a barrier across the road, and the gangster Trigger (played by Jack La Rue with the minimalist menace of a blunt instrument) emerges into view, the film crosses into a different country. Over the course of twenty minutes, we are taken to the house first seen under the credits—the abode of backwoods moonshiner Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel) and his downtrodden, fiercely devoted common-law wife, Ruby (Florence Eldridge)—a hallucinatory realm through which drift a demented blind man, the half-witted and protectively inclined Tommy, the casually brutal bootlegger Van, and, looming over all, the implacable Trigger, casting an immense shadow, wreathed in smoke, or visible only by the tip of his cigarette in darkness.

“If the film had not been taken out of circulation, this extended sequence would doubtless have long since been acknowledged as a peak of early-thirties filmmaking.”

We’ve entered a counterreality where time seems to slow down. The segment is so densely compressed that it seems as long as all the rest of the movie. If elsewhere the novel is adapted with a free hand, here Temple Drake hews very closely to Faulkner’s text, with uncanny results. If the film had not been taken out of circulation, this extended sequence would doubtless have long since been acknowledged as a peak of early-thirties filmmaking. Portentous close-ups and friezelike poses and extreme contrasts of light and dark give every action the weight of mysterious revelation, the recipient of the revelation being the terrified Temple as, abandoned among the bootleggers, she realizes her helplessness. The film seals its identification with her point of view in the moment when she is acquiring a different knowledge of reality. 

The sequence has a complicated scenario, involving the actions of seven different characters moving in and out of dim-lit interconnected spaces. The ultimate assault by Trigger is preceded by a variety of retreats, emergences, feints, concealments. Eldridge, in a theatrical but forceful performance as the battered Ruby, unleashes her rage against Temple—“You nice women, I know your kind: you get a kick out of playing with kids”—even as she attempts to provide protection, while Temple is reduced to virtual silence. James Eagles, as the hapless Tommy, is astonishingly persuasive as he gives voice to the film’s most purely Faulknerian language. The culminating rape scene is all the more indelible for being necessarily austere. As Trigger, who has just shot her guardian Tommy, climbs down into the corncrib and approaches Temple, the screen goes black. The ellipsis is punctuated by a scream standing in for whatever cannot be shown or even suggested. 

“If you can call a rape artistically done, it was,” Hopkins (who called Temple Drake one of her favorites among her films) told an interviewer. The scene owes its power to its not being an isolated shock sequence; it evolves out of what has come before, and its aftermath extends that power in a different mode: the nearly expressionless Temple, rigid in the passenger seat, being driven by Trigger to a gas station where he tries to persuade her to have a cup of coffee, and their arrival at Miss Reba’s establishment in Memphis, where he assures her: “You’ll like it here.”

Having attained this extremity at its midpoint, the film departs from Faulkner and effects a melodramatic turn consonant with such pre-Code films as Safe in Hell and Forbidden, leading to a climactic trial scene that becomes a shining example of female self-sacrifice in a well-worn thirties tradition: Temple will save an innocent life by telling the truth, even at the risk of her own disgrace. Yet ambiguity persists in a movie that constantly raises questions it cannot answer, or even finish asking. When Benbow, seeking out Trigger at Miss Reba’s brothel, is shocked to find Temple with him, he stammers: “Did you . . . ? Are you . . . ?” She shocks Benbow by telling him she’s with Trigger because she wants to be, but it turns out to be a ruse to persuade him to leave before Trigger kills him. There remains, however, the possibility that she wasn’t altogether pretending, and that Trigger is to be believed: “You know I got your number.” Even when she finally shoots him dead, one might still ask why. 

When Temple on the witness stand finally tells the story of the rape and confesses her killing of Trigger, she faints before she can more fully explain her motives. At the end of Sanctuary, Faulkner left Temple restored to the protection of her family, an enigmatic figure sitting “sullen and discontented and sad” on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, in the “season of rain and death.” (He would return to her twenty years later, allowing her his version of a redemptive ending in Requiem for a Nun.) The film shows her damaged but not destroyed by experience, and morally triumphant, but it cannot venture to forecast what forgiveness or understanding she can expect from her community. As she is carried silent and unconscious from the courtroom, the spectators file out as if after a funeral.