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Hybridity Challenging “Un-Filmable”: The Story of Temple Drake (Criterion Collection)

By Tony Williams.

This adaptation of William Faulkner’s notorious novel Sanctuary (1931) first appeared as a Paramount production in 1933, a year before the imposition of the notorious Hays Code, which it supposedly jump-started. Its celebrity resembled the later infamy associating Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Pasolini’s Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) bringing to the screen the conceivably un-filmable. Stimulating later milder film versions such as No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) from James Hadley Chase’s 1939 novel that covertly utilized the later techniques of Quentin Tarantino though changing elements to avoid legal issues of plagiarism regarding Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971). Yet, at the time, it proved a major challenge to cinematic adaptation more than any of the later versions.

Lamarr Trotti described Sanctuary as “probably the most sickening novel ever written in this country” (1), and adapting the original work appeared insurmountable, but a task that later directors Jess Franco (1920-1913) and Lucio Fulci (1927-1996) could have easily embraced with Klaus Kinski (1926-1991) in the role of “Popeye” with the location changed to darkest Sicily. The infamous use of the corncob also anticipated Marlon Brando’s ingenious use of butter in the famous Last Tango scene that like Psycho’s shower sequence resulted in viewers never regarding a familiar object in the same light again. However, these were earlier times an even in the waning days of the pre-Code era, changes became necessary but not ones that drastically changed the spirit of a challenging novel nor immune to the necessary changes conducted within Paramount Studios at the time.

Temple Drake stars Miriam Hopkins in the title role, an actress who took risks two years before in the 1931 Paramount production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. With Jack La Rue now portraying her menacing seducer like a Prohibition gangster in a role tailored for George Raft (who turned it down because he wanted more money), The Story of Temple Drake still manages to surprise as its 90th anniversary approaches. La Rue would repeat his performance in a less mild manner as Slim Grissom in the 1948 British film version. If his initial appearance in the later film mystifies viewers who wonder why people are so terrified of him, then his role in this film as a dark, minimalistic visual threatening presence should easily suffice. Faulkner’s Southern novels demystified the traditions of the Old South, then this film version still manages to shock audiences both thematically and by the visual elements skillfully employed throughout its duration.

The opening credits appear before a decaying Gothic Southern plantation that reveals both the internal decay at the heart of the “old South” but also the corrupt psyche of its institutional society. Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) attempts to defend an African-American but finds his role as lawyer thwarted by the condescending and racist attitudes of the presiding judge. He then goes to kindly Judge Drake’s office to “drown his sorrows” accepting the drink a law enforcement figures offers him in the era of Prohibition. When the Judge’s flighty Southern belle daughter Temple appears in her opening scene, she looks not only a tease but also one engaging in quasi-incestuous acts with her own father. Yet, like George Minafer in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) she will soon receive her “come-uppance” by the immersion into the dark underbelly lying beneath her privileged existence as a victim of rape with no aristocratic hero to ride to her rescue. Inhabited by rednecks, crackers, a former prostitute, and gangster Trigger (La Rue), she falls prey to the dark realm of Southern Gothic represented no longer by any Castle of Otranto but a decaying plantation mansion that has seen better days. The proto-noir visual representation highly influenced by German expressionism with darkness predominant except for the glow of Trigger’s cigarette will lead to her ruination in a barn with corn cobs strategically placed in the background for those familiar with the original novel.  

Temple moves from being a traumatized rape victim to Trigger’s moll, the assault awakening the dark side of a personality attributed to the Drake psychological inheritance. However, her character changes once more. Knowledgeable about Benbow’s imminent death at the hands of Trigger, she acts out the role of the seduced moll thus saving his life, and then kills Trigger when he attempts to keep her in her submissive position. Although the original Faulkner character allows an innocent man to take the rap, this screen heroine redeems herself very much in the manner of the New Woman that pre-Code cinema allowed to exist, leading to Benbow’s final line to her father. “You should be proud of her, I am.”

The Story of Temple Drake runs a sparse 71 minutes. It is a hybrid film, both in style and structure with some irritating and obtrusive background music almost obliterating the dialogue and mise-en scene during some earlier scenes. Fortunately, such instances are mercifully brief. The restoration superbly complements what one critic has previously noted by recognizing the hybridity behind a culturally significant film that “historically refigures the Southern rape complex and the Southern belle in the light of the Depression and Prohibition and then cinematically refigures them in the light of the emerging genres of the horror and gangster films.” (2)It contains a conversation between cinematographer John Bailey and Matt Severson, Margaret Herrick Library Director looking at archive material such as storyboards and pointing out the influences of German expressionism and the work of Kathe Kollwitz on visual design. This section is far superior to the usual Criterion feature of “Coffee Morning with the Girls” as it shows two critics actively going through archive material rather than simply chatting. Imogen Sara Smith’s talk on the complex nature of the film in general and Miriam Hopkins’s performance in particular offers another welcome respite from Criterion’s irritating chat show formula allowing one critic to have sufficient time to address key issues directly to the audience.(3) Hopefully, Criterion will continue this positive move. Finally, the booklet essay by Geoffrey 0’Brien is a welcome supplement to this DVD that finally shows how professional Criterion can be in its offerings.

End Notes

1. Quoted by Geoffrey 0’Brien in “Notorious”, his booklet supplement to the DVD edition.

2 .Deborah Barker, “Moonshine and Magnolias: The Story of Temple Drake and The Birth of a Nation.” The Faulkner Journal 22. 1-2 (2006/2007): 143. This is a very fine study of the film and its cultural significance.

3. This feature is a very useful complement to another key article – D. Matthew Ramsey, “`Lifting the Fog’: Faulkner’s Reputations and The Story of Temple Drake.” The Faulkner Journal 16.1-2 (2000-2001): 7-33.

Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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