A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts, 1933)

William Faulkner claimed that he wrote the novel Sanctuary for the money, which may have some truth in it -- it was one of his few best-selling novels. But if it's not on a par with The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying or Go Down, Moses, it's a well-wrought book with a good deal more art than its sensational plot suggests: Temple Drake is a hedonistic Ole Miss coed who winds up at a bootlegger's hangout after an automobile accident and is abducted by a thug called Popeye who rapes her with a corncob (he's impotent) and forces her into prostitution. Naturally, Hollywood jumped at the chance to capitalize on the book's reputation, and equally naturally found itself unable to do anything but bowdlerize the story. Temple (Miriam Hopkins) is still a "bad girl," but gone are Popeye's impotence and the corncob, along with his name (presumably to avoid a lawsuit from the holders of the copyright on the cartoon character). In the movie he's called Trigger (Jack La Rue), and although the rape takes place (after a fadeout) in a corncrib, there's no hint of his incapacity. And in the end, Temple gets a chance to redeem herself in court at the trial of a man accused of the murder that Trigger actually committed -- a complete reversal of what happens in the book. Nevertheless, the film became one of the most notorious of the Pre-Code films that led to Hollywood's rigorous system of self-censorship. The problem is that it's a rather muddled movie. Roberts was a second-string director, and he fails to impose shape or coherence on the story, which was adapted by Oliver H.P. Garrett. Hopkins, in her 30s, is miscast as the flighty young Temple, and William Gargan, who plays the lawyer Stephen Benbow, alternately chews the scenery and fades into the background. La Rue, on the other hand, had a long career as a heavy and brings real menace to the part of Trigger, almost evoking Faulkner's description of Popeye's "vicious depthless quality of stamped tin." The best performance, though, is probably Florence Eldridge's as the downtrodden Ruby, who grudgingly tries to protect Temple from Trigger and the other men at the bootlegger's hangout. There is some Paramount gloss on the film: When she isn't in her underwear, Hopkins wears gowns by Travis Banton, and the cinematography by Karl Struss gives the movie a more sophisticated look than it really deserves. But the general feeling one gets is that Faulkner has once again been badly served by the movies.

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