Pre-Code Confidential #24: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (Paramount 1933)


I’d heard so much about THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE – that it was so depraved and salacious it almost singlehandedly led to stricter enforcement of the Production Code – that it was almost a letdown when I first viewed it. I say almost because, knowing the era this adaptation of William Faulkner’s SANCTUARY was made, I understand how shocked audiences must have been. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE could be a TV Movie of the Week today, but in 1933 people couldn’t handle this level of lasciviousness.

Georgia-born Miriam Hopkins is outstanding as Southern belle Temple, though she does lay on the “sho’ nuffs” a little too thick at times. Temple, daughter of a prominent judge, is a wild child, a big tease to all the men in town. Solid, steadfast lawyer Stephen Benbow wants to marry her, but the self-centered Temple thinks he’s too dull, preferring to party all night. While speeding down a dirt road with the equally irresponsible Toddy Gowan on their way to a backwoods roadhouse, they get into an accident. The two are found by some  moonshiners and their big city bootleg connection, the cold-blooded gangster Trigger, and taken to their gloomy Gothic hideout.

Temple is then raped in the barn by Trigger, who shoots her young hillbilly bodyguard Tommy. The girl is in shock, as Trigger lugs her along his sordid path, making their way to Miss Reba’s Place, where she’s forced into a life of prostitution. Moonshiner Lee Goodwin is arrested for Tommy’s death, and Benbow is appointed council, but he refuses to talk, fearing reprisal from Trigger. Lee’s common-law wife Ruby isn’t afraid to speak the truth though, and Benbow tracks down Trigger with a subpoena. To his shock, Benbow finds the missing Temple with him. The murderous Trigger reaches in his pocket for his gun, but Temple gets between them, telling Benbow she’s been with the gangster all along, willingly, acting as his alibi and secretly saving Benbow’s life.

Temple then tries to leave Trigger, but the vicious hood won’t let her. He’s about to lay another smackdown on her when she grabs his gat and shoots her tormentor. Returning to her hometown just in time for the trial, Temple’s  father is outraged when Benbow plans to put his daughter on the stand, and now Temple faces a moral dilemma: tell the truth and suffer total disgrace for herself and her family name, or let an innocent man hang for a crime he didn’t commit…

Miriam gives one of her best performances as Temple, the party girl whose lifestyle leads her on the road to ruin. Hopkins doesn’t get the acclaim her contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford do, but her work in this and 30’s films like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE , TROUBLE IN PARADISE, DESIGN FOR LIVING, BECKY SHARP, and THESE THREE show what a talented actress she was. Jack LaRue (Trigger) was Hollywood’s most hissable gangster, and here he’s so repugnant and evil, with that ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, you can’t help but hate him. Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March) is really good as the hardened Ruby, as is Irving Pichel in the role of Lee. William Gargan plays Benbow as written – bland – and one can see why Temple isn’t interested. A plethora of Familiar Faces appear: Oscar Apfel , Louise Beavers, John Carradine (a courtroom extra), William Collier Jr (the wastrel Toddy), Jobyna Howland, Elizabeth Patterson, Sir Guy Standing (Judge Drake), Grady Sutton , and Kent Taylor.

Faulkner’s controversial novel had to be watered down, even in the Pre-Code era, by scriptwriter Oliver Garrett, and even then, the censors demanded cuts due to pressure from the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency . The rape itself, as well as any mention of Temple being a prostitute, are only implied, but you’ll get the drift (onscreen murders seem to be okay, though!). DP Karl Struss had worked on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic SUNRISE (receiving an Oscar) and early talkies COQUETTE, DR. JEKYLL, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. His camerawork on THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE was film noir before the term was ever coined.

Director Stephen Roberts handles the material well, cutting at times to the busybody townspeople talking about the scandalous Temple, and keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. Roberts had a long career in silent movies, mainly directing shorts, before being assigned to features. He died in 1936 after making only six more pictures. TEMPLE DRAKE may not have killed him, but it’s sinful reputation pretty much killed his career. The story was remade as SANCTUARY in 1961, but despite looser film restrictions it’s even more watered down than the original! I’d like to see a contemporary filmmaker(Quentin Tarantino? Martin Scorsese?) tackle the material, but for now, I’ll settle for the sleaziness of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE.

 

Halloween Havoc!: DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (Universal 1936)

After the success of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN , Universal decided it was time for a sequel to everybody’s favorite vampire, Dracula , with James Whale scheduled to direct. Whale opted out, putting DRACULA’S DAUGHTER in the hands of Lambert Hillyer , an old pro who dated back to silent William S. Hart Westerns, and was more comfortable with sagebrush sagas than Gothic horror. The result was an uneven film saved by Gloria Holden’s performance as the title character, Countess Marya Zaleska.

I’ll give Hillyer credit for some atmospheric scenes scattered throughout the movie. The opening scene at Carfax Abbey, cobwebbed as ever, picks up where DRACULA left off, with Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing (inexplicably renamed Von Helsing here) caught by constables shortly after staking the undead Count. The Countess burning the body of her vampiric father, hoping to free herself of her curse, is spooky, as is the return to Transylvania and Castle Dracula at the end. But for me, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER has too much unfunny “comic” relief in it, and way too much time wasted on romantic leads Otto Kruger and Marguerite Churchill . If the film were remade today, Churchill’s character would probably deck Kruger’s pompous ass psychiatrist.

Gloria Holden makes the whole thing worth viewing. Her exotic looks and husky voice make the Countess as creepy as Bela himself, complete with  close-ups of her hungry eyes (though they’re not quite as hypnotic as the great Lugosi). She even gets to repeat Dracula’s famous “I never drink.. wine” at one point in the film. Countess Zaleska longs to be released from her father’s deathless legacy, and she comes off as a sympathetic character at first. The scene where suicidal young Lili (18-year-old Nan Grey ) is brought to Zaleska under the pretense of posing for a portrait, with the Countess unable to resist her thirst for blood, seducing the innocent lamb before the slaughter, has definite lesbian undertones, and emphases the sexual power of the vampire over its victims. It’s the film’s scariest moment, and both ladies should be commended for their fine work in it.

I’ve written about actor/director Irving Pichel many times before, and as the Countess’s servant Sandor he turns in an equally chilling performance. Otto Kruger, on the other hand, is one of Universal’s worst horror heroes, and is totally unlikable. Van Sloan is the only original cast member from DRACULA to repeat his role, but Bela Lugosi is also seen  – as a wax figure in his coffin. Others in the cast include future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Billy Bevan, E.E. Clive, Gilbert Emery, Halliwell Hobbes, and Edgar Norton.

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER was the last entry in the first Horror Cycle. The British Horror Ban, combined with a new regime at Universal taking over from  the Laemmles and a stricter enforcement of the Production Code, put the kibosh on monster movies for three long years. It wasn’t until 1939 that Universal’s Monsters made a triumphant return to the Silver Screen. Next up, we’ll take a look at that film… SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)

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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankeiwicz version, I’d have to give the edge to Claudette; Liz may be more voluptuous, but Claudette’s definitely a more playful, tantalizing Cleo. And as for that famous milk bath scene, well…

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…hot damn!!!

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Cleo’s two lovers are both well cast, with smooth Warren William making a sturdy Julius Caesar. When her hopes to rule Rome alongside Caesar are dashed on the Ides of March, Cleo sets her sights on warrior Marc Antony, played with boyish enthusiasm by Henry Wilcoxon. She seduces him with wine, food, and her undeniable charms, gifting Antony with “clams from the sea” (in which a net is hauled up filled with writhing mermaids bearing shells filled with jewels), then celebrating with the bizarre tableau of dancing cat-women being whipped by a burly soldier! Who can resist a pitch like that!

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There are tons of Familiar Faces in this one, including Irving Pichel as Cleo’s confidant Apollodorus, Gertrude Michael as Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus, Ian Keith as Octavian, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Richard Alexander, Lionel Belmore, Edgar Dearing, Claudia Dell, William Farnum, Edwin Maxwell, and Leonard Mudie in various roles. Look fast for a young John Carradine among the cast of thousands.

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Cecil B. DeMille certainly knew how to hold an audience’s interest. Whether it’s in the battle scenes containing much carnage (and, truth be told, much stock footage), or in all the half-naked women, the film is a visual delight, even when Claudette’s not on the screen. Nobody captured the decadence of ancient times quite like DeMille, and CLEOPATRA’s got decadence to spare, coming right before Will Hayes began his puritanical reign of terror with the Production Code. It was nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Assistant Director, Sound Recording, Editing), winning for Milner’s cinematography. Conspicuous by it’s absence on that list is Claudette Colbert’s performance, but I don’t think she minded; she won that same year for the screwball classic IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

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The 1934 CLEOPATRA is half the length of the ’63 Liz & Dick opus, and is a whole lot more fun. Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t get much attention these days, but he was unquestionably one of Hollywood’s most important figures, and this film is a great example of Pre-Code excess. I was as mesmerized by Claudette Colbert’s star turn as I was by DeMille’s epically delicious debauchery. I think you will be, too.

My Christmas Present to You: THE GREAT RUPERT Complete Movie (Eagle-Lion 1950)

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THE GREAT RUPERT is one those movies I used to catch frequently on my local public access channel; it seems like it’s been in public domain forever. Producer George Pal uses his Puppetoon magic to animate Rupert, a plucky dancing squirrel who’s “almost human” forced to forage for himself when his trainer is evicted for not paying his rent. A homeless, penniless family of circus performers, the Amendolas, move in by fast-talking landlord Dingle’s son Pete, who falls head-over-heels for daughter Rosalinda.

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The miserly Mr. Dingle keeps his cash stashed in a hole in the wall, which is where Rupert stashes his nuts. When Mrs. Amendola starts praying for a miracle, Rupert starts tossing the worthless (to him) moolah out of his hidey-hole, and she believes it’s “money from heaven”. Soon the town begins to gossip about where the Amendolas are getting all this loot, and the local cops, IRS, and FBI begin to have their own suspicions…

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Jimmy Durante’s  jokes are older than him, but his singing and schtick are always a treat. Pretty Terry Moore was fresh off acting with another animated animal, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. The cast of pros like Tom Drake, Queenie Smith, Frank Orth, Chick Chandler, and Frank Cady (GREEN ACRES’ Mr. Drucker) keep things light, as does Irving Pichel’s direction. Full of more corn than a Nebraska field, here’s the sentimental Yuletide silliness of THE GREAT RUPERT. Enjoy watching, and have a Merry Christmas!

Karma’s a Bitch: THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (RKO 1947)

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1947 was a peak year for film noir. There was BRUTE FORCE BORN TO KILL , DARK PASSAGE, KISS OF DEATH, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, OUT OF THE PAST, and NIGHTMARE ALLEY , to name but a few. THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME doesn’t get the notoriety of those I just mentioned, but it can hold its own with them all. This unheralded dark gem from the RKO noir factory boasts an outstanding cast, and a taut, twisted screenplay from hardboiled pulp writer Jonathan Latimer.

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Larry Ballantine’s on trial for the murder of his wife and his girlfriend. Larry’s a real cad, a lying and cheating weasel. He takes the stand and tells his side of the story, as the film goes into flashback to recount the sordid details. Larry’s stepping out on rich wife Greta with co-worker Janice, who gives him an ultimatum. She’s transferring to Montreal, and Larry is to leave his wife and go with her. Greta finds out, and pulls some strings…purse strings, that is. She buys a home in Palm Springs and a brokerage firm partnership there for her husband. The weak-willed, dead broke Larry follows the money, leaving Janice to Canada.

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Trenton & Ballantine comes with many perks, foremost among them Verna. The sexy, golddigging dame sets her cap for Larry, and the louse can’t resist her, though he doesn’t try very hard. The two engage in a hot’n’heavy affair until Janice comes to town and bumps into them. Jealous Janice rats her ex-playmate out to Greta, and wifey puts her foot down hard. She sells Larry’s interest in the firm and buys a ranch out by the lake, demanding Larry choose to be with her or Verna. Since he’s nothing without Greta’s dough, the spineless worm moves out to the isolated country, without even a phone to tempt him.

Greta thinks she’s finally got him by the gonads now, but Larry’s lust knows no bounds. Seizing on an opportunity to go to L.A. and meet with an architect, Larry desperately calls Verna at his first chance. He hatches a scheme to bilk their joint checking account of $25,000 and run off with Verna to Reno, where he can get a quickie divorce and marry her. Things turn ugly when they’re involved in an accident on the highway to Reno, as a truck blows a tire and smashes into them, injuring Larry and killing Verna. But at the hospital, Larry discovers the cops think the burned, unidentifiable corpse is Greta, and Larry begins to get ideas about ridding himself of his marriage for good.

The plot takes some twists and turns from here, and I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t seen this film. The cast is ably directed by Irving Pichel, as unheralded these days as the film itself. Pichel was an actor and director known to horror genre fans as the servant of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) and co-director of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and SHE (1935). He also performed in the spicy Pre-Codes THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE and I’M NO ANGEL (with Mae West), and played Fagin in the 1933 version of OLIVER TWIST, and was narrator of two John Ford classics, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. His directing credits include the anti-Nazi films THE MAN I MARRIED, THE PIED PIPER, and O.S.S., the fantasy-comedies MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID and THE GREAT RUPERT, the early sci-fi entry DESTINATION MOON, and the excellent low-budget noir QUICKSAND (with Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre). Pichel made the Randolph Scott Western SANTA FE before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist, forcing him to move to Europe and ply his trade. After helming two religious pictures, MARTIN LUTHER and DAY OF TRIUMPH, Irving Pichel died in 1954. Many of the films he worked on were nominated for Academy Awards in various categories, and his career deserves a second look.

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All-American good guy Robert Young plays the rotten egg Larry, and he’s perfect in the part. Young’s long film career was winding down, and he was stretching his acting muscles at this juncture. A new career in television was just on the horizon, as he starred in not one but two long-running hits: the family comedy FATHER KNOWS BEST and the drama MARCUS WELBY, M.D. Sexy Susan Hayward (Verna) gets top billing, though she dies before the film’s conclusion. Hayward would receive her first Oscar nomination in 1947 for SMASH UP, THE STORY OF A WOMAN, the first of four she earned before taking the golden statue home for 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE! Jane Greer (Janice) co-starred in another ’47 noir, OUT OF THE PAST with Robert Mitchum… but you already knew that, right noir fans? Rita Johnson (Greta) isn’t as well-known as the other ladies, but she’s just right as the clinging wife. Some of her other films are HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, and MY FRIEND FLICKA. Let’s not leave out the Familiar Face Brigade: Don Beddoe , Anthony Caruso, Frank Ferguson, Byron Foulger, Milton Parsons, Tom Powers, and George Tyne all lend solid support.

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Producer Joan Harrison was a long time associate of Alfred Hitchcock, writing screenplays for JAMAICA INN , REBECCA, and FOREIGN CORRESPSONDENT. Harrison would later serve as producer of Hitchcock’s anthology TV series. The production values are high here, with a perfect score by Roy Webb and moody cinematography from Harry J. Wild ( MURDER MY SWEET ). THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a great example of 40’s noir filmmaking, and deserves to be included in any discussion of films made during noir’s greatest year, 1947.

 

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 2: Five Films From Five Decades

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Well, it’s time once again to get rid of some movies on my DVR so I can make room for more movies! Last night I had myself a mini-movie marathon watching four in a row (the fifth I’d already screened and jotted down some notes on it). So here, for your education and edification, are five films from five decades:

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THE RETURN OF DR. X (Warner Brothers 1939; director Vincent Sherman)

Despite the title, this is not a sequel to 1932’s DOCTOR X starring Lionel Atwill. This one’s all about a reporter (Wayne Morris) and a doctor (Dennis Morgan) investigating a string of murders where the bodies have been drained of blood. Humphrey Bogart plays Dr. Quesne, alias the mad Dr. X, in pasty white make-up and a streak of white in his hair. Seems he’s been brought back from the dead by Dr. Flegg (John Litel) after being electrocuted and now needs human blood to survive. It’s no wonder Bogie hated this film, playing a role more suitable for Bela Lugosi in his Monogram days. Fun Fact: Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy Huntz Hall plays newsroom boy Pinky in a rare solo appearance.

Continue reading “CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 2: Five Films From Five Decades”