A salacious melodrama, The Story of Temple Drake is everything that made censors panic about Pre-Code Hollywood. Drinking, sex, murder, prostitution, rape--not to mention class divisions, challenges to authority, and a very, very minor touch of race relations (the servants are right, there is something wrong with their white bosses)--this William Faulkner adaptation scandalized timid theatre owners and frankly still has enough heat to feel a touch scandalous now.
Miriam Hopkins stars as Temple, the granddaughter of a rich Southern judge (Guy Standing, The Lives of Bengal Lancer), her only living family and a man too old to see just what kind to trouble Temple is getting into. The girl has a reputation, well earned if somewhat exaggerated. While Temple does go around with a lot of men, those in the know really know that she stops short of going all the way. She’s the local tease.
It doesn’t stop her from having her fair share of suitors, however. If one man besmirches her honor, another is there to defend it, and her dance card is always full. Her most serious contender would be Stephen (William Gargan, perhaps best known for playing detective Ellery Queen), a public defender with a penchant for lost causes. He numbers Temple among them. Despite her grandfather giving his blessing, she has refused Stephen’s proposal of marriage. Apparently he’s a bad dancer.
The scenario gets pretty dark here, straying into moody gothic horror. Though Stephen Roberts, The Story of Temple Drake’s director, chooses to leave the sexual violence offscreen, there is no ambiguity to the situation. Trigger breaks Temple’s will and takes her prisoner, shacking up with her in a whorehouse while he waits for who knows what. The script by Oliver H.P. Garrett (A Farewell to Arms [review]) isn’t necessarily delicate or packed with nuance, but it leaves enough space so that Hopkins’ performance can be. She is incredible in the role, largely performing entirely with herself once Temple goes interior. As those around her marginalize her and turn away from her predicament, the rest of us do not, so we can see her process and react before she acts. The conflicted emotions, grappling with her own self-worth, weighing her options and ultimately trying to bury the trauma--Hopkins shows it all, usually through gesture and facial expression rather than verbal explanation.
It’s actually a surprisingly progressive portrayal of a victim’s psychology for 1933. Temple must wrestle with a lot of potential consequences were she to return home. To tell the town the truth after they had already written her off as a slut--would that help or hurt? A ticking clock is also added in that only Temple can corroborate what really happened at the farm, but to get the farmer off the hook, she’ll have to confess to her own shame and her own crimes. Here Stephen is also given a surprising lesson. The crusader would have Temple testify because it’s the right thing to do, but he balks when he realizes there are unintended damages to outing a victim. Gargan has an incredible moment where he must step back and make a decision.
The performances throughout The Story of Temple Drake are quite good. La Rue is menacing and tough, if a little one-note. More complex writing is reserved for the farmer’s wife (Florence Eldridge, Mary of Scotland), who is both frustrated by the sexual tension Temple introduces to her home but also instrumental in helping protect her. She has every reason to resent this woman of privilege invading her home, but she actually resents Trigger more. His bad influence and cruelty can only mean danger.
The segment in the woods is otherworldly. There are shadows around every corner, as fear grips Temple. She is completely isolated here, almost in a supernatural realm, a fairy tale landscape. This is where Faulkner shines through the most. His appreciation for the southern social strata lends a surprisingly non-judgmental air to the swampy scenes. The farmer and his kin are hard-working people, and subject to certain disadvantages. Trigger is the exploitative intruder from the North, and there is some compulsion to protect Temple not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but because she’s one of their own. By contrast, the stuff back in town is decidedly Hollywood, and one could make hay of The Story of Temple Drake being a parable of Tinsel Town’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Middle America.
The Story of Temple Drake is indicative of how censors so often miss the boat. Sure, there are sensational aspects to this story, but Roberts never sensationalizes them. Triggers is not a cool gangster, nor does the camera leer at Temple or even make us privy to the harm done her. Rather, the film relies on Hopkins’ to convey all the horror, her face saying more than seeing the actual violence could. Likewise, by never letting Stephen put a fine moral point on any of it, The Story of Temple Drake allows the audience to invest its own judgment, arguably making the “lesson” of the film all the more effective than the imposed “crime doesn’t pay” finales to come when Hollywood would eventually start policing itself.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.