not in our stars, but in ourselves
There’s no author (in English, anyway) whose work better lends itself to Pre-Code movie adaptations than William Faulkner. His novel, Sanctuary, is a particularly good case in point: it’s about bootleggers, rapists, madams, deflowered Southern Belles, and plenty of other topics that weren’t permissible even to hint at after 1934. The film version was retitled The Story of Temple Drake(1933), and the changed title reflects a changed focus as well. Where Temple – the beautiful, spoiled, flirtatious daughter of a Southern judge – is one of several leads in Sanctuary, here she’s the main event.
Set somewhere in the South (it’s in Faulkner’s fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in the novel; here, it remains nameless), the story begins with Temple (Miriam Hopkins) shamelessly leading on several young men at once. She feels free to get them “all fired up,” and then to flit off to someone else. She is the subject of much town gossip – everyone from busybody old spinsters to the woman who washes her laundry – but she’s having far too much fun to pay them any mind. A young lawyer, Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), is eager to marry her – and she does love him, after her fashion, but it is for that very reason that she refuses his suit. She knows what kind of girl she is better than anyone else: not the kind of girl nice boys marry. After a particularly painful scene with Stephen at a dance, Temple begs one of her other beaux, Toddy Gowan (William Collier, Jr.) to take her away. He drunkenly insists on taking her to a speakeasy miles away, in the dark and twisted Southern jungle, and their car crashes. There, they have the bad fortune to meet Trigger (Jack LaRue) and his motley crew: Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel), Ruby (Florence Eldridge), Tommy the simpleton (James Eagles), and an old blind drunk (Harlan Knight). Trigger agrees that Gowan can leave; they have no use for another drunk. But Trigger has something very clear in mind for Temple, to her despair.
The Story of Temple Drake is famous for that very reason: a clearly implied rape scene. We don’t see it happen, of course, because this isn’t Irreversible, but we know. It’s happening. Trigger approaches the trembling, horrified Temple; the camera cuts away; and we hear her scream of pure, bloody terror. Indeed, the rape scene is often singled out as an exemplar of Temple‘s Pre-Code essence. And of course, it would have been hard to get away with implying rape during any other era of pre-ratings system Hollywood. It was only during this time of relative lawlessness that a mainstream film could have gotten away with such things.
But the film, like the book, deals in much more interesting topics that were taboo after the Code was enforced. It would have been impossible for any post-Code Hollywood film to give us a character like Temple. What’s so unusual about her? It’s not her teasing sexuality, or her attractiveness, or her headstrong nature; there’s never been a time in Hollywood history that we haven’t been presented with thousands of women so idealized. No, she’s unusual because she knows herself. She knows who she is. She knows what she wants. She doesn’t compromise for anyone – until Trigger brutalizes her. And even after that, even after she is traumatized and forced to stay with him at a tawdry brothel, she uses her considerably more sophisticated brains to escape his (literal) clutches. Frankly, Temple doesn’t need a man. It’s because of men that she gets into trouble, and because of herself that she escapes.
Indeed, one of the few directorial touches that I found genuinely interesting was the use of the male gaze as the rapist’s gaze – quite deliberately, I thought, as Trigger is shown eyeing Temple up and down, and then a reverse-shot of Temple (the object of his gaze) looking horrified. I say that this is one of the few directorial touches that I found interesting because, overall, the film is a bit of a dud as a film. What is interesting about the story comes from Faulkner, and what is interesting about the character of Temple comes from Hopkins. Little else about the film as a film deserves much notice (though I thought the contrast between Temple and Ruby was quite good: one a lovely plaything, the other a used-up slattern; one slim and fashionable, the other thickset and clothed simply for the sake of being clothed).
For the record, this is one case where Hollywood managed to de-sensationalize a source novel. In Faulkner’s book, not only is Temple raped by the psychopathic bootlegger (called Popeye in the novel). He is impotent in the book, and so he rapes her with a corn cob – which makes a later bloody appearance at a murder trial as a piece of evidence. And in the novel, Faulkner does not back away from the rape; rather, we go inside Temple’s head, and he uses his stream-of-consciousness writing style to evoke her disgust, disbelief, and despair. If you’re looking for a bit of Southern-inspired beach reading, I suggest you try Gone With the Wind instead.