Raymond Chandler in Double Indemnity (1944): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 7

About 15 minutes into Double Indemnity as Walter Neff strides out of Barton Keyes’s office you’ll notice a man sitting there in the hallway. He looks up from his magazine. His eyes register under his glasses as white gleams of disapproval, as though he can read Neff’s innermost thoughts and wouldn’t give a penny for them.

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The man doesn’t have a movie face. Not even a movie extra face. It’s an ordinary, tired, slightly puffy face, a face that long ago lost the fight against gravity. He looks like nobody’s favorite college professor, you know, the one who knocks you down a whole grade for a misplaced comma. Billy Wilder said that he looked like an accountant.

That’s Raymond Chandler, co-writer of Double Indemnity, creator of Philip Marlowe, master of the hardboiled crime novel (and all around love of my life).

Chandler’s memories of collaborating with Wilder might explain why he looks so cranky in this cameo. (Then again he might’ve just been that cranky because it was a Tuesday.) According to Chandler, “Working with Billy Wilder was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screen writing as I am capable of learning, which is not very much…. The wise screenwriter is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking, and doesn’t take things too much to heart. He should have a touch of cynicism, but only a touch. The complete cynic is as useless to Hollywood as he is to himself.”

Wilder didn’t exactly have fond memories of his co-writer either: “there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler,” he said years later, alluding to the novelist’s irritability and controlling streak. While working on the script for Double Indemnity, Chandler had even threatened to resign. As for his reasons, he complained to the studio about what he perceived as Wilder’s lack of manners (the failure to say “please” when asking Chandler to close some Venetian blinds, for instance) and about the writer-director’s lengthy, on-the-make phone calls to various women.

Nevertheless, Wilder respected Chandler’s talent: “He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn’t used to it. He was a mess but he could write a beautiful sentence.”

I guess we’re lucky the writing sessions didn’t result in a very real homicide. But between them the two men sure came up with a movie to die for.

Soaring Spectacle: 10 Reasons to Watch Wings (1927)

sterBig budget movies from any era typically don’t do much for me. Give me snappy dialogue and recycled sets over earthquakes and casts of thousands any day.

There are, however, a few exceptions to my dislike of big bottom lines… and William Wellman’s Wings, which cost a whopping $2 million to make, is exceptional in almost every way.

The story focuses on two young men who enlist as combat pilots during World War I: middle class, happy-go-lucky Jack (Buddy Rogers) and wealthy, contemplative David (Richard Arlen), both of whom love the same woman (Jobyna Ralston). The fact that neither man is in love with Clara Bow as Mary, Jack’s vivacious neighbor, taxes my suspension of disbelief, but the plot all makes sense in the end.

As Jack and David train and join the fight, they form an unlikely friendship, a mutual loyalty that will be put to the ultimate test by their romantic rivalry and by the sobering sacrifices of war.

If you haven’t seen it, remedy that as soon as you possibly can. I can hardly conceive of a better way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’ll probably cost less than whatever you paid to see any Oscars contender this year, and it’ll be way better.

In case I need to convince you of the glory of Wings, here are the reasons, in order of ascending significance (does that sound official enough?), why I consider it a great and historic film.

Warning: this post does contain some spoilers.

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10. It won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.

On May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, industry professionals gathered at a banquet to celebrate excellence in contributions to American film from 1927 to 1928.

The event included practically none of the pomp or the fixtures that we associate with the Oscars today. It wasn’t recorded or broadcast. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. hosted a program consisting of about 15 minutes of award presentations.

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The winners, selected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, had been announced far in advance. Studios received congratulatory telegrams in February of the previous year.

A welcome prestige nod for Paramount, Wings won the prize for “Outstanding Picture,” claimed by producer Lucien Hubbard. William Wellman, the film’s director, wasn’t even invited to the ceremony!

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9. You’ll see both male and female nudity. In a general admission film.

Do you have a friend who thinks silent films are boring? Well, first off, you need to make better friends. Second, you should sit the aforementioned loser down (use restraints if necessary) and play Wings for his or her benefit. Don’t worry: there’s a little something for everyone.

Want to see 3 naked men standing in a row? Keep your eyes wide open during the first 15 minutes of the film.

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Interested in the prospect of topless Clara Bow? You’ll see exactly that, briefly but unmistakably, about halfway through the runtime.

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Yeah, I went there. The things I do to encourage people to watch old movies.

And remember, no ratings system existed for movies in 1927. Audiences of all ages could enjoy what was, ahem, on display. It really was a simpler time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall try to recover my dignity (doubtful) and proceed with my post.

8. Would-be filmmakers could learn a thing or two about how to balance spectacle with story.

A popular epic and a technical miracle, Wings glides above the clouds but never loses sight of its human dimension. The film’s reputation today primarily (and justly) rests on the scale and innovation of its airborne sequences. Yet all that derring-do would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters. And Wellman worked hard for the viewer’s emotional investment.

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Wings could serve as an instructive example for the industry today. It demonstrates that a colossal movie (and a box office juggernaut) can and should have a heart. As many recent blockbusters show, spectacle for the sheer sake of spectacle just doesn’t cut it as art.

7. It catapulted Gary Cooper to stardom—even though he’s onscreen for less than 5 minutes.

Even before the public knew his name, the female employees at Paramount sure did. When Coop walked by their offices, a collective sigh rose from the secretarial pool. As B.P. Schulberg’s secretary described the actor, he was “the most beautiful hunk of man who ever walked down this hall!”

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Cooper had already distinguished himself in a supporting role in The Winning of Barbara Worth, but remained a relative unknown.

It’s not exaggerating by much to say that if you blink during Wings, you might miss the ‘Montana Mule.’ Nevertheless, William Wellman tested dozens of actors for the small role of a pilot who dies during training before he chose Cooper to play doomed airman White.

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When White crashes, the shocking incident exposes the shadow of fear and peril that airmen lived under, even before they squared up against the enemy. Cooper’s strange blend of casualness and intensity spurred audience members all over the country to swoon over the bit player.

6. Buddy Rogers was adorable… and quite brave, to boot!

Due to the limitations of cameras and the instability of planes in flight, the leading actors of Wings both flew their planes at times and turned on the cameras to film their own close-ups. This wasn’t a big problem for the ruminative Richard Arlen who had aviation experience.

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But Buddy Rogers, a 22-year-old rising star from Kansas, had never flown a plane before. After each flight—and he spent almost 100 hours up in the air—he would vomit out of anxiety and motion sickness. Then he immediately got back to work.

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Even tough customer Wellman had to admire Rogers’s persistence and courage. But he had another trick in mind for the poor kid.

For a rowdy drunk scene set at the Folies Bergère, Wellman opted to make Rogers’s performance as genuine as possible. As the actor recalled years later, “Here I am this little boy, never had a beer or champagne, and Billy says, ‘Why champagne’s good for you, Buddy. It’ll relax you.’ And so he relaxed me, relaxed me, relaxed me. And he said, ‘Do the scene this way.’”

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Rogers carries the film on his narrow shoulders. We watch him convincingly transform from a carefree teenager to a traumatized hero redeemed by love. His sparkling boyishness and irresistible charm give way to abject despair and guilt. A beloved, important star of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers is undeservedly forgotten today and due for rediscovery.

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5. Even during earthbound scenes, the cinematography will astound you.

Wings dazzles the viewer with so many fluid camera movements and multi-plane shots that it would take far more space than I have here to go through them all.

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Perhaps the most impressive shot occurs during the Folies Bergère scene when the crane-mounted camera swoops over several tables of carousing couples (including a same-sex couple!), finally ending up on the rim of Jack’s champagne glass as he stares agog at the bubbles.

4. Clara Bow will awe you with her talent and range.

Sex symbol, 1920s icon, flapper ideal: sure, Clara Bow was all of those things, but first and foremost she was a tremendously gifted actress. Saucy romantic comedies made Clara Bow the biggest star in the world, but she proved just as adept in dramatic situations.

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Playing the girl-next-door who goes overseas in the female volunteer corps for the chance to see her sweetheart again, Bow lends beguiling credibility to a rather expedient part. Although one could argue that her role merely serves to add gratuitous helpings of ‘It’ to an otherwise manly war drama, her poignant performance justifies every second of screen time she gets.

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Her incandescent naturalness wins you over from her first entrance, parting a pair of bloomers on a clothesline and bursting with joy at the sight of Jack, her childhood crush. Few actresses in the history of cinema could exude such enthusiasm and energy without seeming strained. Even doing something as mundane as driving an army transport truck, she doesn’t fail to hold our attention with her wondrously animated face.

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Bow also evokes much of the film’s piercing melancholy. She imbues the movie’s wild centerpiece, the Folies Bergère scene, with a moral resonance and establishes a special bond with the audience. As the hero loses himself in an unselfconscious haze of alcohol and oblivion, she reflects his innermost sorrow to the viewer. Mature beyond her years, she understands the sadness of his pleasure far better than he does.

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3. William Wellman claimed it as his masterpiece. And that’s saying something.

Before he took on Hollywood, Wellman graduated with honors from the school of life by joining up with the Lafayette Flying Corps as a combat pilot during World War I—and coming home to tell the tale. Although 29-year-old Wellman had only directed a few movies by the mid-1920s, Paramount executives knew he possessed the real-life knowledge of military aviation necessary to oversee the massive production of Wings.

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Wellman would go on to direct a staggering run of great films. He helmed the virtuoistic gangster saga The Public Enemy (1932), the gritty, unforgettable social drama Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the uproarious screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the much-imitated Hollywood satire A Star Is Born (1937), and the seminal Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

He’s also the man you can thank for the ass-kicking, scantily clad Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1932), so hip-hurray for ‘Wild Bill’!

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Towards the end of his life, when asked to name the film of which he was most proud, he mentioned Wings. In fact, it was not only his best, but his most personal film, the perfect expression of all that he’d experienced and all that he could help others to experience through cinema.

Wellman makes a cameo appearance in the movie—but not in the air, as you might expect of a venerated pilot. Instead, he dies during the big attack at Saint-Mihiel, looking up towards the sky at the planes decimating the enemy. He croaks his last words as a blessing to those men in their flying machines, “Attaboy! Them buzzards are some good after all!”

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2. It conveys the bitter irony of war.

Over the course of the film, Jack mistakes his friends for strangers twice. The first time, he confuses Mary with one of the French floozies at the Folies Bergère. The second time, he mistakes David for a German flyer. And kills him.

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Shot down behind enemy lines and presumed dead, David hijacks a German plane and heads back to the base. On the way, he encounters Jack, mourning his comrade’s “death” and bent on revenge.

To me nothing looks like hell with the lid taken off more than Jack’s impossibly pretty face contorted in blooddrunk triumph and fury… not realizing that he just shot down his best friend.

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Similarly, after mowing down swaths of his German counterparts, we can read Jack’s lips as he callously mutters, “Bastards!” By dehumanizing his enemy, Jack lets his own humanity slip. No one can blame him for doing so; we would all do the same in his situation or perish.

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The point isn’t merely that Jack kills his friend, but rather that he remorselessly kills men who might’ve been his friends, who aren’t substantially different from himself and David. Put a cross or a tricolore on your plane and you become anathema to the other side. The irony of David’s death begs the question, why invest so much hate in symbols? Why take lives because of them?

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And, lest the film end on a note of victory, Wellman deals us another gut punch of sadness. When Jack returns to his hometown, his car passes through a street of jubilant neighbors who toss flowers at him. Wellman cuts to an unusual low angle shot from beneath the car’s steering wheel. The hero is looking down at something, but what? Then a cut to a higher angle divulges what Jack holds in his hand: a miniature teddy bear, David’s good luck charm, and the medal he promised to return to David’s mother.

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Meanwhile, David’s father stares blankly out at the celebration from behind a memorial flag. David’s girl Sylvia sits catatonic on the swing she once shared with the man she was going to marry. And Jack will have to trudge through the rest of his existence missing his friend, the man he gunned down. The loss of a single young life palpitates in the forlorn final images of Wings. As WWI poet A.E. Housman wrote:

Life, to be sure, 
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

1. You won’t find a more stunning and authentic recreation of WWI in any film.

It is not easy for a modern mind to grapple with the awe-inspiring realness of Wings.

Its battle scenes use no rear projection, no models, and, obviously, no CGI.  No tricks of any kind. Just frame after frame of clouds, aircraft, and men risking their lives to execute a brutally beautiful aerial ballet.

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220 real planes and 13 cameramen were drafted into the fray. Thousands of soldiers participated in the battle scenes. The U.S. Army blasted and bombarded vast expanses around San Antonio, Texas to reproduce no-man’s-land.

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The finished film (especially its airborne sequences) stands as a record not only of extreme physical courage, but also of material marvels, of things that actually happened at a certain time and place. The thrills of Wings depend on an inherent, mechanical quality of film: that it captures and preserves reality.

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The stakes of the action emerge from the fact that, like a fingerprint, each frame is existentially bound to the fraction of a second that it photographed. What we see—a plane careening through the air, spiraling, trailing smoke, and crashing to earth, for instance—could perhaps be faked. But that fakery would undermine everything that makes us gasp when confronted with the real thing, so daring and dangerous that it seems locked in a perpetual present.

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In fact, I can think of few mainstream movies that so intoxicatingly engage cinema’s tensions between spectacle and documentary, between fiction and reality. Wings weaves the immediacy of cinema into the visual equivalent of WWI poetry.

By turns lyrical, giddy, sentimental, and ugly (as all great war movies must be), Wellman’s film transmits the chivalric pride and the wrenching disillusionment of WWI.

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Wings allows its audience to feel both the soaring adrenaline rush and the crushing futility of the war that stole the 20th century’s innocence. You share the cockpit with the characters. You see the clouds billow around them and watch the horizon come unstuck. Perhaps no movie has ever put its viewers inside a war as completely as Wings does.

The Academy deemed it an “Outstanding Picture.” And, for once, I agree entirely with The Academy.

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This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Mary Carlisle at 101: The Last of the WAMPAS Stars

If you examine the picture below, taken on the Paramount backlot in the 1930s, you can pick out quite a few Hollywood legends. Cary Grant. Charles Laughton. Josef von Sternberg. Maurice Chevalier.

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Only one person in that photograph is still alive as of this writing: Mary Carlisle, pictured in the second row, next to W.C. Fields.

And, as of today, she’s 101 years old!

It’s somewhat mind-boggling to consider that, in California, there still lives a stylish screen veteran who was photographed in two-strip Technicolor and starred in pre-Code films with the likes of Bing Crosby, Lionel Barrymore, and Jimmy Durante.

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Carlisle is the last surviving member of the WAMPAS baby stars, a yearly crop of young women chosen as the industry’s most promising hopefuls. A 1932 WAMPAS alum, Carlisle appears in this (rather sexist) short “Stars of Tomorrow” along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, and several others.

marycarlisleAlthough major stardom eluded Carlisle, her gracious, effervescent personality improved quite a few films between her debut in 1930 and her retirement in 1943. For instance, amidst the cacophony of a whacky, big-budget Paramount musical like Double or Nothing (1936), Carlisle exerts a positively tonic influence.

During the 1930s—an era of dangerous, street-hardened women and slinky, suffering sinners on film—Carlisle’s maidenly charms struck a note of nostalgia. MGM’s comedy-melodrama Should Ladies Behave took an amusing pre-Code slant on Carlisle’s disarming sweetness. Her sheltered character, Leone, despairs when her boyfriend complains that she’s too “inexperienced” for him to marry!

Pert and plucky, Carlisle was Hollywood’s ideal of the vivacious, all-American co-ed. Despite her angelic appearance, she gave the impression of being a down-to-earth idol, an approachable dream girl that a fellow might get up the courage to talk to at a dance.

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The writers of “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” could’ve been describing Carlisle: “The blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair/ Are a blend of the western skies.” And, indeed, Carlisle would star in a 1933 film inspired by the popular college song.

She made a delightful onscreen counterpart for the mellow suavity of Bing Crosby, with whom she co-starred in three films—College Humor, Double or Nothing, and Dr. Rhythm—and whom she “still remembers fondly,” according to her Facebook page.

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My favorite Carlisle performance adorns a film that I consider the best of the Poverty Row old dark house movies, Christy Cabanne’s One Frightened Night (1935). 21-year-old Carlisle makes the most of an unusual turn as a sassy vaudevillian poised to inherit a fortune… if she’s not killed off first!

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If there were such a thing as 1930s character actor bingo, One Frightened Night would surely win with Hedda Hopper, Wallace Ford, Regis Toomey, Charles Grapewin, and Rafaela Ottiano among its ranks! In contrast to the dismal, almost pathetic feel that some low-budget films of this type exude, this mystery reminds me of a themed house party, with every actor clearly having a ball.


Since it’s in the Public Domain, I encourage you all to curl up with this cozy, lightweight thriller.

More film clips and complete movies of Mary Carlisle on YouTube:

For more information about Carlisle, I strongly recommend this typically thorough post at Immortal Ephemera.

And be sure to “like” Mary on Facebook! And wish her a happy birthday!

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The Story of Temple Drake (1933): Shadow of Justice

temple_drakeTrigger 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 shadowThe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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 to the one faced by the Scottsboro boys—and that a 1933 audience would’ve picked up on that coded message.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Postscript

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.

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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!

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Wings in the Dark and Amelia Earhart: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 9

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.

Cary Grant, Amelia Earhart, and Myrna Loy, 1935

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.

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Cary and His Costars: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 5

Cary Grant with Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, and Richard Barthelmess, mid-1930s. Cary appeared in films with each of these stars: Lombard in Sinners in the Sun (1932), The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), and In Name Only (1939); Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932); and Barthelmess in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

Cary Grant with Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, and Richard Ba

Scanned from Images of America: Early Paramount Studios by E.J. Stephens, Michael Christaldi, and Marc Wanamaker (Arcadia Publishing, 2013).