Trigger warning, in every possible sense!
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 to 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.” I’m not sure I agree with that, but I would argue that Hopkins delivered her greatest performance as Temple.
This is an exceedingly long and circuitous post. If you get to the end, you will be rewarded by an amusing anecdote about 69-year-old Miriam Hopkins at a screening of this film. Thank you.
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 ‘me’s. 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, slick, animalistic Memphis gangster Trigger has joined the crew to haul liquor back to town—and he immediately sets out after 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!).
An unfortunate proportion of writing about this film has focused on a question that I feel queasy typing: 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.”
The 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). Oddly enough, “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 almost every blog post, article, or book extract I’ve read about the movie has 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.
Power Plays (and Often Wins)
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, The New 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 as the one faced by the Scottsboro boys—and that a 1933 audience would’ve picked up on that.
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 he is the guiltiest of all because he endorses systematic 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. It’s not until Benbow actually backs down, prepared to let his client die rather than question Temple, that 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 that tracing the narrative of her trauma actually helps Temple restitch her life back together. By saving Goodwin, Temple starts to heal herself.
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 rise above 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 nurtures, though, 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, and the silky glow of lamps and 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, doesn’t reflect on the heroine so much as it does on the milieu that produced her. 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 enough, 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 not about to 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, 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—whatever 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. I can’t help but cringe.
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. It’s a surprise that the justified fury and hatred in that shot couldn’t melt celluloid! At that moment, she 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.”
Oh, Miriam, I only wish I’d been there.
For more posts about the fabulous Ms. Hopkins, I invite you to explore the other entries in The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Enjoy!