The Story of Temple Drake

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Miriam Hopkins, William Garage, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldredge.

For a movie that came out in 1933, the same year as Larry King and Roman Polanski were born (not to equate those individuals), Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake remains one of the more obscure Hollywood releases to the masses when it comes to making a list of the ones that caused a scandal in their day. But it was always somewhere in my mind from a very young age because a sizable still photo from it was included in The Movies by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, the only big-item coffee table book on film history I knew of at the time aside from Deems Taylor’s 1943 A Pictorial History of the Movies. My 10-year-old self got the beautiful Griffith-Mayer volume for Christmas right after it was published in late 1957 (I still have a copy in my living room) and Simon & Schuster priced it at $16, which, if you compare then-and-now currency rates, was a lot of money. Thanks, mom and dad.

The photo, which takes up most of a page, pictures Miriam Hopkins (and, already, I liked blondes) looking threatened and compromised clutching bed covering to her scantily-clad self as an imposing duo loomed over her. You could tell from the male member’s appearance, without knowing anything else, that he (Jack La Rue) was not someday going to be asked to be backup host for Jimmie Dodd on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” The movie’s significance in terms of a Griffith-Mayer mention was its role in substantially toughening up Hollywood Production Code (of which I knew nothing of at the time) — one of a handful of movies, I later learned, that did the same: think Warner’s Convention City and the entire Mae West oeuvre. Scandal-wise, it couldn’t have helped that Story was the dampened but not totally watered-down screen version of William Faulkner’s already notorious novel Sanctuary, which proper society had both recoiled at and bought in about equal number.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

Hopkins’ version of Temple is the granddaughter of a prosperous judge in what the movies used to like calling “an unnamed Southern town.” He’s one of those hypocrites who supposedly lives by a moral code but pours himself what might still be Prohibition hooch in his judge’s quarters — apparently passable rotgut, it seems, that, for all we know, might have been provided by rural bootleggers who don’t live that far out of town. Much of the client base for their liquid contraband are the college-boy lushes who’d like to get enough booze into Temple to negate her reputation as the town tease. One of these jokers is drinking and driving in an open convertible with her when the all but inevitable road mishap occurs somewhere roundabouts a backwoods Deliverance-ville, with both somehow surviving with minor injuries at worst. The bootleggers take her in, find some convenient hole in which to stash the boyfriend, and the worst ensues in a movie rife with well-delineated class resentment.

This is the famous rape, albeit one far more famous in the book, perpetrated by La Rue’s “Trigger” character, a somewhat more worldly figure than the more sympathetic characters whose ramshackle house he resides in when not operating out of a comparably urban brothel in a near-enough town. In the book’s rape of Temple, the character (named “Popeye”) uses a corncob as a hedge against his impotency. Thus, in the movie, director Stephen Roberts makes certain that the barn’s hay-or-straw mattress in which Temple sleeps is surrounded by corncobs, a sly brainstorm aimed at in-the-know audiences. Roberts showed talent here and in other movies I’ve seen — Geoffrey O’Brien gives a good example of his actor orchestration in Criterion’s accompanying essay — but he died three years later at age 40, so it’s tough to get a bead on him. But there’s no ambiguity about Karl Struss’s cinematography, which suggests something out of a horror classic like the Fredric March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which he’d already shot. I’ll never be able to figure out how Struss (whom I got to meet very late in his life) spent a lot of his late career shooting the likes of Lex Barker Tarzan movies and his penultimate The Alligator People.

Follow us on Instagram

The overriding question here is the degree to which Hopkins’ Temple willingly assimilates into this tawdry life, but in any event, she becomes the girlfriend of La Rue’s Trigger and is at his side in the brothel when an up-and-coming lawyer in her town (and a kind of protegé of her grandfather’s) tracks her down and tries to rescue her. Eventually, the movie finds itself on more traditional moral ground, but Hopkins is so good (her characterization suggests one with at least some intelligence atop her naiveté and hopeless judgment) that we’re not really sure what her true feelings are.

In Tony Richardson’s really awful 1961 screen version, titled Sanctuary and adapted from the novel and a Ruth Ford play that was kind of a sequel written with friend Faulkner’s permission, the normally beyond-criticism Lee Remick makes Temple such a ditz that her rather obvious preference for an alternative life doesn’t carry much dramatic weight one way or the other. She might as well be the Dixie airhead Pamela Tiffin plays so supremely for laughs (one of the most underrated performances ever) in Billy Wilder’s same-year One Two Three.

Hopkins, though, makes Temple interesting. On the one hand, life in her hometown does come off as stultifyingly dull for any woman with a little imagination. As for the aforementioned lawyer who’d like to marry, he’s kind of dull, too (William Gargan’s casting doesn’t help), and one can see that she might enjoy rebelling against all this. On the other hand, the always persuasive Imogen Smith is included as well in this Criterion release’s typically imaginative bonus features, and she makes a thoughtful feminist case while acknowledging certain ambiguities. Look at Hopkins in a convertible not long after the act, and you see she appears to be delirious — and it’s not the good kind of delirium. Smith also notes that were Temple to toss all those “tease” accusations to the winds and fully act on possible impulses, she’d be marked forever in a town whose 10-to-a-square-yard biddies already enjoy gossiping about her.

Faulkner’s novel, which I recall as being much more sordid, pulls far fewer punches when it comes to the life Temple chooses to live (it’s been decades since I’ve read it, so I think a fresh leap into the void is a major candidate for my agenda). Even so — and this is The Movies book speaking —“women’s groups” were outraged that Paramount had even made the movie, and, as we know, the industry’s hypocrisy meant that we’d soon be on our way to a Production Code with teeth and a long period of Andy Hardy and his ilk sipping sodas out of their straws (while Mickey Rooney and contemporaries of both sex sexes tallied 876 real-life marriages).

OK, that’s an exaggeration but not that much of one. San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, whose published works include Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, is also a bonus interviewee here, and he advances a theory I like claiming the screen-history anomaly in all this was not pre-Code movies but the rather antiseptic life view the industry put forth that followed for too long a while (notwithstanding all the great films that nonetheless emerged). Rounding out the bonuses are cinematographer/Motion Picture Academy president John Bailey — who joins Matt Severson (head of that organization’s Margaret Herrick Library) to look at the original storyboards, which (again) suggest a horror movie. Bailey, a bonafide student of film history in addition to master of his chosen field is properly amazed. To view these, both he and Severson wear forensic gloves, which suggests the holiness of the moment.

The young Richard Zanuck bought the rights to the novel and this earlier screen version when he took on what became the Lee Remick fiasco (it’s not as if 20th Century-Fox hadn’t been artistically burned by their version of The Sound and the Fury in then recent history). The timing of this purchase was so close to when Paramount sold its 1929-49 library to MCA that just I don’t know if Story would have been withheld in any event from that still astonishing film package for the same raunchy reasons The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was (which is why Creek is the only Sturges Paramount not controlled today by Universal, who absorbed MCA in 1962). Whatever the reason, both versions were soon pulled out of circulation for many years and never televised until recent times — existing, as they say in A Thousand Clowns, mostly by rumor.

Nonetheless, I (who, again, always had the movie on my mind) was lucky. When I was the black sheep of NYU’s graduate Cinema Studies department, the greatest perk was getting to see movies at the late Prof. William K. Everson’s cavernous West Side apartment, and one night he announced that The Story of Temple Drake was on the evening’s agenda (I think I swallowed my entire top row of teeth). Later, when I was programming and eventually in charge of the AFI Theater, I saw it again each time we managed to clear the rights — perhaps Zanuck himself even signed off on it, can’t recall — for us to run a safety 35mm print the UCLA Film & Television Archive had (thanks again to Bob Rosen, Bob Gitt or anyone else who had a hand). Finally, the film showed up on Turner Classic Movies sometime into this century and at least one of the TCM festivals.

This tally still doesn’t represent a lot of people, so I hope this release will give Faulkner fans the nudge to take a look. Criterion’s gorgeous rendering basically trumpets all those early ’30s Paramount production design/set design/lighting cosmetics that made and make their films incalculably more interesting viewing than their MGM counterparts from the time. There’ve been more good movies made from Faulkner works than many think, with Intruder in the DustThe Tarnished AngelsTomorrow and, I’d submit, at least The Long, Hot Summer’s sassy Newman-Woodward bandying as worthwhile endeavors or more). Temple Drake is closer to being in their class than not, snake bitten to be sure by exhibition roadblocks.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ and ‘The Story of Temple Drake’

The Heiress

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins.

Leaving aside Marie Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc — a performance as unique as the film it serves — I can’t think of another actress showcase that gets to me more than Olivia de Havilland’s in 1949’s The Heiress, as long as we (getting down to basics) leave the schoolboy crushes of a 72-year-old male out of rival considerations.

Adapted from the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz play whose springboard was Henry James’s source novel Washington Square, my favorite William Wyler film after The Best Years of Our Lives (with something like a dozen close runners-up) allows de Havilland to undergo a subtly eerie transformation before our very eyes in a spellbinding example of refined worm-turning.

Actually, she undergoes a transformation as well in To Each Her Own, which three years earlier had earned de Havilland her first of two deserved Oscars for an underseen grade-A soaper that may be the best movie Mitchell Leisen ever directed (it’s less arguably the best drama, though Hold Back the Dawn would get some votes). TEHO, however, takes place over a full generation, so the actress’s transformation from rural American beauty to crusty Londoner conveys the normal aging process. In The Heiress (Oscar No. 2 — and with The Snake Pit coming in the middle, talk about a run), the metamorphosis is more attitudinal. We can’t imagine the Catherine Sloper character seen early in the film displaying a cruel streak. Later, she does — because, as she says, she’s been “taught by experts” (a brutally delivered line of dialogue).

Ralph Richardson is de Havilland’s acting equal here as Catherine’s doctor father, a widower who has never forgiven her for being plain and socially maladroit when his idealized late wife was anything but. The two reside in the Washington Square neighborhood with the doctor’s sister (Miriam Hopkins) an often extended houseguest in a world of polite society, which is something to think about the next time you see somebody strumming a guitar adjacent to that neighborhood Arch down NYU way. The latter — and it’s a good role for Hopkins — is a not unsavvy flibbertigibbet, which, when combined with a romantic streak, makes her prone to cheerlead a courtship by the young Montgomery Clift’s Morris Townsend, whose dashing good looks and world travels camouflage the fact that he’s also something of a bounder.

Not taken in, though, is the doctor himself, who thinks he knows a fortune-hunter when he sees one — though Clift is such an appealing presence that the movie is probably more effective than its antecedents (I’ve read James’s wonderful novel, but it was many years ago) in making us entertain the possibility that he’s sincere in his affections. This is a tough sell for Dr. Sloper because his daughter’s social graces are so (sympathetically) clunky he just can’t bring himself to love her. There’s only so much that even a Wyler can do to turn an actress as beautiful as de Havilland into someone plain. But the character’s inability to make conversation or even to put a drink down before she steps onto the dance floor — usually with some aged poster child for gout — provide all the winces that any viewer needs.

At this point, we’re veering close to spoiler territory, so let’s see how Wyler dressed his movie up. Well, there was the Oscar win for scoring by Aaron Copland himself (no Vic Mizzy he); another for the costumes by Edith Head (subject of a featurette in the Criterion bonus section); and another for production designer Harry Horner. Though he didn’t always get the productions he deserved (stop directing the whack-job-ish camp fest Red Planet Mars — you don’t have to go much further in gauging Horner’s talent than to note that the challenger to The Heiress as his career achievement is the design he did on that incredible arena and dance floor in Sydney Pollack’s film of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (I also like the way he set up the spatial relationship between the restaurant seating and the principal actors in Separate Tables, a movie I still think is better than its now diminished critical reputation would indicate).

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

The Criterion essay is by Brit critic and historian Pamela Hutchinson, who’s also known as an expert on G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (now, there’s a contrast for the ages when it comes to female protagonists). She hits all the key points, and there are many to hit dating back to James — though one of the most interesting is how de Havilland initiated the project and hand-picked Wyler probably knowing what was going to be in store: take after take and (in one case) walking up steep stairs 30 or so times with a suitcase until she looked exhausted enough to convey Catherine’s defeat. But as noted earlier, the worm eventually turns here, and I have to think this is a movie any feminist will love.

Quite the brainstorm here was the decision to put the wonderful film essayist Farran Smith Nehme with Jay Cocks, who was not only Time’s film critic when the magazine was still in its prime but the screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, which I love as much as The Heiress. I wish Criterion did more of these back-and-forth pairings as supplements because at least the ones I’ve seen have always worked. There’s also 1981 footage of Richardson that was shot for Catherine Wyler’s documentary on her father (the senior Wyler’s footage was completed just before his sudden death), and Sir Ralph recalls an initial clash that was soon cleared up. I wonder if his warm feelings were further influenced by Richardson’s old colleague Laurence Olivier crediting Wyler with teaching him how to act for the movies, by virtue of Wuthering Heights and the Carrie that would be Stephen Crane’s Carrie and not Brian De Palma in the girls’ locker room). The Goetz’s penned the Carrie screenplay (as they did for The Heiress), and I think it’s almost as good, sparked by what many think (myself included) is Olivier’s greatest work on screen.

We also get a two-part interview of de Havilland by Paul Ryan, in which she’s enthusiastically anecdotal — a high point being the story of how Errol Flynn once left a long dead snake wrapped up in her fresh underwear. She also joins Bette Davis (a Warner Bros. treat just by itself) on a Merv Griffin tribute to Wyler, flanked by Walter Pidgeon (lighting cigarettes galore and tossing in what-me-worry-ish asides) and The Collector’s Samantha Eggar. That gorgeous redhead’s verbal contribution isn’t included in the excerpt, though unambiguously conveyed as same universal language in her looks that goosed me into seeing that movie three or four times during its original release. It’s good to see Eggar sharing a hug-ish greeting with Wyler when he makes his entrance because there was real tension on the set of what was inherently a difficult project.

Finally, there’s Wyler’s relatively brief (maybe five minutes) acceptance speech getting the AFI Life Achievement Award back when that meant a lot more than today. It’s very funny, though obscures the fact that were massive technical problems during the taping, necessitating reshoots that I seem to recall lasted for hours. Talk about a primer in irony, given Wyler’s five-decade rep as master craftsman second to none. Case in point: I think I may be more impressed by his 12 nominations than the three Oscar wins — and that was with no best director nomination for Funny Girl, which would have happened more years than not back then).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heiress’ and ‘This Gun for Hire’