Director: Stephen Roberts
Starring: Miriam Hopkins, Jack La Rue, William Gagan, Guy Standing
This wonderful pre-code film from 1933 is based on the salacious novel (Sanctuary) written by William Faulkner, one of my favorite authors. The pivotal role of Temple Drake was entrusted to none other than the divine Miriam Hopkins. Ms. Hopkins is perhaps better known for her beautiful performances in two Lubitsch pictures of the same era: Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. But in Roberts’ film the great actress seizes the opportunity to really extend herself as a performer. Temple Drake is arguably Hopkins’ finest hour on the silver screen.
Temple’s penchant for carefree, promiscuous behavior is established from the start as the movie opens with her coming home from a date @ 4:00 in the morning. She manages to get her lecherous suitor pushed out the front door just as Judge Drake — played by Guy Standing — descends the stairs to see what the disturbance is. Her grandfather reproaches Temple for being out with a boy so late but she quickly assuages his concerns via her charms and revealing that her beau goes to a good school. This scene makes it clear that Hopkins’ character is excellent at manipulation and she’s used to getting her way 100% of the time. This flaw in Temple’s nature comes back to haunt her throughout the film.
One of Temple’s many suitors, the only one who she really respects, is Steven Benbow (Gagan). Benbow is an ambitious, altruistic defense attorney who will take on any case even if it’s pro bono and/or hopeless. The esteemed Judge Drake admires young Benbow’s spirit and he thinks the counselor would be the perfect husband for his granddaughter. While Gagan’s character loves Temple to a fault, he explains to the old man that she does not want to settle down and marry him. The movie cuts to our protagonist and a drunk college boy making out in a parked automobile outside a large mansion. When she stops necking and pushes his pawing mits away its clear that Temple is a tease. She runs into the house and proceeds to dance with several men, effectively spreading her alluring scent like a veil around the room. When the lothario who brought her to the party somehow persuades Ms. Drake to go for a drive and get some adult beverages, it’s difficult not to wonder at her bad judgment.
Not surprisingly, the inebriated boy wrecks his car out in the middle of nowhere. The couple is startled by two suspicious figures that come upon them from out of the woods. One of these unsavory characters is the notorious pimp and bootlegger called Trigger (La Rue). They are taken by gunpoint to a dilapidated old farmhouse deep in the woods. Her beau goes right inside but she stops dead in her tracks when spotting how many grubby men are inside. Having no choice because of a downpour, Temple is forced to seek shelter inside. All the gangmembers shoot leering, lascivious looks at their new female guest. While her boyfriend pounds alcohol, our heroine begins to panic as the men start to jockey for position. When her boyfriend gets knocked out cold it is surprisingly Trigger who keeps her from getting picked apart like raw meat. The leader yells for them to lay off and Temple goes with the farmer’s wife to secure some warm clothes.
The older woman starts out cold and unsympathetic toward Hopkins’ character, but as she recognizes how naive the young girl is, she takes pity on Temple and fixes her up in the barn for a good night’s sleep. Tommy (James Eagles), a simpleton member of the gang, takes a post outside the barn door with a rifle, presumably to keep our protagonist safe. Restless and scared, Temple barely gets any shuteye and she awakens to Trigger’s lustful gaze from the loft of the structure. The gangster shoots Tommy dead and advances on the girl despite her screams of protest. The rape seems to transform Hopkins’ character into a pliable zombie, easily influenced by the pimp and she begins to work for him in a house of ill repute.
When Benbow hears what Temple’s doing in the big city, he is incredulous. The attorney finds that much too his dismay, his beloved former girlfriend has in fact become a hooker. He confronts La Rue’s character in his office with Temple in attendance. Benbow chastises the bootlegger for what he’s doing to a respectable woman until Trigger has had enough. The presence of the lawyer shocks our heroine into embarassment and a realization that if she doesn’t do something fast, her pimp will kill him. Temple selflessly claims that she is at Trigger’s side willingly and that Benbow should go back home immediately because he’s not wanted. Seeing someone she cares about from her hometown shames Hopkins’ character and she attempts to leave to make amends. When it dawns on the gangster that Temple’s loyalty to him was all a ruse to save her friend, he begins to beat her and she is forced to shoot him in self defense.
Meanwhile, the farmer is falsely accused of the murder Trigger committed. Gagan’s lawyer takes on his defense and when he finds out that Temple is a friendly witness to the killing, he appeals to her sense of honor to do the right thing by coming forward. Wracked with guilt and fearing that she’ll be forced to testify about all the terrible things she’s endured, Temple initially resists but eventually relents to take the stand. Her testimony is the high point of the film and Hopkins is brilliant.
The Story of Temple Drake was nearly impossible to find in video form. I’m glad I eventually did. It is one of the best examples of the provocative nature of pre-code films. This picture exhibits several traits that distinguishes it from movies made following the strict enforcement of the Hays code. Drinking to excess, pervasive promiscuity, mysoginistic violence, and enough skin to shock a depression-era filmgoer. My favorite actress is Barbara Stanwyck but she is getting serious competition for my heart the more Miriam Hopkins performances I screen.