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!: Fredric March in DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (Paramount 1931)

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE was first published in 1886, causing quite a stir in its day. The tale of man’s dark side was a huge hit, and over the years has been adapted on stage, radio, and numerous film and TV versions. John Barrymore (in the 1920 silent), Spencer Tracy (a lush 1941 MGM production), Boris Karloff (Meeting Abbott & Costello), Paul Massie (Hammer’s 1960 shocker), Jack Palance (Dan Curtis’ 1968 TV movie), and Kirk Douglas (a 1973 TV musical) are just a few actors who’ve sunk their teeth into the dual role. The best known is probably this 1931 horror film with Fredric March in an Oscar-winning turn as good Dr. Henry Jekyll and his evil counterpart, the snarling Mr. Hyde.

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave the past 130 years, you’re familiar with the story, so let’s look at the performances of Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. The incredibly handsome March as Jekyll (here pronounced JEE-kul) is a bastion of goodness, as we see in the opening POV shots where everyone smiles at him riding down the street in his carriage. Jekyll spends his free time working on the charity ward, comforting the ill and infirm, giving of himself to the less fortunate. Henry Jekyll is also the epitome of Victorian Era repression, striving to tamper down his baser instincts. He saves street prostitute Ivy from a beating, and treats her with care and compassion. She comes onto him, and Jekyll obviously struggles to remain restrained.

The love of his life, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), is a prim and proper maiden whose father wants the two to wait before being wed. Here March is staid, though frustrated at the thought of a long courtship. He’s like a gentleman in one of those drawing-room dramas, all googly-eyed and saccharine sweetness with Muriel, but trying to retain that stiff-upper-lip façade about it the whole thing.

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Jekyll’s been experimenting with a new drug that will separate the two halves of his nature, bringing out only the finer, noble qualities and destroying the animalistic impulses. This backfires, and Mr. Hyde comes out in full, furious force. Where Jekyll was in control of his emotions, Hyde is the Id come to life. Here March (with an assist from Wally Westmore’s incredible makeup) rips off the veneer of morality and becomes an unbridled ball of energy, full of fury and lust. As Hyde, he’s a snarling, simian-like animal, leaping and bounding like a whirling dervish, without a thought for the welfare of others. He tracks down Ivy and asserts control over her in more ways than one, abusing her physically, mentally, and sexually, a really sick S&M/B&D relationship that inevitably ends with him murdering her, a scene that still manages to shock in its brutality. Whereas Jekyll appreciates beauty, Hyde only seeks to tear it down and destroy it. It’s a bravura performance by March, and his Oscar was well-deserved.

Dr. Jekyll samples his own brew. However, instead of bringing out his goodness, the drug summons out the most evil parts of his personality. He becomes Fredric March (Mr. Hyde) and becomes involved with the prostitute Miriam Hopkins (Ivy Pierson).

Miriam Hopkins  as Ivy is both sympathetic and pathetic. Her cockney accent doesn’t quite convince, but her acting as the poor, doomed Ivy sure does. She’s street-wise and sexually provocative, a free soul who knows the way to a man’s wallet is through her body. Ivy’s repulsed by Hyde’s ugly countenance, but she’s willing to take his money at first. It soon becomes apparent that Hyde wants more than just sex, he wants to completely control her mind, body, and spirit. Now she’s trapped in a nightmare of torture and living in constant fear, with no way out except death. Ivy goes from carefree working girl to tormented victim, and Hopkins’ transformation in the part is just as effective as March’s. If the Academy had a Supporting Actress Oscar back then, Miriam Hopkins would’ve been the hands-down winner that season.

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Rouben Mamoulian’s innovative direction sets DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE apart from its early Universal horror counterparts. FRANKENSTEIN and to a greater extent DRACULA suffer from staginess, but JEKYLL & HYDE moves thanks to Mamoulian’s dynamic camera tricks. The opening POV shot brings things to life, and Mamoulian’s use of swipes, fade-outs, split screens, tracking shots, and dissolves lets the viewer known they’re watching a FILM, not a filmed stage play. The director’s use of the medium was widely praised, and deservedly so. Mamoulian made other all-time greats still watched and studied today: QUEEN CHRISTINA (with Greta Garbo in another take on duality), BECKY SHARP (the first feature shot in three-strip Technicolor), THE MARK OF ZORRO (with an energetic Tyrone Power), and his last, SILK STOCKINGS (Fred Astaire’s final musical). Cinematographer Karl Struss uses lighting to create two worlds, the brightness of Jekyll’s moralistic life in society and the bleakness of Hyde’s debauchery down in the slums. The Jekyll-to-Hyde transformations were groundbreaking back in 1931, but sadly don’t hold up well.  DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE is a classic of early horror, and compares favorably to the Universal nightmares of the era, even surpassing them on many levels. If you’re a lover of all things horror, put this one on your Halloween watch list.

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