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Year: 1933

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.

Ginger Rogers is my favorite actress. She’s mostly remembered today for being Fred Astaire’s dance partner throughout the 1930s. But Rogers had an acting talent that went beyond that. She was a fantastic and graceful dancer, but she should be remembered as so much more. Her range was unbelievable. She could make a fantastic screwball comedy, and then turn around and make a melodrama, giving great performances in both. Rogers stopped dancing with Astaire in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (they’d re-team just once more, ten years later, for The Barkleys of Broadway) to focus on a career in non-musical films. Almost immediately her talent was recognized and she won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle. Unfortunately, though, so many of her sans-Fred films aren’t remembered today. Here are some of the best.

Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940)

The same year she gave her award winning performance in Kitty Foyle, she gave an even better performance in Primrose Path, as the daughter of a prostitute who tries to escape her life by marrying Joel McCrea. This is one of the most beautiful love stories put out by the studio system. It’s about the importance of honesty in a marriage. It’s surprising that this film got past the Production Code, not just because it featured characters who were clearly prostitutes, but because these characters were sympathetic. Marjorie Rambeau (who received an Oscar nomination for the role) played Rogers’ mother and a basically good woman simply doing what she was taught in order to support her family. Her relationship with Rogers is gentle. She only wants the best for her children. Primrose Path is a really brave film for the time it was made, and it’s just one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.

Rafter Romance (William A. Seiter, 1933)

Rafter Romance is actually a pre-Fred film. It’s a simple but incredible sweet and pretty funny romance. Rogers and Norman Foster play two people who share an apartment – he lives there during the day, she lives there at night. They never meet, but they still can’t stand each other. Of course, they meet outside of the apartment, not realizing the other is the person they believe they can’t stand, and they fall in love. This is definitely one of the most original romantic comedies of the early 1930s. Rogers is completely charming, and Norman Foster is a good match for her. They’re both just so endlessly cute.

Romance In Manhattan (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

It’s amazing that such a simple romantic dramady can be so moving. Francis Lederer plays an immigrant who is in the country illegally. He’s taken in by Rogers and her kid brother. It’s really as simple as that. The three just try to make a living and stay afloat while Lederer and Rogers fall in love. But it’s such a sincere and genuine romance. It’s made with so much heart from all involved. And it has one of the funniest finales ever.

Star of Midnight (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

Star of Midnight is my favorite Thin Man knockoff. It’s central mystery is really very interesting, and it has a certain “strange” feeling that I think sets it apart from other screwball mysteries. Powell stars in this (and he’s great, as always) with Rogers as his much younger and very eager love interest. She goes after everything with determination and vigor, whether it’s trying to solve the case or trying to get Powell to marry her. I really wish these two had made more movies together. They were a perfect fit.

Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)

Vivacious Lady is a sweet romantic comedy made great by the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. They both had an “everyman” feel to them, which made them an incredibly relatable couple. You want so badly for them to be happy together because they’re so normal and remind you of yourself. I also like that it’s not really a movie about two people falling in love. They get married early on in the film. The movie is about them trying to break the news to his family, and staying together while they do it. It’s just an adorable movie.

Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939)

This is one of Rogers’ very best performances. She plays a woman who has to raise an orphaned baby she finds on her own because nobody believes it’s not hers. In the meantime, she begins to fall in love with David Niven, her boss’s son who takes an interest in caring for the baby as well. This movie is so great because, in addition to the great romance between Rogers and Niven, it’s wonderful to watch Rogers’ love for the baby, that’s not even hers, grow. It’s one of the most interesting and beautiful relationships in film.

5th Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)

5th Avenue Girl is such a good movie because it has so much going for it. First would be the relationship between Rogers and Walter Connolly. Connolly plays a wealthy man who is ignored by his family, she when he meets Rogers on a park bench he takes her in and the two pretend they’re having an affair in the hopes that the family will finally pay attention to what he’s doing. Rogers and Connolly bond and form a really nice father/daughter relationship that’s the heart of the movie. But the movie has three love stories going on. Throughout the film, Connolly and his wife eventually find their way back to each other. Connolly’s daughter is in love with the chauffer, who seems to be something of a communist. The best love story, though, you don’t realize is there until about halfway through the movie. Rogers and Connolly’s son, Tim Holt, fall in love. It’s a strangely done romance, I’m not even sure I can really describe it, but it’s a really strong film all together.

Tom, Dick, and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)

Rogers played a character in Tom, Dick, and Harry who was a little… simpler than most of her other characters. She dreams of romance and love, but can’t choose between three different guys: the regular guy who’s working his way up to management at a local store, the millionaire, and the poor guy. The best part about this movie is that each of the guys has their pros and their cons, and you really have no idea who she’ll choose in the end. She gives a really adorable performance, and this movie is just cute.

Tales of Manhattan (Julian Duvivier, 1942)

In this series of loosely connected vignettes, Ginger Rogers has one of the best stories. It’s a little, short, self contained story about Rogers finding out her fiancee is a cad and realizing his pal, Henry Fonda, is perfect for her. It’s short, sweet, and funny. And Rogers and Fonda are SO good together. Watching this, it’s hard to believe they never made any other films together. They were such a good pairing.

I’ll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944)

This movie is SO amazing. While there were a lot of movies being made to show how awesome soldiers were and to spread patriotic propaganda during the war, I’ll Be Seeing You was one of the first films to really take a look at the negative effects the war was having on the soldiers. This movie gives us two incredibly flawed, complicated, and damaged characters and allows them to fall in love. It’s just such a beautiful movie. You really didn’t see movies and characters like this too much in classic film.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1935

Director: Stephen Roberts

Starring: William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Paul Kelly, Gene Lockhart, Ralph Morgan, Leslie Fenton

The screwball mystery was an extremely popular film genre throughout the 1930s. Following The Thin Man in 1934, studios began putting out several knockoffs to cash in on the film’s popularity. Some were good, some weren’t. The two best knockoffs, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford and Star of Midnight, starred William Powell, who was also the star of The Thin Man. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was a charming remarriage comedy costarring Jean Arthur. Star of Midnight, slightly better than Bradford, featured Powell as a high power lawyer with a particular knack for solving crimes.

Powell’s ends up working the case of Mary Smith, a popular, but mysterious singer when she disappears in the middle of one of her shows. Star of Midnight has a slightly more mysterious, even surreal, feeling to it because we never see the subject of the case. Whereas in films like The Thin Man we usually see the victim before they are murdered or disappear, in Star of Midnight Mary Smith is just as mysterious as her disappearance. This is what helps to set this film apart from so many other films of this type. The comedy in a screwball mystery is usually by far stronger than the actual mystery part. But the absence of Mary Smith throughout the entire film makes Star of Midnight a but more evenly balanced. The comedy is fantastic and sharp, but the mystery matches up and is really very intriguing.

Powell’s partner and romantic match in this film is the wonderful Ginger Rogers. This was the only film they made together, and they’re such an excellent match it’s actually sad that they didn’t do any others. Powell was almost always several years older than his leading lady, but it was never brought up or made an issue of. That’s another unique thing that Star of Midnight has going for it. Powell was 19 years older than Rogers, and that’s actually a fact used in the film. Rogers plays the daughter of an old friend of Powell’s. It’s a childhood crush turned into love, and it’s completely adorable. They’re a great match. They trade verbal quips with complete ease and their chemistry is completely on the mark, and the writing for them is excellent. Because of the noted age difference, they have an interesting dynamic and their dialog makes great use of it.

With a sparkling script, a fun and interesting mystery, and the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and William Powell, Star of Midnight is one of the very best screwball mysteries of the 1930s.

Availability: http://www.freemoviesondvd.com

By: Katie Richardson