We classic movie geeks know a thing or two about suffering for what we love.
We grieve over the films locked away in studio vaults.
We watch dreary, fuzzy transfers of hard-to-find movies and fantasize about what the film would look like with some tender loving care.
We fork over whole paychecks to go to festivals where we try hard not to blink during screenings of sublime rare films, knowing we may never see them again.
So, good news—a lost film found, a DVD or Blu-Ray release of a buried classic, generous funding for archives—means a lot to this community. And some recent developments have made me jump for joy.
Universal is restoring The King of Jazz. Shot entirely in two-color Technicolor, this 1930 musical revue features toe-tapping tunes performed by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and spectacular production numbers interspersed with brief comedy sketches.
If you’ve seen this elusive early sound milestone, you’ve probably seen a mutilated version. According to Layton, “No version of King of Jazz seen since the 1960s has been close to the original release version (which was first screened in New York City on May 2, 1930 at 105 minutes). The VHS releases and various 16mm prints floating around have had at least ten minutes missing and scenes in the wrong order.”
And, as if that’s not bad enough, the way those versions look could give anybody the shrieking fantods.
Early Technicolor’s restricted palette lent a refreshing, eye-popping vigor to trippy early musical sequences. But you’d never know that from the old transfers of King of Jazz circulating these days. With washed-out actors, ghastly dried-Playdough pinks, and heinous shades of blue, the VHS version I saw seems more like a horror movie. When I’m watching Bing Crosby’s first film appearance, I shouldn’t be thinking that he bears an alarming resemblance to Chucky.
Honestly, squint a little, and you’d think the colorization folks had gotten out their big box of crayons and gone to town. Shudder, shudder.
(Note: most screencaps in this post come from a much prettier original trailer for King of Jazz, which you can watch at the Internet Archive, NOT from the awful feature-length version I saw.)
If ever a film needed the royal treatment, King of Jazz is it. Heralded since 2012, when this blog was just a gleam in my eye, Universal’s restoration is finally on the verge of bringing all that jazz back to theaters.
The restoration primarily draws on a pristine but condensed camera negative, sliced down to a 65-minute version for a reissue in 1933. Compare that with an original running time of 105 minutes. (Pause for facepalm.) Fortunately, scanned nitrate prints from the Library of Congress and the Danish Film Institute can fill in the gaps.
As Layton told me, “I haven’t seen the finished restoration yet, but I can confirm it will feature footage that has not been seen by audiences since 1930.”
He and Pierce had initially planned to write an article about King of Jazz to mark the restoration. “But as we were researching we kept finding more and more amazing resources that were too irresistible not to draw upon. We soon decided we had enough for a book!”
King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will include many images never before published. For instance, reproductions of Academy Award-winning production designs by Herman Rosse “will form the backbone of the book.”
Scanning one of Rosse’s production designs for the upcoming book…
…and the design as it appeared in the film.
Layton and Pierce’s research is shedding light on how early talkie Hollywood continued to produce for foreign markets. Remember the Spanish-language Dracula? Well, Universal simultaneously produced 9—NINE—foreign versions of King of Jazz! Alas, all of these except the French version (preserved at the Gosfilmofond in Russia) are lost.
A still for “Il re del jazz,” the lost Italian version of “King of Jazz.”
The studio chose a veritable “It’s a Small World After All”-worthy crew of international actors working in Hollywood to serve as hosts for audiences in foreign countries.
“We found extremely rare photographs of nearly all of the foreign hosts, including Nils Asther, Bela Lugosi, Tetsu Komai, Andre Cheron and Antonin Vaverka,” Layton says.
And, if you’re interested in how audiences from Portugal to Japan responded to this surreal riot of Art Deco pop culture—translated into their native tongues—the book will cover that, too. “We worked closely with Gosfilmofond, the Czech national film archive, Museo del cinema in Turin, the Swedish Film Institute, and a host of international film researchers to translate original articles from international newspapers and magazines.”
I asked Layton if he’d uncovered anything else surprising about King of Jazz. He explained, “One of the most eye-opening moments early on in our research was the realization that a lot of the musical numbers were not new to the film; they had been honed on the Broadway and vaudeville stage throughout the 1920s, and were then re-imagined for motion pictures by visionary director John Murray Anderson.”
Indeed, King of Jazz strikes me as a thrillingly transitional film, sometimes bound to stage conventions, but more often innovative and cinematic, breaking out into an impossibly fluid space. For instance, the musical number “It Happened in Monterey” uses the potential of cinematic space to conjure up a nostalgic past.
The sequence’s “protagonist” (golden-voiced John Boles) starts out singing about his lost love while looking at her portrait in a small, confined room. The camera tracks in towards the painting—which dissolves into the subject of the portrait (Jeanette Loff)—then camera moves out to reveal a vast, romantic stylized vision of old Monterey.
Sure, you’ll get wide shots of kicklines, as though you were plunked in the audience of a big Broadway theater. Yet, you’ll also get ethereal double exposures, oodles of tracking and crane shots, passages of fast, rhythmic editing, and animated musical interludes, all drenched in the psychedelic glory of early Technicolor.
My favorite shot of the film comes during the“Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, probably the best-known portion of the film, thanks to its giant piano and top-hatted Russell Markert dancers (a troupe we now know as the Rockettes). Yet, amidst all that extravagance, the image that lingers in my mind is this shot of a clarinetist.
This low angle brings us into the intimacy of the performance and gives us a perspective that we’d be unlikely to encounter in real life. Towering against the glittering blue background, the clarinet player takes on the power of a shaman, channelling the magic of jazz into a new era of audiovisual stimulation.
In a similar vein, look at this overhead shot of the violins section in Whiteman’s orchestra.
I know what you’re thinking: it looks sort of Busby Berkeley, right? Well, King of Jazz hit theaters in the spring of 1930. And Whoopee!, the first film on which Berkeley worked as a dance director, premiered in New York City on September 30 of the same year.
King of Jazz is both a rip-roaring good time and a key film in the development of the musical as a genre. And for many years it’s been something of a “missing link.” I look forward to learning more about it.
For more information about Layton and Pierce’s new book, check out their Kickstarter and consider backing it. Support film scholarship!
Now, you might be wondering, how can cinephiles see the restoration? Well, I’ve got more good news.
The restored King of Jazz will premiere at MoMA as part of upcoming series focusing on Universal’s years under the reign of Junior Laemmle.
Often ridiculed as a brash baby mogul, Junior received studio control in 1929 as a 21st birthday gift from his father, Universal founder Carl Laemmle. (And you thought My Super Sweet 16 was wild!) However, Junior’s term as general manager bequeathed to us some of the greatest and most enduring films of the 1930s, including Universal’s cycle of horror films, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1934 adaptation of Imitation of Life.
Junior’s contributions to film history, especially during the no-holds-barred pre-Code era, deserve wider recognition. (Even if he did allegedly think that Bette Davis had the sex appeal of Slim Summerville. We all make mistakes.)
According to Layton, the Junior Laemmle series, programmed by Dave Kehr, “will include premieres of many new restorations and preservations from Universal’s restoration department.” MoMA will announce dates soon.
If you can’t make the MoMA series, may I interest you inCapitolfest?
This festival screens rare silents and pre-Codes in a 1928 Moorish style movie palace. Believe me, it’s even better than it sounds. King of Jazz poses a special challenge.
As Capitolfest’s Facebook page reports, “unfortunately, there will be no FILM prints [of King of Jazz]. There will be a DCP (digital) print available, however, though we are not equipped to show this at the Capitol. And so, we have decided to show this as our regular weekly attraction at one of the small cinemas next door to the Capitol, from August 11-15.”
So, two guesses where I’ll be on August 15, 2016.
When it comes to restorations, I usually only see the “after” in the “before and after” process. Having witnessed the wan, chopped-up King of Jazz, I’m especially excited to discover the restoration. I’ll get to observe not only the changes in the film, but also the changes in my reactions to it.
The first day of Lent compels me to make Joseph Breen, the fanatical Production Code Administration honcho, roll over in his grave. Before Easter I’d like to watch as many new-to-me pre-Code movies as possible.
Consider it anti-Lent—a celebration of excess. Or grateful recognition that so many movies buried for years by censorship have arisen and joyously outlived their censors.
Somehow I’d never watched Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul until last night (I know, I know), so I’m atoning now with a lengthy rumination on its equivocal MGM decadence.
Warning: This movie may make you want to wear slinky bias-cut gowns and/or dishonor your family. Talk to your doctor about whether pre-Code movies are right for you. Unless your doctor doesn’t know what pre-Code movies are, in which case you have my permission to give him a lecture on film history, tie him up, and force him to watch TCM.
Raised by her father Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore), a brilliant trial lawyer plagued by alcoholism, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) lives a free-spirited life (hence the title). Rejecting her snobbish family and her respectable fiancé Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), Jan starts a steamy romance with her father’s gangster client, Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable).
That’s a step too far for dear daddy, who’s horrified by the affair. So, Jan makes a bargain: she agrees never to see her lover again if her father quits drinking. He gives it up at first… but when he weakens, so does Jan.
She returns to Ace, who insists that she belongs to him, body and soul, and must marry him—or else. Disgusted, Jan flees for her life. To protect Jan, Dwight shoots Ace and stands trial for murder. Guess who turns up to defend him in a spectacular Oscar-bait courtroom finale? (Hint: It’s Lionel Barrymore, who won his Best Actor gold for the performance.)
My two cents:
A Free Soul adds to the grand pre-Code tradition of adventurous society girls undone by hommes fatals. For that reason, the movie recalls Letty Lynton (1932) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). In all three films, reckless high-class dames fall (or are forced) into abusive relationships with charismatic but depraved men from the wrong side of the tracks.
Are these movies conservative cautionary tales that punish women for seeking sexual fulfillment? Or are they subtly feminist films that reveal how rebellious women suffer in a world where they’re almost universally viewed as possessions?
Probably both, to varying degrees.
Of the three movies I’ve mentioned, A Free Soul particularly glorifies forbidden pleasures. We’re invited to enjoy—and almost to take part in—Jan’s liaison with bad boy Ace. When she outstretches her arms and whispers, “Put ’em around me,” she beckons to the viewer as well as to her lover. It’s a ménage à trois between Shearer, Gable, and the camera. All the last-minute regrets and preachments can’t erase the silken, candlelit delights of those scenes in Ace’s penthouse.
Shearer is at her most sublime when radiating desire. Her ladylike coyness melts into unabashed yearning, transcending the good-girl-bad-girl duality that society loves to impose upon women. The image that will haunt me most from A Free Soul is this shot of Shearer, her head tilted back, welcoming the moment to come. From this angle, her haughty beauty is serenely sculptural. A marble goddess breathes for the first time.
Sure, she’s savoring the closeness of Gable and his moustacheless early 1930s smolder. But her elation is both spiritual and physical. What really intoxicates Jan is the freedom she seized for herself when she ran out on her closed-minded, blueblooded family. Anticipation is five syllables long, but it’s still too small a word for what Jan’s experiencing.
A few reels later, Ace’s proposal of marriage—or ultimatum of marriage, rather—sours the relationship and kills Jan’s dreams. Oddly enough, I can’t think of many other movies where it’s the guy who insists on getting hitched, while the woman prefers a no-strings-attached arrangement. We’re meant to notice this oddness, I think. That’s because, in A Free Soul, sex is a metaphor for independence, and marriage a metaphor for captivity.
Even a man who lives outside the law cannot accept a woman’s threatening freedom. Ace wants to own Jan, even though she craves no such control over him. In fact, Jan loved Ace because he represented a break from the stuffy constraints and contracts of upper-class romance. She discovers that, once the swagger and the aphrodisiac power of machine-gun fire wear off, there’s nothing to separate Ace from her repressive relatives. Except bad manners. And a propensity for violence.
Watching her exotic playmate turn into a brutish would-be jailer, Jan mutters, “And then the moonlight turned to worms.” Her disillusionment breaks my heart. As does the rest of the movie, which rushes to blame Jan’s “new woman” philosophy for her suffering and ruin.
The script also points the finger at Stephen Ashe, as though only a drunken failure of a father would dare to teach his daughter to follow her heart. Yuck, right? This moralizing twist undermines the teasing, equal-terms relationship between father and daughter that helps to draw us into the film. In the opening scene, we see Jan in silhouette getting dressed as Stephen reads the paper at the breakfast table. When Jan asks him to pass her some lingerie, he hands it to her through the bathroom door—without looking, of course.
Is this an illicit affair between an older man and a younger woman? Nope. Just a normal day for the Ashes. Creepy though that sounds, the frankness between father and daughter shows how much they trust and love each other. Their affection actually reminds me of intimate mother-daughter relationships in the movies, which makes sense since Stephen has been both father and mother to Jan.
They’re so close that dad’s not mortally embarrassed by the knowledge that—gasp—his daughter wears a lacy bra! That overshare rapport strikes me as much more convincing and much less creepy than the surgically distant exchanges you see between fathers and daughters in many movies of the 1930s and 1940s. I’ll take a confidant dad over a symbolic patriarch any day, thankyouverymuch. But no, argues A Free Soul, that’s wrong. I’d better forget everything my father taught me about being a person in my own right.
Worst of all, the third act of A Free Soul denies Jan the agency to defend herself. In the similar pre-Code movies I alluded to earlier, Letty Lynton and Temple Drake powerfully reclaim control over their lives and bodies by executing the men who’ve tormented them. However, Jan Ashe leaves poor Dwight Winthrop to do the deed and shoot Ace.
When Jan visits gallant Dwight in jail, she wishes that she had executed her beastly lover instead. I couldn’t help but agree. Without the visceral revenge granted to Temple and Letty, A Free Soul devolves into a great big perfidious “told ya so.” A sermon trying to pull off silk stockings.
Although it leaves you with a craven, bitter aftertaste, A Free Soul is redeemed by its sensuality. Even the stark prison scene crackles with sexual tension, heightened by close shots of hands and eyes. Jan gives Dwight one hell of a passionate kiss to thank him for slaying Ace. (Tangentially, in what universe does Leslie Howard have to kill somebody before he’s attractive to you, girl? Way to undersell your leading man, movie.)
This film betrays most of what I like about it, but I still can’t help but like it. I guess you’d better keep me away from your rakishly charming gangsters.
Red and green, stop and go, naughty and nice: two-color Technicolor is literally made of opposites, of complementary colors that cancel each other out when combined in equal measure.
In pre-Code musical rom-com Follow Thru, the two-color palette, a riot of coral and mint, wages a kind of merry war, to borrow a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s best rom-coms.
This past weekend Capitolfest screened UCLA Film and Television’s 35mm restoration of Follow Thru, transferred from the original camera negative. Sitting in the fourth row, I felt as though I were devouring some rare confection, a peachy parfait of cinematic pleasure. Its two-color cinematography, not to mention infinitely hummable tunes by Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva, banished my blues (pun intended).
Based on a hit Broadway show of 1929, this now-obscure musical frolics through a flimsy plot about a lady golf champ (Nancy Carroll) fighting her fairway rival (Thelma Todd) for the affections of a handsome instructor (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers). Directors Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab embrace the toe-tapping whimsy of their source material and never lean too hard on the tension. It’s as though they opened a window in the Great Depression and let an insouciant breeze from the ’20s waft in.
Follow Thru shatters two unfortunately common assumptions about old movies, especially early talkies: first, they were all black-and-white and, second, they were dreadfully stuffy. Well, not only was this 85-year-old musical shot in dazzling color, but it also abounds with more innuendo and risqué humor than you’d find in most modern rom-coms.
I’ve seen a lot of pre-Code movies, but there were a few lines in Follow Thru that made my jaw drop. For example, curvaceous Thelma Todd hurls herself at petrified millionaire Jack Haley, invites him to come and spend “a week of love” with her, and asks, “Then you will come?” Clearly, um, excited by her advances, Haley sputters, “It won’t be long soon.”
Or consider the sequence where Haley and scene-stealing Eugene Pallette sneak into a locker room full of lingerie-clad ladies with the intention of retrieving a ring. After many shocking revelations for girl-shy Haley, the pair sneak out wearing ladies’ clothes. And, believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Eugene Pallette in a striped day dress.
Like those inscrutable marshmallow circus peanuts you can buy at dollar stores, the thrills in Follow Thru are cheap and possibly damaging to your health, but irresistible… and sort of orangey.
Why, even the movie’s title turns out to be a double entendre (rather like Much Ado About Nothing, actually). At the end, Rogers and Carroll reunite with the promise of canoodling under some orange blossoms. The hero’s best friend drives away and mischevously calls out, “Follow through!” You get the feeling he’s not talking about a golf swing.
Some movies set out to make a point, some smuggle their messages in, and some have no particular agenda other than your enjoyment. Happily in the last category, Follow Thru pampers its spectators with visual indulgences that transcend its source material.
The film introduces its star, Nancy Carroll, 5 minutes into the runtime with a close-up so delicious that I’d swear it had calories. After taking a careful swing with her golf club, Carroll peers intently into the distance. Just as we’ve adjusted to the rapturous splendor of what we’re seeing, Carroll’s face blossoms into a smile and stuns us anew. The Capitolfest audience greeted Carroll’s face with a ecstatic round of applause.
If Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus had dreamed up a movie star to showcase the beauty of the two-color process, he couldn’t have done better than Carroll, with her effervescent green eyes, auburn hair, and apple cheeks. That initial close-up revels in the startling sensuality made possible by technology. As a 1930 advertisement gushed, “The fascinating Paramount star… becomes a new personality under the magic wand of Technicolor—real, vibrant, convincingly alive!”
But that ad copy only partially gets the spell of two-color Technicolor right. Vibrant and alive? Yes. Real? Not by a long shot. That’s why I love it.
Unlike the full spectrum of three-color Technicolor, the two-color process denies us the soothing true blues, cheerful yellows, and sumptuous purples that we see in reality. Instead, early Technicolor plunges the viewer into a festive, askew universe reminiscent of peppermint candy and just as invigorating. Its charm lies in its unreal-ness.
Due to the vagaries of film preservation and availability, if you’ve seen early Technicolor, it was probably in a short insert sequence, like the masked ball in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the “Singin’ in the Rain” number from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, or the charity gala scene in Hell’s Angels (1930). These splashy, arresting interludes often display excellent cinematography and color sense, but tend to strike spectators as novelties or flamboyant set pieces, understood primarily in contrast to the rest of the film.
When used for the duration of a feature film, however, two-strip Technicolor gains nuance through its many variations, from shot to shot, from scene to scene. And it’s a sadly little-known chapter of Hollywood history that more than a dozen early sound musicals (as well as some silents and talkies of other genres) were shot entirely in two-color Technicolor.
Follow Thru turns the limitations of the early color process into an advantage by using its restricted range of two opposite colors as a stimulant. The pairing of red and green parallels the madcap rivalries and commedia dell’arte-ish couplings of the film.
Over the course of Follow Thru’s hour-and-a-half runtime, the piquant balance of reds and greens in each scene heightens the musical’s topsy-turvy charms. A stripe of emerald on a sweater here keeps a scarlet beret there in check. The sparkle of seafoam-colored beads and a spray of ruby feathers (and not much else) on Thelma Todd make an alluring counterpoise to the crimson velvet jacket and forest-green tartan kilt on Nancy Carroll.
The pinks, browns, and subtle celadon shades of outdoor outfits on over 200 extras keep the spring green grass of the Palm Springs fairway from overwhelming the viewer. And a luminous cyan studio backdrop complements the complexions of Rogers and Carroll in a cozy two-shot as they croon—what else?—“A Peach of a Pair” to each other. Covered in blush to register for the Technicolor cameras, the young lovers glow with a rosy flush, as though they share a risqué secret.
Indeed, Technicolor aids and abets Follow Thru’s healthy celebration of desire, courtship, and a new age of permissiveness. The film reserves its flashiest and most humorous use of color for the biggest production number, a playful ode to modern misbehaving. Zelma O’Neil’s performs “I Want to Be Bad,” backed up by chorines who transform from pallid, almost colorless angels to bright red devils… then back into angels.
Though the number takes place on a stage of a country club (albeit one so opulent and vast as to strain my suspension of disbelief), the film medium stretches that space into something fantastic and thrilling.
A lightning bolt hides a cut and transmogrifies the heavenly choir into kicklines of alluring devils in red body suits. The camera pans across the dancers. Cuts between angles—sometimes abstracting the dancers into patterns of red on green—emphasize the hot rhythm of the music. There’s even a very Busby Berkeley-esque touch when a cherub pulls an alarm, prompting a celestial fire brigade to descend from the clouds and put out the blazing sinners, as flames spurt out of the stage!
Even though the racy dancers end up where they started, as subdued, smiling angels, the musical number exalts the joys of cutting loose. (A scene later Nancy Carroll will go a step further and confirm being bad as an effective relationship strategy when she wins Buddy Rogers back from devious Thelma Todd by gulping down cocktails!) As O’Neil belts out, “If it’s naughty to rouge your lips, and shake your shoulders, and twist your hips, let a lady confess: I want to be bad!”
The hyperbolic heaven-versus-hell aspect of the song not only ridicules the notion of badness, but also suggests that being a devil is a hell of a lot more fun. The irony, of course, is that none of what the perky comedienne sings about—makeup, dancing, staying out late, maybe some light vamping—is that terrible. It’s hardly brimstone material to “ask for more” out of life, as the lyrics say, right?
Yet, the sanctimonious moral guardians of the 1920s convinced plenty of people that hell is overcrowded with bad little girls who bobbed their hair, laughed at dirty jokes, and took a swig of gin every now and again. “I Want to Be Bad” even includes an allusion to such self-righteous party-poopers: “Some reformers say a warmer climate awaits you,” O’Neil teases, pointing downwards. When she sticks her tongue out at the camera, in many ways she’s really thumbing her nose at the people who were (and are still) threatened by young women making their own choices and enjoying them.
As it happens, the same gaggle of fanatics and censors that the song mocks would make a movie like Follow Thru impossible just a few years later… Fortunately, the film survives in all its irreverent glory. And if it’s naughty to love Follow Thru, then, darlings, I want to be bad!
Alas, Follow Thru is not available on a legit DVD. The screenshots I’ve used in this post are pale and inadequate representations of the film, but I figured they were better than nothing. You can find it online without too much trouble, but all the prints I’ve seen out there are pretty bad.
To paraphrase a line from Heart of Darkness, you can’t judge Kongo as you would an ordinary film.
In this monument to morbidity, nearly all the taboos festering at the edges of pre-Code cinema come out and play: blasphemy, drug addiction, prostitution, torture, slavery, bestiality, and (spoiler alert!) incest. The movie positively wallows in depravity. Degradation is its subject, its project, its study.
Kongo is so squalid, so sticky, so saturated in filth that it rises to the level of tragic art, an art of darkness. And, as ‘Dead-Legs’ Flint, the movie’s irredeemable villain/hero, Walter Huston deserves much of the credit for whatever brutal poetry the film attains.
Huston’s performance, possibly the most intense in a screen career that defined intense, runs the gamut from raw, animalistic rage to wry sadism to blank, abject despair. How far can hatred take a man? How much can vengeance distort his soul? Prepare to find out.
And, yes, this is a ludicrously long post. Make it to the end and I’ve got some cute behind-the-scenes anecdotes from fan magazines to cleanse your palate, okay?
No Bedtime Story
In remote central Africa, a merciless paraplegic ivory trader (Huston) rules his territory with impunity, lording it over his mistress Tula (Lupe Velez) and his terrified cronies. Using magic tricks to convince the natives that he controls evil spirits, he sets himself up as a minor god. (Cue the offensive 1930s stereotypes and broken English!)
But Flint’s not in this for money. Oh, no. He carefully selected this private inferno as the staging ground for an elaborate revenge scheme. After 18 long years of waiting, he’s about to spring the trap.
Left partially paralyzed after a fight with the man who stole his wife, Flint targets the rival’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), born to Flint’s wife. Plucking Ann from a convent as soon as she’s “old enough to realize what’s happening to her,” Flint sends her to work in a Zanzibar brothel.
Once Ann “graduates” from the whorehouse, he summons the girl to his plantation and subjects her to starvation, beatings, numerous assaults, and daily humiliations. Unbroken in spirit, Ann falls in love with a drug-addicted derelict doctor (Conrad Nagel, never edgier), and they help nurse each other back to health.
Meanwhile, Flint counts down the days until he can lure Ann’s father to his compound and show him what his daughter has become. Then the fun can really begin.
However, when Flint finally confronts his foe, needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned. One mistake will bring the full weight of the tyrant’s actions down on his own head… and somehow make the film even sicker. This plot doesn’t thicken so much as it curdles.
Beast in the Jungle
Walter Huston had an advantage in tackling Kongo: he’d created the role of ‘Dead-Legs’ on Broadway in 1926, starring in a sordid play that would spawn two film adaptations.
With all that practice under his belt, it should come as no surprise that he captured the disabled character’s physicality with uncanny ease. He makes us accept Flint’s paralysis with the apparent rote familiarity of his movements, positioning his limbs by sharply yanking his pant legs or smoothly dragging himself across the floor, for instance. He sets a rock-solid basis for our credibility in the face of all the Grand Guignol to follow.
Better yet, Huston wisely doesn’t back down from the perversity of the part. He refuses to underplay Flint or use his plight for sympathy. Instead, he gives a full-throttle representation of evil, radiating malevolence, power, and fearlessness.
I’m sorry, but we’d never buy Flint’s barbarism if he weren’t larger than life. Some characters can only be sustained on a diet of scenery-chewing. This man is a roaring, hyperbolic tyrant, an arrogant, cigar-chomping monster. It’s as though every major dictator of the 20th century borrowed a few tricks from Huston’s repertoire. Even when he’s resting in his wheelchair, his presence signifies imminent violence.
For example, in what I consider the movie’s most chilling moment, Flint punishes Ann for trying to escape the plantation by ordering his myrmidon Hogan to beat and (the scene strongly implies) rape her. Hogan drags the poor girl into another room, the door closes, and we hear Ann shriek again and again.
Wheeling right up to the door, Flint takes a mighty puff of his cigar and howls with laughter. His rabid, guttural cackle mingles with her high-pitched screams as the screen lingeringly fades out. In addition to the downright disturbing use of offscreen space, the juxtaposition of sounds—laughter and cries of pain—emphasizes just how far Flint has strayed from that little thing we call humanity.
Twisted in Mind and Body
Ironically, Flint obsesses most over his rival’s sneer, over the expression of glee and contempt on the man’s face as he left Flint helpless. In seeking to retaliate against that sneer, Flint has assimilated it, absorbed it, transmuted it into the essence of his being until he himself is little more than a sneer.
Although his interpretation of Flint originated on the stage, Huston wrings the intimacy of the film medium for all it’s worth. The actor gets more close-ups and medium close-ups than either of the movie’s leading ladies and, despite being handicapped by grotesque makeup that partially obscures his features, he makes the most of those shots.
Whenever he describes the torture and degradation of his enemy’s daughter, an unholy gleam flashes in his eye. Huston makes the pleasure that Flint takes in Ann’s suffering just as frightening and sick as it ought to be. Plus, cinematographer Harold Rosson enhances the horror of Huston’s performance with stark lighting, often from below, so that darkness laps at the corners of the frame.
Another interesting aspect of Flint’s performance is the unnerving mixture of raw and refined cruelty. The film recurrently places him in the animal realm: he slithers on the floor like a snake and, when we first see him, his head pops out of a bunk… after the head of his pet monkey. He’s also not afraid to get hands-on in his villainy, grinning eagerly as he pries Tula’s mouth open with the intention of twisting her tongue out with wire.
Yet, far from an unthinking brute, he can’t resist making a few barbed comments to assert his intelligence. He wounds Ann with words as well as with blows, forcing her to smash a glass she’s sipped from, snarling, “Who’d want it after you?”
Earlier, ordering Tula to deck him out in his Voodoo headdress, he decides to take the opportunity to remind her of the fact that’s in she’s servitude to such an unattractive master. “Crown me Queen of the May,” he leers. “Of all the men you’ve known, have you ever seen such an Adonis? Smile, you little bush rat, smile.”
When he comes face-to-face with the object of his hatred, another ivory trader called Gregg, the man asks if Flint wants revenge. The reply? “No, not revenge. Call it the aftereffect of dark, somber brooding,” he comically minimizes.
The glimmers of wit and civilization in Flint disturb us all the more, because they remind us that he is a self-created monster. As his victim of choice yells at him, “Your mind’s more twisted and warped than your body!”
West of Zanzibar, South of Decency
Remakes rarely surpass the originals, but to my mind, Kongo trumps Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928), starring Lon Chaney, on pretty much every level—certainly in terms of horror.
West of Zanzibar begins by showing how Dead-Legs’ wife leaves him, how he ends up paralyzed, and how he vows revenge. Seeing these tribulations builds empathy for the antihero too early in the film, thus, in my opinion, weakening the character.
Moreover, Flint’s torment of his enemy’s daughter in the silent strikes me as positively childish in comparison to the persecution we witness in the talkie version. He steals her clothes and gives her brandy? Heaven forfend!
The undercurrents of perversity still run strong in Zanzibar—you’ve got people being burned alive, for instance—but dialogue and sound in general cranks up Flint’s formidable power as an adversary, especially given his physical limitations. With a voice, he gets to threaten, bark, grunt, chortle, crow, taunt, cajole, and quip, all in the service of his single-minded goal.
On a more poignant level, the talkie develops Ann into a three-dimensional character. She not only describes the trauma of her experiences, but also rises above them, telling Flint, “You just called me a degraded woman. In name I am, but in my heart never!”
In terms of background noise, thunderclaps, tribal chants, and the sweeping sounds that Flint makes scuttling across the floor all fill the vivid soundtrack of this early talkie. Most eerily of all, the entire third act throbs with drums, hammering away, announcing doom for a certain character selected for human sacrifice.
Senses of Wickedness
No other product of the studio era, talkie or silent, ever brought the word “hellhole” to life so completely as Kongo did. Director William J. Cowen, a decorated WWI officer, ex-spy, noted writer, and husband of the great screenwriter Lenore Coffee, only worked on a handful of movies, which may be a blessing for those with delicate constitutions.
With cinematographer Rosson (of The Wizard of Oz), Cowen transformed an M-G-M set, used around the same time for the steamy romance Red Dust, into another world, one that none of us would want to visit. If Red Dust is an exotic wet dream, Kongo is a tropical nightmare.
Most impressive to me is how Cowen preys upon nearly all of the audience’s senses, especially how haptic the movie is. Kongo almost seems to touch you, and I don’t mean emotionally. The eye cannot help but translate the squirmy tactile sensations conjured by such unpleasant images. Itchiness. Dirtiness. Griminess. Bodies glisten constantly with sweat, burnished and glowing, as though the beast in each character had literally bubbled to the surface.
The chancrous, sin-sodden ambiance of Kongo prompts a visceral response. About 10 minutes in, you’ll want to wash the heat-haze off yourself. Even the light looks dirty.
Plus, if a movie can have a stench, this one does—sweet like jungle rot and revenge and sour like dried perspiration and regret.
Trick of Fate
When discussing the nature of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle identified anagnorisis—a tragic revelation or recognition—as a potent plot device.
Like we see in Oedipus, this sudden realization or discovery often leads to peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, an upheaval from which the drama draws emotional energy: “This recognition, combined with reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, tragedy represents.”
I suspect that Aristotle would have as high an opinion of Kongo as I have, because it pulls off an anagnorisis that might’ve prompted Oedipus to put out his eyes and his ears to boot.
Flint summons Gregg to his plantation, parades the debased Ann before him, then announces that she is his daughter. Gregg wobbles and collapses in a huddle. The camera tracks in on Gregg’s heaving back as he presumably sobs, but when he looks up, we see a hysterical smile on his face. “She’s your daughter!” Gregg laughs.
And we watch Flint slowly, agonizingly reap the punishment he’d devised for another. Our fear of what he might do next dissolves into pity. Humanity pours back into him as he reprocesses all the terrible things he’s done to Ann with the double sorrow of a father’s love and a persecutor’s guilt.
Seized with the desire to make amends, he reaches out for Ann, only to realize that his previous actions have conditioned his daughter to shudder at his touch. Later, she faints and Flint takes the chance to cradle her in his arms.
To call the scene uncomfortable would be an understatement. Flint has to resort to a form of exploitation even to express tenderness, holding her as she lies there unconscious. Think of it as, say, David Lynch’s Pietà.
Any affection he can ever feel for his child is tainted by the abuse he inflicted on her. He knows it, too. We discern that in a series of harrowing close-ups: Flint looking down, Ann’s face, her eyes closed, on the floor. The opposing “axes” of their faces, his roughly vertical, hers roughly horizontal, when edited together, spur the viewer’s eyes to readjust. The contrast visually expresses the Aristotelian reversal, the staggering switch that annihilated one of cinema’s fiercest villains and transformed him into a bereft parent.
That my heart can break for such a villain, a man I never cease to despise, testifies to Huston’s virtuosic talent—and to the perverse force of the movie as a whole.
Gratuitous though Kongo’s litany of sins may seem, the heavy impact of all that ugliness culminates in a gut-punch of recognition and reversal. The movie does not exist merely to shock, but to tell us something about outer limits of evil: you cannot debase another without debasing yourself more.
That reversal elevates Kongo from the mire and accords it a place among the forgotten gems of its era.
Tough Times and Dark Places
Investigating this potboiler for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking you stumbled upon an alternate universe. In this parallel realm, the most repellent exploitation films of the 1930s—instead of being churned out by Dwain Esper and his sleazy ilk—were made at M-G-M with top-flight actors, screenwriters, and production values.
So, how did Kongo get made? Let’s all take a few moments to appreciate Irving Thalberg’s dark side.
1932 was perhaps Thalberg’s banner year as M-G-M’s boy wonder. He basically invented the “all-star” cast with Grand Hotel. He launched Jean Harlow to the next level in the wake of the Bern scandal with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust. He gave us Tarzan and Letty Lynton and Smilin’ Through.
Nevertheless, it was also the year he greenlit Freaks, the most notorious flop of his career, and Kongo, which supposedly turned a profit but didn’t make him any friends. In his zeal to capitalize on the box office mojo of talkie horror, established by Universal’s hits the previous year, Thalberg got out of the boat just a tad.
As Norma Shearer remembered, Thalberg “was fascinated by the unusual, the colorful—even the decadent and the evil. He loved the impact of horror, but not merely for the sake of horror. These elements had to possess a reality, a logic, a meaning.”
Alas, as psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan would say (not), Kongo got way too real for Depression-era audiences.
In the opinions section of a 1933 issue of Motion Picture Herald, Ned Pedigo, a theater owner from Garber, Oklahoma, wrote in to complain about Kongo’s undesirable effect on his audience: “When [a moviegoer] pays two bits to see this one, he doesn’t forget when he comes out. Hand him 30 cents back. Beg his pardon and I doubt if that will square it.”
Sorry, Mr. Average Spectator, you can’t forget Kongo, no matter how much you’d like to.
This movie devours a little bit of your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you and, unlike Mr. Pedigo of Oklahoma, I refuse to beg your pardon. I’ve seen it 5 times and have been freshly appalled by each viewing.
That is quite a legacy, Mr. Thalberg. Bravo. After all, what greater measure of a movie’s power is there than its ability to make us feel something like revulsion decades later?
Look, I want you all to watch the many uncontroversially great films of classic Hollywood. Enjoy them. Quote them. Embrace them as a lifestyle choice. But you know what I want more? For everyone who reads this to take a journey into the darkest corners of the studio era and to check out the messy, category-defying flicks that make you question everything you thought you knew about a prestige outfit like M-G-M.
Bottom line? You can keep The Wizard of Oz. I’ll take Kongo.
Epilogue: Notes on the Making of Kongo
I promised anecdotes and I am a woman of my word.
Photoplay, the most prestigious and arguably the most trustworthy fan magazine of Hollywood’s golden age, reported on an unlikely friendship that blossomed between Walter Huston and Lupe Velez of all people on the set of Kongo. Velez had been intimidated by Huston since her former beau Gary Cooper expressed his awe in the presence of the consummate actor’s actor. Noticing Velez furtively peering at him from the sidelines, Huston affably introduced himself and things went swimmingly.
In the article, “The Strangest Friendship in Hollywood,” Ruth Biery reported, “They talk continuously while they are working together and as soon as the week is done, Lupe, Walter, and his wife Nan dash away for little trips to the mountains.”
Lupe also befriended the chimp star, Queenie, who took it upon herself to protect the actress. When Flint starts to twist Tula’s tongue with the wire, Queenie sensed the distress of the scene and started attacking the actors who were pretending to abuse Velez.
During shooting, Virginia Bruce married John Gilbert, a match somewhat jinxed from the start as this item, also from Photoplay, suggests:
Poor Virginia Bruce had a tough honeymoon.
She was working in “Kongo.” And if you ever saw a dirty picture, it was that. Taken in mud. Even the interior shots were largely in huts with dirt floors.
Virginia’s hair was stringy. Her nails were uncut.
She went to director Bill Cowan [sic] with tears in her eyes.
“Can’t I have a shampoo and a facial and manicure just for the week-end?”
“Absolutely not. You might not get the dirt back in the same proportions.”
“But I want to go out with Jack—”
As new-hubby Jack Gilbert is noted for wanting his women fastidiously groomed, no wonder the bride decided to… spend all her time being a little home body.
Heartened (pun intended) by the response to yesterday’s film noir valentines, I decided to spend a few hours creating some pre-Code options for you lovebirds—this time in the form of candy “conversation hearts.”
I had too much fun making these. So much fun, in fact, that I’m worried it was illegal in some way. And, if Joseph Breen had anything to say about it, it probably would be…
From its first post-establishing shot image—the figure of Justice on a courtroom wall, not a statue but a shadow—The Story of Temple Drake announces the gravity of its project.
This is no mere potboiler, no crowd-pleasing fantasy of submission. It is nothing less than a tragedy.
But we know that even during the opening credits, which overlay a derelict plantation, illuminated by flashes of lightning. After the character introduction shots appear, they dissolve back into the once-majestic columns of the ruin, as though the people were emerging from this symbol of entropy. The broken and battered classical structure evokes the themes of decline and degradation that will haunt the film and its protagonist to the last reel.
Directed by Stephen Roberts, Temple Drake sanitized and revised William Faulkner’s scandalous Southern Gothic novel Sanctuary. To give you a sense of just how scandalous it was, even the lenient Hays Office initially deemed the material unfilmable. Well, Paramount didn’t listen about blackballing Mae West and they certainly weren’t going to let such juicy material go unused.
The film’s narrative arc, one of temptation and redemption, radically departs from Faulkner’s gloomy original. Still, the cleaned-up form remains an uncomfortably complex meditation on sexuality and justice.
In this prescient melodrama, the corrosive influence of privilege vyes with the power of ingrained, perverse desires and the implacable blows of Fate in brutalizing our heroine, Temple Drake. Her story serves as a warning not simply against flirtatiousness or nonconformity, but rather against the unhealthy preservation of a social system poisoned by hypocrisy and inequality.
Temple reaps the sins of her forefathers—her family’s unspoken legacy of oppression—and expiates that heritage by revealing her courage and devotion to justice in the end.
In 1940, Miriam Hopkins told Modern Screen magazine that Temple Drake was “the best picture I ever made.” Hopkins certainly delivered her greatest screen performance as Temple.
The Story Such as It Is
Because this pre-Code shocker is not widely available, I need to take the plunge here and offer an extended plot synopsis (as much as I loathe doing so).
The granddaughter of good ol’ boy Judge Drake (albeit a good ol’ boy with an incongruously British accent), local belle Temple earns a reputation as a flirt at best and a tease at worst. She engages in passionate make-out sessions with every eligible bachelor in town, all the while refusing marriage proposals from saintly lawyer Steven Benbow, the only man she genuinely respects.
Why does she turn down such a good fellow? As Temple explains it, “It’s like there were two mes. One of ‘em says, ‘Yes, yes, quick! Don’t let me get away.’”
“And the other?” Benbow asks.
“I won’t tell you… what it wants, or does, or what’ll happen to it,” Temple replies. “I don’t know myself. All I know is I hate it.”
Under the influence of her wicked side, Temple goes joyriding with a drunken beau. Their car crashes and they seek shelter in the wrecked plantation that we saw during the credits. Moonshiner Lee Godwin, his wife Ruby, and some other small-time white trash criminals squat there. That night, the slick, animalistic Memphis gangster Trigger has joined the crew to haul liquor back to town—and he immediately sets his sights on Temple.
Ruby and a mentally impaired boy called Tommy (yes, yes, the inevitable Faulknerian manchild) try to protect our imperiled debutante by hiding her in the barn. At the break of dawn Trigger shoots Tommy and rapes Temple. Afterwards Trigger transports the traumatized Temple to Miss Reba’s brothel and keeps her as his sex slave.
Meanwhile Lee Goodwin stands trial for the murder of Tommy. Benbow takes the case and crashes into the bordello looking for Trigger as a potential suspect. Shocked to find Temple, Benbow tries to take her home. Realizing that Trigger is about to shoot Benbow, Temple tells her ex-fiancé to get out and lies, giving Trigger an alibi and saying that she chose to live with the gangster.
No sooner does Benbow leave than Temple decides to escape the brothel. When Trigger tries to prevent her, she shoots him and returns to her hometown as if nothing had happened. However, Benbow requires her to testify to save Lee Goodwin’s life. She refuses at first but ultimately sacrifices her standing in the town by recounting Tommy’s murder, the subsequent events, and her own killing of Trigger.
Having exonerated the defendant, Temple faints at the witness stand. Benbow carries her out of the courtroom and tells her grandfather, “Be proud of her, Judge. I am.” That’s an enlightened statement for 1933, don’t you think?
Points of Contention
If you’re interested in pre-Code cinema, you’ll probably read about The Story of Temple Drake before you actually see the elusive film itself.
That’s why you need to be very careful and critical about what you read (my post included!).
A large proportion of writing about this film has focused on a rather queasy question: did Temple enjoy the assault? Admittedly, the movie does raise the issue and allows it to open some dark places in our minds. Remember, though, that the act is only suggested, and very elliptically at that, so anyone who speculates on Temple’s pleasure or pain is doing exactly that—speculating.
Unfunnily enough, a number of critics have concluded that she does enjoy it, echoing Trigger’s assertion: “You’re crazy about me.” Do these writers, I wonder, recognize the irony that their interpretation supports Trigger’s account of what happened?
I mean, Gregory D. Black in Hollywood Censored actually writes, “After the rape, Temple happily follows Trigger, and together they set up a love nest in the Memphis brothel.”
Pre-Code historian Thomas Doherty has gone so far as to elaborate that, “rapist-murderer Trigger is the agent of an unholy but just retribution, an avenging angel who shows this girl that she can’t have her cake and eat it too. If Temple doesn’t enjoy her degradation, the audience should.”
A substantial critical consensus seems to run thus: Temple is attracted to Trigger, experiences a sexual awakening during the assault, and willingly remains as his moll in a brothel afterwards.
Okay, where to start… some of the summaries you might read are just plain wrong. I object especially to the word choice of “happily” in Black’s synopsis. (Really? You’re going with that adverb? It’s an insult to adverbs, which I cherish and defend.) You could read a variety of emotions in Temple’s expression after the assault (the shot above). “Happy” is not one of them. And Temple says point-blank, “I don’t want to stay here” when she arrives, half-stunned, at the brothel.
Clearly, a critic can describe and analyze a misogynist or sexist film without being a misogynist or a sexist. I get that and I’m not conflating the views of the writers with their readings of the material. I am, however, contesting their interpretations and the weight that they place on this aspect of Temple Drake’s moral and ethical maze.
The Story of Temple Drake shrouds itself in gauzy ambiguity by eliding a central plot point. Given the haziness of what the film portrays, I find it odd that so many blog posts, articles, and book extracts I’ve read about the movie have taken a similar position on Temple’s assault.
In other words, why does the dominant interpretation of the events (and their inferred impact on the audience) align so uncomfortably in favor of the rapist and not the survivor? I’ll let you ponder that as I get on with my own interpretation.
To understand The Story of Temple Drake, we need to look beyond its sleaziest, most attention-grabbing scenes of perversion to discern a broad yet pertinent social critique.
As the movie opens, idealistic young lawyer Steven Benbow is losing a case in the Dixon County Courthouse. The presiding judge, not Judge Drake, but an actor with a visage like that of a tardily-interred corpse, apologizes to the jury on behalf of Benbow, explaining that he had no choice but to take the case.
It seems like a strange spiel. Then a cut to the lawyer reveals the judge’s meaning. Behind Benbow, on the right of the screen, sits his client, an African American man in rough work clothes.
Benbow leaps to his feet and protests that the judge’s comments are “prejudicial to the interests of his client.” Although he explains that he wanted to take the case, the judge strikes his remarks from the court record.
The lawyer’s associate concedes defeat: “You fixed it. We haven’t got a chance now.” Benbow grabs his hat and prepares to storm out, replying, “We never had a chance after that charge.”
The decision to begin with an oblique but unavoidable indictment of racial injustice in the South provides the key to understanding the film.
After all, when Temple Drake went in production, Alabama was prosecuting one of the most notorious rape cases in American history. The trial of 9 falsely-accused African American teenagers known as the Scottsboro boys attracted nationwide attention. By late 1933, those fearful for the boys’ lives even begged President Roosevelt to intervene, TheNew York Times reported.
As anyone who’s studied To Kill a Mockingbird will know, specious accusations of rape committed against white women by black men in the South perpetuated entrenched structures of power. For the victims of such accusations, there was little or no recourse. (By contrast, rapes of black women by white men were committed with virtual impunity in the Jim Crow South.)
Given this social climate, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Benbow is defending his doomed client on a similar charge to the one faced by the Scottsboro boys—and that a 1933 audience would’ve picked up on that coded message.
After the trial, Benbow walks into the office of Judge Drake and complains about the legal discrimination and general backwardness he sees in Dixon. Drake shrugs it off. That’s the way things have been, that’s the way things are, and, if Drake has his way, that’s how they’ll stay.
The Story of Temple Drake is so tricky to analyze because it involves several overlapping layers of privilege: white privilege, upper-class privilege, male privilege. But only one character, Judge Drake, has the trifecta of privilege on his side and embraces it. He is the guiltiest of all because he endorses systemic exploitation.
Day of Reckoning
So, what does the opening courtroom scene have to do with the rape of a white woman (Temple) by a white man (Trigger)?
Well, Temple’s ordeal gives her sympathy for the exploited; she endures what her patrician family perpetrated, directly or indirectly, for generations. More important, Temple’s experience compels her to break the cycle of injustice and abuse of privilege portrayed at the beginning of the film.
Courtroom scenes bookend the movie. In the first, discrimination prevails and justice is merely a shadow upon the wall. In the last, justice wins a small but powerful victory. Temple abandons her class privilege—her grandfather was perfectly content to let an innocent man die to protect Temple’s reputation—and speaks out on behalf of an outcast and his family.
Obviously, saving Lee Goodwin from hanging fails to bring back the unfairly-tried black man of the beginning. Nevertheless, Temple’s testimony does mark a break with tradition.
Ironically, Benbow tries to convince Temple to tell the truth by harkening back to her family’s heritage of honor; she sits apparently unmoved. Benbow mentions honor being worth self-destruction—and Temple’s eyes light up feverishly—but then Benbow backs down, prepared to let his client die rather than question Temple further. But something stirs inside her and she recounts the traumatic events.
Karl Struss’s brilliant cinematography and some darn fine cutting by an uncredited editor imbue the scene with an almost spiritual quality. In protracted, probing medium close-ups, Hopkins doesn’t simper or cover her face like a standard “fallen woman.” There’s no glamour, no tear-jerking, no Oscar-baiting theatrics, no shred of self-pity. Hopkins conveys pain and fear and shame without Hollywood-izing them.
Through her halting, trembling delivery, she communicates the way in which tracing the narrative of her trauma, publicly telling her story in her own words, helps Temple stitch her life together. By saving Goodwin, Temple both symbolically destroys herself—that is, the privileged but limiting identity and reputation assigned to her by accident of birth—and begins to heal. The “two mes” that she mentioned earlier can finally fuse, as her urge for annihilation is exorcised in the service of justice.
In between her shocking revelations, lightning-quick reaction shots of Benbow, Ruby Godwin, Judge Drake, and others in the courtroom convey that Temple is bearing witness in a manner that will forever redefine her status and relationships.
We’re watching a new person emerge. The Temple Drake who sits on the witness stand, her eyes shining with tears and resolution, is a very different woman from the frivolous socialite we first see as an arm curled around the edge of a door, an incomplete person cooing at a heavy-breathing beau. It’s not the ordeal that made her complete; it’s her ability to confront it on the day of reckoning.
Fantasy and Reality
Temple Drake is erotic in much the same way Dracula is. That is, both films cater to the deepest, most sadomasochistic fantasies of viewers while ultimately chastising those fantasies and eroding their romanticism.
As played by dead-eyed Jack LaRue, Trigger comes across as a ghoul, a menacing beast conjured up from the unconscious. The extremes of sex and violence converge in one repellent yet fascinating individual.
Leading up to the assault, Trigger frequently appears as a silhouette or a shadow: lurking on the plantation porch, smoking in a doorway, looming over Temple from a barn loft. Up until the attack, he represents a dark emblem of forbidden experience rather than a fully-fledged character.
Does Temple harbor violent sexual fantasies about a man like that? Possibly. Her conversation about the streak of wickedness that prevents her from settling down would suggest so.
Regardless of what thoughts Temple privately nurtures, she recoils from the bleak scene of domestic violence as she watches Lee smack his wife Ruby around. The thought of violence linked to a sexual relationship might tempt her, but the daily reality disgusts her.
In other words, upper-class ladies might dream of tough thugs, but lower-class women have to live with them. And it’s not much of a life.
Sin and Cinematography
The last time I watched The Story of Temple Drake it occurred to me how much it foreshadows Kurosawa’s Rashomon. On the most basic level, the two movies draw audiences in with their lurid subject matter; Kurosawa, asked to explain the popularity of Rashomon, famously answered, “Well, you see… it’s about this rape.”
Both films also force us to grapple with moral and ethical tangles while they bamboozle us with extravagantly beautiful cinematography. The mind and the flesh, the philosophical and the carnal compete for our attention.
At the wrecked plantation, especially, the grime of the walls, the abrupt barrages of lightning, the dirty glow of old lamps, and the tactile silkiness of a gown illuminated by flashlights combine to elicit a weird intoxication.
Karl Struss’s proto-noir cinematography reaches its hallucinatory pinnacle as Trigger discovers Temple in the barn. The criss-crossing stripes of shadow and light and the mesmerizing, drawn-out close-ups create a horrifyingly seductive ambiance.
Again, the question palpitates in the air: how does Temple feel about what’s happening to her? Hopkins gives us at least one cue that she feels excited despite herself: she bites her lip suggestively.
For me, the deep-seated perversity of the scene, beautiful in its ugliness, reflects the milieu that produced our heroine. Her wild streak, the gravitational pull that draws her to pain and degradation, signifies a return of the repressed—the repressed cruelty of her family both in the past and the present.
Interestingly, at the beginning of the film, when Benbow and Judge Drake discuss Temple, the Judge insists that Benbow not accept Temple’s refusal of his proposal. In a way, his lack of respect for Temple’s “no,” mild though it is, can be situated on the same continuum of misogyny as Trigger’s. Judge Drake sees Temple as his property… as does Trigger. Judge Drake has little respect for human life… like Trigger.
What is Trigger, then, but Judge Drake without the refinement and restraint facilitated by money and respectability? Racial injustice, violence against women, discrimination against the poor—they’re all various forms of a cracked social structure and an outmoded way of thinking that condones a multitude of evils.
Is it any wonder that the corruption and hypocrisy of the Drakes and their world should have seeped into Temple and shaped her fantasies and desires? Trigger is practically one of her clan. Sins of the fathers indeed.
Then, just as the screen fades to black, Temple screams. A vehement, bloodcurdling shriek. It lingers in the air like a reproach for anyone enjoying what they’re seeing—or what they’re about to not see.
However you interpret the scene, the movie never looks as luminous and alluring after Temple’s assault as it did beforehand. She emerges from the experience disillusioned, gaping into a sullied world.
Examining the Aftermath
In classic Hollywood movies, rape is threatened but hardly ever consummated. These near-misses imply, of course, that a virtuous lady, especially a heroine, will never be raped in the end. Some savior will prevent the Fate Worse Than Death from befalling her.
Many critics have inferred that, because Temple Drake is raped, the movie inflicts the experience as a punishment for her teasing behavior. Virtuous leading ladies cannot be raped; ergo Temple Drake is not virtuous, their reasoning follows.
I have a different take on this. Does The Story of Temple Drake hedge its bets, capitalizing on the frisson of violent fantasies while warning against too much libido? To a certain extent, yes.
Nevertheless, by showing the aftermath of a rape, by acknowledging the sense of confusion and shame felt by Temple, and by dwelling on her abusive subsequent relationship with her attacker, the movie throws our sympathy towards the survivor—no matter what she felt, thought, or did before the assault. One look at Temple’s stupefied face, framed by a dirty car windshield, and the viewer has to recognize her suffering.
Temple lingers in a sort of trance state after the assault, cowering before her attacker. In the first brothel scene, the camera takes Trigger’s place, advancing predatorily towards her.
Only seeing Benbow jolts her out of her near-catatonia. And it’s here that she pretends to embody all of what we’d expect from a lady of sin, kissing her abuser in a tight shot, pulling the cigarette from his mouth, and taking a deep drag on it. She lowers herself to save the man she loves from certain death. One can’t help but cringe, feeling the disgust she cannot express.
The scene only works (or makes sense) if we believe that Temple is lying, if we know that she doesn’t want to live with Trigger and that she doesn’t prefer him to Benbow. The piercing dramatic irony here derives from the worst assumptions commonly held about women in abusive relationships: “Oh, they really like it that way, right? They wouldn’t leave even if they could.”
Well, in the very next scene, she does try to make a run for it.“You can’t stop me!” She yells in a tight close-up, finally strong enough to escape. There’s so much justified fury and hatred in that shot that it could almost melt celluloid! At this moment, Temple becomes her own avenging angel.
“I’ve got your number…” Trigger says. As he stubs out his cigarette on a racy ashtray, two shots ring out and the hand goes limp.
Whether or not the movie punishes Temple for flirtation, it never punishes her for killing Trigger. And, you know what? I’m damn fine with that.
I hope that you will watch The Story of Temple Drake and contemplate its moral bramble for yourself. This notorious pre-Code drama challenges you to navigate a swampy, shifting universe in which nobody is innocent, least of all the spectator.
After a 1972 screening of The Story of Temple Drake at MoMa, elegant 69-year-old Miriam Hopkins made a detour to the ladies’ room. Finding, to her dismay, a long queue, she breezed to the front of the line. “Y’all suffered through this, but I think I suffered most; I think I should be allowed to go in first.”
We lost a legend yesterday when Luise Rainer passed away at age 104.
The first actor to win 2 Academy Awards in consecutive years—for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), then for The Good Earth (1937)—she deprecated her talent, calling herself “the world’s worst actress.” I think she was being more than a tad harsh.
Apart from her double Oscar triumph, Rainer is best remembered for rejecting Hollywood at the height of her career. Frustrated with the identity dictated to her by MGM and annoyed by the shallowness of Tinseltown, she dropped her contract. She explained her decision in an interview years later, “I felt very uncomfortable on that pedestal. I was not groomed for that outer life… It all didn’t fit quite with what I wanted to do in life. And I needed to leave, to save myself. And that is what happened.”
Rainer and Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly told her that he could make a great actress out of any good-looker. She said, “I was horrified!”
When I heard the sad news about Rainer’s death, I felt that a rewatch of The Great Ziegfeld was in order. At 3 hours long, it’s a rather tedious, cameo-crammed musical biopic. In other words, it represents just the sort of sprawling, escapist extravaganza that Depression-era audiences craved from MGM, Hollywood’s most prosperous and prestigious studio.
Even the usually dependable William Powell betrays signs of fatigue throughout this overblown biopic (although, in all fairness, he portrays Ziegfeld with a helluva lot more charm than my love Cary Grant showed as Cole Porter). Myrna Loy is a delight, as she always was, but she doesn’t show up until after the intermission, which is an awful long time to wade through sequins in hopes of a reunion of everyone’s favorite screen team.
As the French-born singer and actress Anna Held, Rainer really does steal the show. She’s like a lilac-scented breeze wafting through an open window on a stifling day.
She adds a much-needed touch of naughtiness and gaiety to a post-Code musical, as though she’d magically wandered off the set of a Lubitsch musical. Frolicking across a London musical hall stage, she warbles, “Won’t you come and play with me?” Swaddled though Rainer was in yards of lace, the mischievous twinkle in her eye sufficiently conveyed that Miss Held wasn’t inviting her listeners to join her in game of checkers.
Rainer’s role in Ziefeld paralleled her real-life struggles with the demands of stardom. In one comic scene, Held throws a full-on temper tantrum to rebel against her manager’s outlandish publicity stunts, such as sending her 20 gallons of milk each day to bathe in.
Held complains that Ziegfeld doesn’t exploit her talents as much as her fabricated personality: “In Paris I was a big success because they liked my voice. In London I was a big success because they liked my singing. But in America to be a big success I need 20 gallons of milk and then sit in it!” One can imagine Rainer launching into a similar tirade against the superficiality of MGM’s publicity machine.
As Rainer said, “I must’ve been the envy of millions of young girls all over America, and they didn’t know my real life… I had great sorrow.”
I couldn’t find Rainer’s famous “telephone scene” in a better quality than 240p on YouTube, so I decided to upload a higher quality version. Watch “the Viennese Teardrop” at her most iconic, professing her happiness while she tearfully bids adieu to the love of her life.
Rainer’s acting style is considerably more stylized that what you’ll see in most modern films. However, we must recall that she is actually playing an actress—and a rather flamboyant, fluttery one at that—in a moment of intense self-dramatization. It would be utterly out of character for ze great Anna ’eld to approach such a tragic moment with deadpan sorrow or mumbling naturalism.
According to Rainer, she contributed to the dialogue for this famous scene and drew on her knowledge of contemporary theater to give it depth. Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”—a one-woman play in which the protagonist says goodbye to the man she loves over the telephone—served as her inspiration.
“I was able to abbreviate a small scene and I wrote it. And it was obviously a success,” Rainer explained. I’ve seen Cocteau’s heart-wrenching play performed in a small theater, and Rainer encapsulated its primary emotions astonishingly well in her 3 minute scene.
In the 20th century and beyond, communications technology, from Held’s old-fashioned telephone call to texts and tweets sent from iPhones, have allowed us all to become performers when we “talk” to each other. Instead of looking someone in the eye when I tell them how I feel, I can retool my reactions and dissemble to suit the situation.
This lack of spontaneity does not necessarily mean a loss of intimacy or emotional connection. In fact, as Rainer clearly understood, the ironic contrast between what we say through our devices and what we really feel offers prime dramatic material.
As cute or affected as Rainer’s telephone scene may appear today, she grasped that the surreal disjuncture between her words and her facial expression would resonate with audiences—and she played it up to sentimental perfection.
Rainer baulked at Hollywood’s commercialism because she believed that true acting was about giving, about sharing art and passion with an audience. When Ziegfeld was released, American women were watching the men they loved (and depended on) shrivelling into husks of their former selves and, in many cases, drifting away from them. For these burdened mothers, wives, and daughters, the Viennese teardrop’s courageous mourning provided an elegant, idealized catharsis.
“Whatever impression I gave was that of a woman in love and that was my success,” Rainer said, analyzing her appeal in her adopted country. “People could identify themselves with my emotions.”
In a movie suffocating under mounds of spangles and feathers, Rainer incarnated a most unlikely 1930s heroine: a flighty but brave diva who refined the art of sobbing with a smile on her face.
Amelia Earhart visits Cary Grant and Myrna Loy on the set of Wings in the Dark (1935). Unfortunately, this well-acted but clunky aviation drama didn’t exactly take off, prompting a New York Times reviewer to guffaw, “High altitudes have a tendency to make scenarists a little giddy.” At least Cary and Myrna would go on to make two side-splitting comedies in the 1940s.
Image scanned from the Spanish-language fan magazine Cine-Mundial (April 1935). You should know that I’m cheating a bit today because I didn’t scan this image myself—the fine team behind the Media History Digital Library did it for me! However, I couldn’t resist sharing this historic image, so I edited and enhanced it.
For added Cary Grant fun, though, here’s a GIF of the real star of Wings in the Dark—Cary’s impossibly luxurious hair.
An iconic portrait of Cary Grant, photographed by Robert W. Coburn in 1935 to promote George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett. Although the film flopped at the box office, it proved a surprising triumph for Cary, singled out by critics for showing the raffish flair he’d never had a chance to display through a parade of sophisticatedly dull early 1930s roles.
Cary would later confirm the importance of the movie in his career and express his fondness for the Cockney shyster he portrayed, saying, “Sylvia Scarlett was my breakthrough. It permitted me to play a character I knew.”
Scanned from The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour by Paul Trent (McGraw-Hill, 1972).