Monday, April 22, 2024

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake, released by Paramount in 1933, is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. In 1934 the Production Code Authority ordered that the film never be re-released.

The movie is based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary.

This is a southern gothic melodrama. The movie’s attitude towards the South is complicated but generally rather hostile.

I have no intention of revealing the ending but it’s impossible to talk about The Story of Temple Drake without revealing quite a bit about the plot of the first two-thirds of the movie so if you’re incredibly spoiler-phobic bear that in mind.

Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is the granddaughter of Judge Drake (Guy Standing). The judge is rigid and authoritarian in the courtroom but Temple has him wrapped around her little finger.

Temple has a reputation for wildness. She runs around with a lot of men. She is most certainly a tease. She likes playing dangerous games with men. She has a definite self-destructive side and has a low opinion of herself.

Idealistic lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) wants to marry Temple but she refuses him. She gives the impression that she thinks she would ruin his life.

Temple has been going out with a young man named Toddy Gowan (William Collier Jr). He is aimless, pleasure-loving, a drunk and relatively harmless. Their car crashes and they find themselves being taken by a man named Trigger (Jack La Rue) to a decaying old house. Temple and Toddy are not given much choice in the matter. The house belongs to the rather disreputable but also relatively harmless bootlegger Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel) but there is nothing harmless about Trigger and his pals. They’re gangsters and Trigger is a violent psycho.

The evening ends with a shooting and with Temple getting raped by Trigger. Then Temple ends up moving in with Trigger, although whether it’s by her own choice or not is left ambiguous.

That shooting is going to cause a problem. Lee Goodwin is charged with the murder. Stephen Benbow has to defend him. Stephen knows that Goodwin is innocent but he can’t prove it without Temple’s help and the trial will destroy Temple’s reputation. Both Stephen and Temple will face difficult decisions.

There’s a lot of ambiguity to this movie, most of it certainly deliberate. We know the rape happened but we don’t see it and we don’t know the exact circumstances. Whether Temple feels any sexual attraction towards Trigger is left uncertain. To what extent she chooses to be with Trigger remains ambiguous. Modern audiences accustomed to movies that make clear-cut moral judgments may be disturbed by this. This is a provocative movie.

It’s also a very strange movie. It has at times a rather trippy quality. It’s almost like a fever dream. The visuals are choppy and disturbing and disorienting. Stylistically it’s really quite unlike other Hollywood movies of its era. In the middle part of the movie we are in effect stepping inside Temple’s nightmare and the stylistic unconventionality presumably mirrors her frightened and confused state.

It would be easy to criticise Miriam Hopkins for her histrionic performance but honestly I don’t know how else she could have played this role. I think her performance is totally in tune with the overall feel of the movie.

You could say the same of most of the performances here. They’re rather artificial, but in a way that works in the context of the movie. More naturalistic performances would have been out of place. If you’re doing melodrama you need melodramatic acting.

Major changes were made to Faulkner’s original story, a story which would have been unfilmable even in the pre-code era.

The Story of Temple Drake is stylistically bizarre and it’s outrageous even by pre-code standards. It’s unlikely that it could be made today. It’s deliberately provocative but it does have a certain power. It’s highly recommended not just because it’s a good movie - it has historical importance as well.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers a nice transfer. The pick of the extras is the excellent interview with with film critic Mick LaSalle, a guy who really knows pre-code cinema (his book Complicated Women played a big part in turning me into a keen pre-code fan).


  1. Great review! You are so right in describing this film as a fever dream. Miriam Hopkins in brilliant, and Jack LaRue is very good as well.

    1. I don't think Miriam Hopkins ever gave a better performance.

  2. "The movie’s attitude towards the South is complicated but generally rather hostile."

    A bit ironic, since the movie is an adaptation of a novel written by a Southerner.

  3. You have the best group of pre-code reviews that I have seen! You seem to really like these films. I have more than 1,000 clips from these films, and I help run a 50,000 member facebook group.