The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake (1933). 70 minutes. Directed by Stephen Roberts. Starring Miriam Hopkins (as Temple Drake), Jack La Rue (as Trigger), William Gargan (as Stephen Benbow), William Collier, Jr. (as Toddy Gowan), Irving Pichel (as Lee Goodwin), Guy Standing (as Judge Drake), Elizabeth Patterson (as Aunt Jennie), Florence Eldridge (as Ruby Lemarr), James Eagles (as Tommy), and Harlan Knight (as Pap).

The Story of Temple Drake is based on the controversial William Faulkner novel Sanctuary, which created a sensation when it was published in 1931 because of the way it handles the topic of rape. The movie, while more oblique than the novel, nevertheless also shocked the public. Critics lashed out against it, and its scandalous content helped catalyze the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934. Yet while The Story of Temple Drake is laden with elements from the so-called vice movies of the pre-Code period, many of which will seem racy and distasteful even to a modern audience, overall today the movie seems as brave as it does scandalous and strange. In particular, Miriam Hopkins (who plays the titular character) conveys the effects of rape movingly, transforming a film that has the latent potential to be exploitative and sordid into a story that instead for the most part feels sensitive and authentic.

The movie focuses on Temple Drake, a wealthy Mississippi socialite who has many suitors (including lawyer Stephen Benbow) but refuses to settle down. One night she and her intoxicated date Toddy Gowan wreck their car on an isolated country road. The two end up stranded during a storm at an old farmhouse that is being used as a criminal headquarters by a menacing bootlegger named Trigger, who abusively presides over employees there including Lee Goodwin and Lee’s partner Ruby. During the night, Trigger murders a boy who tries to protect Temple while Toddy is passed out; then Trigger rapes her in the barn. In her stunned state, Temple moves into a boarding house with Trigger and is kept by him as a sort of sexual plaything. When she can bear it no longer, she shoots him and flees. Meanwhile, Lee Goodwin is charged with the murder of the farmhouse boy, and Stephen Benbow summons Temple to testify to save Goodwin, even though doing so could lead to her public disgrace. While recounting what happened to her on the stand, she collapses, but Benbow embraces her, imploring her grandfather, “Be proud of her… I am.”

The Story of Temple Drake depicts Temple as a wild and sexually playful party girl. We hear Toddy Gowan’s old aunt Jennie advise him against socializing with her, and the movie’s men argue that she is a tease. “That girl made a sucker of me,” laments one, to which another retorts, “You’re not the only one.” Toddy Gowan complains, “It ain’t fair. Fire a man all up then—poof!—put him out.” “Do I do that—sho nuff?” she replies. Even the men’s bathroom walls bear testimony (“Temple Drake is just a fake/She wants to eat and have her cake”). The point is made abundantly clear: Temple’s life is rich in sexual vices, and she enjoys manipulating men.

We do not merely hear snippets of provocative dialogue—Temple’s flirtatious hedonism has a physical component that we see, too. Her dates behave bluntly, even brutally: they are shown either drunk or tearing at her clothes or both. In one scene Temple’s maid repairs a chemise of hers that has been ripped by an overly aggressive beau (the maid complains that if Temple’s old grandfather Judge Drake had “done the laundry, he’d know more about that child”)—so yes, we actually see Temple’s damaged underwear. Her grandfather falls prey to her coquettishness in his own way. When Temple returns home late one night and he objects to her lifestyle, she responds by asking, “Darling, won’t you unhook me?” and he does.

But part of what the movie asks us to do is to accept that a party girl can be both complicated sexually and an acknowledged victim. For example, in a scene near the movie’s beginning, Temple speaks with Stephen Benbow, who wants her to marry him. She loves him, she says, but there is another side of her, a dark side, that prevents her from saying “yes.” We do not get to hear more about what this dark side is before the rape—had she been previously traumatized through a similar act? The answer to this question is unclear, but what is clearer is that Temple has a nuanced psychology and a mysterious inner life, one that makes her human and sympathetic, whether she inhabits the world of her home in Dixon County or the sleaze-infested back roads on which she is victimized.

Given the opening scenes, with their drinking, carousing, and sexual innuendo, we might think that The Story of Temple Drake is going to be a comedy, albeit a seedy one. But the farmhouse where Temple ends up on that stormy night is a world away from the glamorous party she attends earlier in the evening: creepy, crawling with bad people, and horrifyingly isolated. The men there leer and threaten, it is raining violently, and Temple’s date Gowan is unconscious; she is trapped. Ruby, the only other female on site, is at first sinister and barely helpful, offering Temple a room to sleep in but withholding compassion. Still, it is difficult not to pity Ruby, who for whatever reason, presumably her devotion to Lee Goodwin, resides at the house and serves its criminal residents in a state of permanent dissatisfaction and depression. When Temple discovers Ruby’s baby in a box in the kitchen, Ruby curtly explains that she hides it away there “so the rats won’t get it.” The dire poverty and brutality of Ruby’s time at the house is fairly awful to imagine, and while she is not assaulted as Temple is (that we know of), she emerges as a parallel exploited female submerged in misery.

What takes place at the farmhouse is horrible, and the sexual predation running wild in those scenes and the scenes that follow (coupled with Temple’s stance as the film’s ambiguous moral center) is presumably a large part of what made the film so unpalatable to viewers in 1933—but modern audiences might find the film disconcerting as well. Primary complaints against the film then and now include the following: that the nature of its source material is lewd and explicit, and thus unsuitable for adaptation; that the film’s suggestive staging of the rape calls into question Temple’s feelings towards her rapist in a way that is tasteless and inappropriate; that the dysphoric sex life Temple experiences afterwards on screen is too salacious; and finally, that even if we grant that the film creates a more mysterious and open-ended atmosphere than the novel Sanctuary and that this atmosphere infuses the film with a sophisticated quality, nevertheless a rape whose context is as complicated as the one we find in The Story of Temple Drake is too unseemly for a mass-market film.

This is a film that has the potential to make audiences uncomfortable for many reasons. But while I will grant that it is true that the movie is exceedingly daring and very strange, and I am not surprised that historically viewers have raised objections to it, yet I maintain that it provokes us in a way that is complicated, nuanced, and adult. In fact, in many regards while the perspective it offers on its characters and events can be mysterious in some ways, it actually handles the topic of rape and sexual subjugation with sensitivity. As a result I find many of the objections to The Story of Temple Drake to be unpersuasive.

Let us examine them one by one. First, part of the scandal of The Story of Temple Drake is surely owed to its source material. The novel Sanctuary had been published only two years before the film was released, and the reading public would have been familiar with it, at least in reputation. Most infamously, in Faulkner’s novel, Temple is raped with a corn cob that then (in gory, stained condition) is actually and horrifyingly used as evidence at the Goodwin trial. There is no such specific implement mentioned or suggested in the film—but the mere memory of what transpires in the original story was likely unavoidable for those who knew it. Possibly it was too difficult to separate the film from its notorious source material, which also includes Temple’s enslavement in a full-on brothel and allusions to her assailant’s sexual impotence.

However, insisting that the film is responsible for the novel’s content is unfair. The film exists as a separate creation from the text on which it is based, with different details, characterizations, and outcomes for its characters. (Note that the film’s credits carefully keep their distance from Sanctuary as well, not mentioning it by name as a source.) Additionally, The Story of Temple Drake takes advantage of the film medium’s potential to suggest ideas and create impressions without resorting to the explicit content of Sanctuary: consider how many long stares between Temple and Trigger make up the movie’s middle sequence at the farmhouse or the scenes at the boarding house. Full of threats, terror, shame, and (on Trigger’s part) desire, they form a mishmash of emotions that the movie does not labor to unpack pointedly or at length in words. The Story of Temple Drake establishes early on, even as it teases us with sexual moments, that it is more suggestive and mysterious than Faulkner’s original story.

And yet, for reasons that may already be clear, the film’s suggestive nature has the potential to unnerve audiences as much as the explicit nature of Sanctuary does. The shots of long stares implicitly evoke the context of tempestuous romance, a context that seems odd and out of place here, primarily because the shots potentially suggest that Temple and Trigger are mutually attracted to each other before and after the rape. The images that lead up to the assault also may seem weirdly tantalizing, with Temple shot beautifully first in a white slip and then in a pale gown in a disheveled state, and Trigger shown hovering nearby in the artful shadows. Are we meant to be excited by this scene, and are the characters as well? (A strange shot of chickens pecking away in the barn, including a shot of a rooster, lend an oddly ribald note to the setting).

But while the film uses suggestive shots such as these to create an atmosphere of titillation and exploitation, it also uses the power of suggestion to capture Temple’s reaction to Trigger’s advances, enabling us to focus our attention on her victimhood and the horror of what she experiences. Rather than showing us any more of the rape, the film instead cuts to darkness, and we hear a bloodcurdling scream. That scream, while oblique, could prove too much for some, mainly because we are allowed to imagine whatever we wish taking place as Temple shrieks, and what we imagine can be infinitely more unpleasant than what could possibly be shown. But the camera blackout that occurs at the onset of the sexual attack is also thoroughly discreet, putting the burden on us to fill in the blanks. What we imagine may be awful, but ultimately we bear the responsibility for what we supply in the space of the cut to darkness—not the film, which escapes momentarily with Temple and the issue of her volition into the black of the cut.

The Story of Temple Drake may cause offense, even to a modern audience, because of that cloudiness, and because Temple’s life with Trigger following the rape (where so much of that cloudiness exists) could be viewed as inappropriately provocative. That is, her decision to live with him as a kept woman might suggest to some that she is actually fond of Trigger, and that her rape was on some level consensual as well. Part of this perception may lie in Trigger’s own account of what has happened between the two. “You holler and you faint—” he tells her at one point, then breaks off—implying that she is putting on a show when she argues with him, that she really enjoys living as his subjugated sex partner (and presumably that she enjoyed being raped by him in the first place).

It is true that Temple seems to benefit from her life as a kept woman; she lives in the city with Trigger, away from the small-town back roads we saw earlier, with lush furnishings and a constant stream of hip piano jazz in the background. She looks fabulous—dressed in an expensive negligee (then later a stylish coat and hat), softly lit, and with glamorous hair and makeup. Temple repeatedly says “no” and “I don’t want to” to Trigger—that much is clear. Nevertheless, is what we see evidence of her happiness? Is what Trigger says really true?

Perhaps it is difficult for us to answer “no” to these questions because the movie does not negate them more explicitly, and I do not wish to diminish the opportunity it leaves for us to think that Temple enjoys her captivity with all of the kinkiness that would entail. It certainly allows us to entertain that possibility. Yet ultimately I must reject Trigger’s argument as a legitimate reason for evaluating the rape as consensual. In the end, to concede definitively that Temple enjoyed the rape is to give credence to Trigger’s warped and malevolent perspective, and too little credit to Temple’s own reaction to the rape, whereby she is shown to be speechless and stunned. If her life as his concubine were truly liberating, as he seems to claim, I would expect her to be more expressive as a result, more content—not to retreat into herself, speak less, and appear distraught. And, lest we forget, she does murder him to dodge his sexual advances.

The Story of Temple Drake is thus complex and difficult to approach, and it should be clear at this point that even those who in 1933 did not write off the film based on its reputation or its relationship with Sanctuary could have found its complicated sexual dimensions difficult to appreciate, unpalatable, and inappropriate for mainstream entertainment. Audiences can easily object to the specific implementation of the subject matter here but also can possibly object more generally to the idea of any rape story whose context is this fraught with indefiniteness, mystery, and boundary-pushing eroticism.

I must confess, however, that while I can understand some of the controversy behind a pre-Code movie like Baby Face (1933), which delights unabashedly in its protagonist’s sexual profligacy, or Smarty (1934), which actually argues that women can be sexually aroused by spousal abuse, I have a harder time understanding why a movie that comes to be largely about rape, even a complicated rape, would more incense viewers than those other films. Many other repulsive crimes such as murder routinely make their way into Golden-Age films, and topics such as physical abuse, lynching, and torture also appeared in movies during this period. Rape is a crime, and while we might expect viewers to revile it as an unethical act, it does not seem reasonable to prohibit it as subject matter from the range of acceptable public discourse, including films—in this case, regardless of the ethical quandaries it raises.

For me, almost everything in the movie depends on the blank space of the rape. It pulls us out of the physical context of the crime and into a sort of internal uncharted domain. The cut to blackness mimics Temple’s stunned consciousness, which she will inhabit to protect herself from Trigger’s awful crime. The importance of the blank space becomes clear in the next scene, when we see her in a car driven by Trigger, and she looks as if she is stuck in a trance, barely aware of what is happening around her, hardly able to hold a mug of coffee, and unable to speak. She is permanently stuck in that blank space.

Hopkins’s performance here is exceptional. I have seen many Golden-Age movies, but I am hard pressed to think of another one that so movingly depicts sexual trauma. In scene after scene, Temple’s shock is apparent, as is her misery. It is only this, of course, that makes her staying on with Trigger in the boarding house believable, the result of her emotional impairment. The fact that saving Goodwin will require her to take the stand and forcibly connect in front of a courtroom with what has happened to her is, if the movie works, terrifying and upsetting. That it is easy for us to feel how horrible that moment is when Temple is asked on the stand to account for what has taken place in the barn is a sign that the film is effective at encouraging us to share the victim’s perspective and her reluctance to engage directly in language with her rape. If we were encouraged to adopt the perspective of the rapist, to enjoy the idea of the rape, or to feel titillated by it, taking the Hopkins character and her state of mind at all seriously would be decidedly more difficult.

After Temple survives rape, ongoing sexual subjugation, and courtroom testimony, the movie gives her story a sort of happy ending, unlike the novel. In Faulkner’s story, Temple perjures herself on the stand; Goodwin is found guilty in spite of his innocence, lynched, and set on fire. Benbow is also nearly lynched. Temple’s acquaintances are spared in the film, and Temple ends up in the arms of Benbow who loves her, but the legacy of Temple’s rape has only just begun to be processed. She collapses on the stand and is carried off by Benbow after she blacks out.

Perhaps through his tenderness, she will be able to face her experiences. As Benbow carries Temple away from the crowd, it is possible to find hope for her. The Story of Temple Drake is less brutal than Faulkner’s novel, and it risks forfeiting a certain amount of bleak honesty by ignoring Sanctuary’s cynical ending, but the film offers an abundance of compassion in its stead that transforms a story about a sex crime into a story about love and sympathy. While I grant that it is one of the weirder movies from the pre-Code era, it is also a shame that its humane qualities were not more celebrated at the time of its release.