The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins

The Story of Temple Drake was adapted from a contemporary William Faulkner novel called Sanctuary. It’s putting it lightly to say it was the subject of controversy — even in the Pre-Code film era — but part of what the film version gives us is this instant sense of Southern Gothic environs.

It’s as much about atmosphere and the salacious nature of the material — leaning into what we might easily term Pre-Code sensibilities. But with such a film like Temple Drake where its reputation precedes it, it behooves audiences to consider what it is actually putting across.

Some studios might have been keen on peddling titillating smut or at least just enough sensuality to get a rise out of the paying public — to make it worth their while so to speak. But even a story like this, which might seem to have such a cut-and-dry trajectory, actually offers up something a bit more involving when we consider the evolution of our heroine and what she must come to terms with.

Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is a girl about town, and she really does get around. She’s the sought-after debutante at the ball with her pick of all the eligible young bachelors. She can dance with them, toy with them, and there’s no consequence to it. It’s merely a game and seeing as her grandfather is a prominent Judge (Guy Standing), he does his utmost to make sure she is sheltered and well-taken care of. She’s never had to worry about anything in her life.

Aside from her come-hither reputation, playful romance is often denoted visually through the hands. If you’ll pardon the unforgivable phrasing, they become a kind of shorthand for the broader passion. They can be playful, alive, yet elusive. It’s put succinctly by how Temple can fire a man up. Then poof! She’s gone.

On one such evening, her late-night companion is a soused playboy. They leave the party behind and go blazing down the roadways at madcap rates only to have a dramatic spill and tumble out of their car. The crash itself is hardly a drop in the bucket to them. It’s what happens thereafter that rattles them both.

There’s something uneasy about where the story is going. Unrest is in the air. Lightning shakes the foundations of the film. They get taken in by some shady characters holding out in a rundown house. The thugs lurking about are a lecherous breed, the most menacing of the bunch is a man named Trigger (Jack La Rue).

Suddenly, life is no longer a lark. They’ve run into a harrowing life or death reality as Temple is subjected to a prison of terror and ruination, hopelessly trapped and vulnerable. So quickly she goes from the frisky huntress to the victimized prey. It’s true she’s entered an entirely different world where all the harmless frivolity is quickly replaced with the kind of contentiousness and fear she’s never experienced in her life. This is how real people live: rough and hard.

The barn where she seeks refuge for an uneasy night away from the prying eyes of men is a bit like the lion’s den, but there is no one to deliver her when the beast comes prowling around. After she is roughed up and attacked, she enters into an almost catatonic state of trauma and survivor’s guilt.

Her Grandpa can’t protect her anymore and the only man who is willing to fight for her is the one admirer, who’s not disappeared: Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is an up-and-coming lawyer who once had aspirations to marry Temple. She always rebuffed him as a kindness. She thinks he’s too good for her.

But in a crucial moment, she protects him. In fact, she does something almost decent, sacrificial even, making herself look all the more the tramp. Pretending to scorn her good friend for the thick-headed thug, she even sells it by planting a kiss on the man’s lips. Even he’s got himself believing it. After all he’s done to her, in some sick demented way, she must actually want him.

It couldn’t be further from the truth. In a single moment, she finds his gun deposited on the bed and lashes out to defend herself. It’s carried out with some crucial closeups punctuating one of the film’s most emphatic developments. It’s also empathetic as we grow to sympathize all the more with our heroine’s terrifying position.

But her work is not done. Stephen, always the honorable one, beseeches her to testify on behalf of the man he is defending from murder. Only they know what really happened. However, this is such a deep wound. She must come clean with her deepest, darkest shame in a public forum all but prepared to ostracize her for a scandal that she wanted no part of. The movie’s pitting the life of a man against the sullied reputation of Temple. It’s her “duty before God.”

As the story goes out with this kind of optimistic glimmer of redemption, resurging against all the darkness we have already witnessed, it’s hard not to consider the significance of the name Temple. With the evocation of God, it feels like a kind of spiritual allegory is in order. Each of us with the desires of our hearts — with our wants, time, resources, and actions, create alters to something.

We always hear it told that our bodies are temples, and it’s no different here. We all worship something. However, when our lives get shaken up, it makes us take stock of our priorities and consider what we look venerate and celebrate in our lives.

Fluttering behind her eyes Miriam Hopkins does her best to dance between jovial gaiety, subsequent terror, and this kind of resting despondency flooding over her when she is finally taken advantage of. It changes her. In an earlier scene, she makes a passing comment about how “It’s like there are two of me.”

How right this proves to be, and it’s not so much like Jekyll and Hyde. It evolves into this schism between her personage before and after this event. Temple can never be the same again. Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s irredeemable or totally befouled. Far from it. Restoration is available to all even someone traumatized in the worst manner possible like Temple Drake. Because each one of us can be a Temple.

3.5/5 Stars

Rain (1932): Joan Crawford and Walter Huston

Rain finds its origins in a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, and it was also preceded by a picture starring Gloria Swanson titled Sadie Thompson. She is indeed the central character of this adaptation as well, although the title of this version focuses in on the dreary poeticism.

It’s true that a kind of rainy exoticism defines the entire mood of Lewis Milestone’s movie as this perpetual gloominess sets the tone for the story at stake. A few years before Safe in Hell, we have another picture set on an island. This one is named Pago Pago, and it serves as a weigh station for passengers during a cholera scare.

Among those laid up are Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi), a pair of religious reformers, who are intent on completing their voyage so they might begin administering to the nonbelievers. They are reformers who’ll gladly break your back to save your soul.

The good, innocuous Doctor MacPhail (Matt Moore) feels like an author’s creation; he’s a character we can identify with as an audience — a stand-in of sorts — who ably fits into the company of respectable folks but remains an impartial observer.

Then, you have a much different ilk, part of the earthier, more salacious crowd, headed up by the island’s local proprietor (Guy Kibbee) and made a lot more enticing by the one and only Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). With her checkered dress and made-up eyes, she falls in with the soldier boys on leave, introduced in saucy fashion through a mixture of appendages and hot jazz. In her own estimation, some lively music and a nip of liquor are what rainy days are for.

The movie itself can easily be summed up by a clash of moral prerogatives; it becomes plainly apparent who’s on each side. Kibbee’s character is especially wary of their latest visitors because it’s crusaders like them who readily sully the last remnants of earthly paradise. This is his picture of Eden — freedom to do whatever he sees fit — although it’s quite different than their conception of it. He’s got a gripe with their kind because they represent the age and the newest commandment, “thou shall not enjoy life.”

Throughout the movie, Milestone’s whips and whirls make the film feel all the more alive even as it rages to burst out of the restraint and aestheticism of its more pious players. This obvious motion accentuates what otherwise feels a bit like an island chamber piece.

Because it’s built completely out of the performances. First, it’s Mrs. Davenport (Bondi) denouncing the lady of loose morals dancing on the Lord’s Day — the sabbath — and she wants her husband to put the fear of God into the tramp.

Soon enough, he does just that, confronting Sadie with the fervent belief that it is up to him to save her incorrigible soul. Though he admittedly burns with conviction, it’s his overall demeanor that’s offputting to the likes of her. She doesn’t take kindly to his Pharisaic demeanor.

Their words, thoughts, and deeds are worlds apart as exemplified in this more understated confrontation. We see them for who they are fundamentally at the core of their beings. He talks of presenting her “a gift.” He’s speaking of eternal things — salvation as Christians think of it — this is her chance to be saved. Meanwhile, she’s thinking about life on this terrestrial rock. Where people get knocked down and beaten up and the like. It’s in this world where she reckons to make out and survive, living her happy-go-lucky kind of life day-to-day.

More than rejecting his religiosity, she rejects his self-righteousness even as his pronouncements come off almost incomprehensible to her. What she does understand is his dismissiveness, his callousness toward her precarious station in life. The doctor, standing by the wayside for most of the picture, finally lets his companion know he thinks the man harsh and tyrannical,  although Davenport affirms his heart bleeds for the poor wayward sinner.

The reformer evokes the Lord’s Prayer as Sadie rails into him with her own indignant tirade only for it to evaporate around her. It comes out of a place of fear and dejection. For all her outward confidence, she really doesn’t know what she’s doing. Shellshocked piety is a strange garment for her to wear if altogether understandable. But others must judge the outcomes for themselves and the same goes for the denouement.

For all its provocative flaunting in the beginning, Rain relies on an ending of inference, happening between the lines. A lot is at play in the final moments on a subtextual level — be it latent desires or closeted hypocrisies. Instead of a hangman’s noose in a discarded field, it’s a cut throat on the shoreline, but the similarities are undeniable.

It sends shockwaves through the population even as it suggests the conflicted nature of humanity. As far as its impact on Sadie, it leaves her much where she began, though now at least she has a man (William Gargan) to take her by the arm.

Rain was not much of a box office attraction in its day and part of this might have to do with the brazen ending. It’s not a straightforward picture, but like Safe in Hell, between loose morals and redemptive religiosity, the picture jockeys for an uneasy equilibrium. If nothing else, Joan Crawford and Walter Huston make it feel like a seismic battle that’s eyecatching in fits and starts.

3.5/5 Stars