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.

 

Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)

BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her, dubbing her Swan and putting her to work at his crooked roulette wheel. Some of the townsfolk, including newly arrived newspaper editor Col. Cobb, aren’t happy living under Chandalis’s thumb, but his gang of cutthroats and murders prove to be too much to handle.

When Cobb prints a story detailing Chandalis’s misdeeds, the crooked town boss threatens him, only to be saved by his friend Swan. The upset Swan rides out, getting caught in a rainstorm, and stumbles upon the cabin of young miner Jim Charmichael, who speaks with a poet’s soul. When the insanely jealous Chandalis hears Swan was seen with another man, he threatens to find out who it was and kill him. Of course, Jim comes to Frisco, promptly losing his gold at Swan’s crooked roulette wheel, and has to work for Chandalis, who puts two and two together and goes after Jim, just as the fed-up townspeople unite for some vigilante justice of their own.

Sure, it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hawks and his excellent cast kept me glued to the screen. Miriam Hopkins (Swan) is one tough cookie at first, caring only for gold and the finer things in life. The tough cookie begins to crumble though when she meets Jim, and allows Miriam to engage in some dramatically weepy histrionics. Edward G. Robinson (Chandalis), despite his puffy ruffled shirts and dangling earring, is basically doing a variation on his gangster parts (“You work at the table, see”) – which isn’t a bad thing! Handsome he-man Joel McCrea (Jim) and his easygoing charm certainly fills the bill as Miriam’s poetry spouting romantic interest.

The supporting cast includes then 41-year-old Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old coot Old Atrocity, Brian Donlevy in one of his patented bloodthirsty henchman roles, Frank Craven as the crusading editor, and Harry Carey Sr. as leader of the vigilantes. Other Familiar Faces in smaller parts are Herman Bing, Clyde Cook, Ed Gargan, J.M. Kerrigan, Frank McHugh , Donald Meek, football legend Jim Thorpe, and Hank Worden . An uncredited David Niven appears early as a drunken sailor getting thrown out of Robinson’s saloon. Veteran cinematographer Ray June, whose career stretched all the at back to 1915, perfectly captures the mise en scene Hawks wanted. June’s work can be seen in such diverse films as HORSE FEATHERS, TREASURE ISLAND, CHINA SEAS , STRIKE UP THE BAND, H.M. PULHAM ESQ., A SOUTHERN YANKEE, THE COURT JESTER, FUNNY FACE, and his final feature HOUSEBOAT.

All this is set to a sweeping Alfred Newman score that features cues from old-time favorites like “Oh Susanna” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. BARBARY COAST is a fun film, full of romance, action, and humor, made by a cast and crew of professionals who knew what they were doing, and did it well. I’ll hold off on calling it a classic, however; now, if it had been made in the Pre-Code era, with just a tad more spice…      

 

Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)

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VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

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We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops are ready to shoot to kill wherever they pop up, then leaves them to their fate, as he has a visitor, former flame Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins ). Miss Julia knows the South is losing the war and virtually bankrupt to boot, but has some exciting news: rich Southern sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, have put up five million in gold for the cause. Vance goes to see President Jefferson Davis himself with a plan to transport the loot to Texas and help save the Confederacy.

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Kerry and his crew keep digging, right below the munitions dump, which they blow up and escape (a little foreshadowing here). They make it to General Meade’s camp and tell him they suspect a plot in Virginia City, so he sends them west by stage, which coincidentally also carries Julia. Riding along is bandit John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart , sporting a pencil-thin moustache and terrible Mexican accent!), who tries to hold them up but is foiled by I’m-smarter-than-you Kerry. They all make it to Virginia City (except Bogie, who’ll pop up again later), and Kerry and Vance run into each other at the Sazerac Saloon, where Julia works as a dance-hall singer, and seems to be smitten with both of them.

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The players are all in place, and the stage is set for action, romance, and intrigue, as Vance tries to move the gold out of Nevada, Kerry tries to stop him, Julia is torn between two lovers, and Murrell has plans of his own. There’s danger and excitement at every turn, with Vance forming a wagon train full of gold across the desert, Kerry and company in hot pursuit. Director Michael Curtiz uses some interesting lighting and shot selection to tell the tale, and there’s some fine stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, including one that echoes the previous year’s STAGECOACH . Curtiz was a master film storyteller, not only visually but utilizing strong characterizations to get his story across to the viewer. I know I’ve said it before, but Michael Curtiz is one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

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The ever-gallant Errol Flynn is always the good guy no matter what side he’s on, whether as a Yankee captain here, or portraying Jeb Stuart in SANTA FE TRAIL. His gallantry is equally matched by Randolph Scott, my second-favorite Western star (you regular readers know my first by now!). This is the only film the two appeared in together, and their chemistry made me wish there were more. Most reviewers pan Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Julia, but I thought she was more than adequate, with just the right amounts of proper Southern belle and sexy dance-hall floozie, though her emoting can become a bit too much. It’s Bogart’s last Western, unless you count TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and stardom was lurking just around the corner, so the less said about his role here, the better!

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Flynn, Hale, and Williams always seem to be having a grand old time onscreen together, probably because they were all buddies offscreen, or maybe they were passing a bottle of hootch around between takes! The two sidekicks add solid comic relief to the proceedings, as does Frank McHugh as a fellow stagecoach passenger. There’s more Familiar Faces than you can shake a stick at, including Ward Bond Douglass Dumbrille , Paul Fix, Thurston Hall, Charles Halton, Russell Hicks, William Hopper, Dickie Jones (later of TV’s THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR), John Litel, Charles Middleton (as Jeff Davis), Moroni Olsen, George Reeves, Russell Simpson, and Frank Wilcox.

Victor Kilian appears at the end as Abe Lincoln and gives an impassioned speech that seems appropriate in these tumultuous political times: “We’re not enemies but friends… there is no spirit of revenge in our victory, there must be no harboring of hatred in their defeat… We’re now one people, united by blood and fire, and at that from this day forward our destiny is indivisible, with malice toward none, with charity for all… let us now strive to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Lincoln. Now let’s all dust ourselves off, go forward together, and watch an exciting classic movie like VIRGINIA CITY!

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.

Halloween Havoc!: Miriam Hopkins in SAVAGE INTRUDER (Avco Embassy 1970)

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SAVAGE INTRUDER (aka HOLLYWOOD HORROR HOUSE) is the psychotronic slasher version of SUNSET BOULEVARD, with a dash of PSYCHO thrown in for good measure. Glamorous 30s star Miriam Hopkins plays Katherine Packard, an alcoholic has-been, but this is no WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. It’s demented, sleazy, unsavory, and a good time!

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We start with some stock footage of Hollywood’s Golden Era, then the credits roll over shots of the decrepit Hollywood sign). (If you think you recognize the film premiere of THE DANCING CAVALIER, you’re right! It’s lifted from the film-within-a-film in SINGIN IN THE RAIN). The next scene shows us a young man following a middle-aged woman from a bar. He breaks into her home, conks her on the noggin, and starts sawing off her hand with an electric carving knife! When she wakes up screaming, he pulls out his hatchet and chops her to bits. He’s a serial killer who’s been terrorizing Tinsletown, and he’s played by John David Garfield, son of the late actor. While young Mr. Garfield has his dad’s looks and voice, he’s no chip off the acting block. In fact, he later went behind the cameras to work as an editor. But on with the show….

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A tour bus takes us to the estate of retired actress Katherine Packard (and yes, that’s ex-Stooge Joe Besser as your tour guide). The psycho-killer debarks and introduces himself as “Laurel N. Hardy”, looking for a job as nurse for Miss Packard. The old dame got drunk and fell down the stairs, breaking her leg in the process. Leslie (former SPIDER WOMAN and Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard), the mistress of the house, interviews Hardy, who’s real name is Vic Valance. Vic ingratiates himself with Katherine, and the elderly ex-star falls in love with him (croaking the tune “Taking a Chance on Love” in a scene I hope is supposed to be funny…cause it is!) Vic’s also involved with younger housemaid Greta (Virginia Wing), scandalizing Leslie and cook Mildred (Florence Lake, who costarred opposite Edgar Kennedy in a series of comedy shorts, and was older sister to Dagwood Bumstead himself, Arthur Lake).

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Vic shoots some dope, and has a flashback about his youth. It seems he was an abused child, whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute. He sees her with three or four skeezy dudes slobbering all over her, and takes a hatchet to them. In fact, Vic takes a hatchet to everybody by the end of the movie, leaving him alone in the house with a mannequin made up like Miriam Hopkins. This was Miss Hopkins last role, and she’s a hoot! Chewing the scenery with the best of them, Miriam overacts and plays to the back row, but somehow it works. The scene where Vic takes her to a Hollywood hippie party is high-camp, especially when a midget drug dealer offers her some acid (“The only trips I take are to Europe”, she deadpans). Producer/writer/director Donald Wolfe must’ve been tripping himself when he concocted this vulgar stew. It’s got some suspenseful moments and plenty of gore, and  is a perfect time capsule of late 60s/early 70s Hollywood debauchery.

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Worth seeing for the cast alone, SAVAGE INTRUDER is a unique low-budget shocker that will please any Grindhouse fan. It’s far from the best in the “Aging Star Does Horror” genre, but you won’t be disappointed by this raunchy romp, filmed inside the Norma Talmadge Estate. Put it on your late-night Halloween list, while the kiddos are sleeping, and dive into the delightful decadence of SAVAGE INTRUDER.

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