Between 1930 and early 1934, in the years after Hollywood’s transition to sound and before the Production Code imposed a moral policeman to censor the content of Hollywood movies, was a lively period referred to as the Pre-Code era. While there was no explicit sexual activity or violence shown onscreen, many films indulged in lurid suggestions of promiscuity and bad behavior, and some even dared suggest that sex was a part of American adult lives.
The Story of Temple Drake, produced in 1933 (at the height of Pre-Code sophistication and confidence), is one of the most daring and disturbing of these films. Mick LaSalle, in his book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, describes the film as “humid with sex, a sense of animal-like motives beneath the surface.” Based on William Faulkner’s notorious novel Sanctuary (first published in 1931), it stars Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake, the wild child granddaughter of a moralistic old judge (Sir Guy Standing) blind to her good time lifestyle and her attraction to reckless bad boys. He still harbors fantasies that nice boy Stephen (William Gargan), an idealistic attorney who defends indigent clients pro-bono, will one day marry Temple and calm her restless nature, but Temple has other ideas. Her impulsive, self-destructive nature lands her in the back-road hideout of hillbilly bootleggers and their big city gangster partner, a sneering, savage thug accurately named Trigger (Jack La Rue).
Bad girls go to hell in so many of these movies but Temple isn’t bad so much as rebellious and “loose,” a pleasure-seeking young woman who defies convention. She just wants to have fun and ends up a prisoner of the most depraved gang this side of a seventies drive-in thriller. “Hopkins first plays Temple as a flighty girl, and rather than transform her into someone noble, Hopkins assures us of her flawed character throughout,” observes LaSalle. True to the genre, Miriam Hopkins strips off her wet gown to her skimpy silk skivvies, but this isn’t some playful bit of cheesecake. She’s literally stripped of her defenses and at the mercy of men who take their turns leering and then fight over her like dogs over a piece of meat; she’s safe until the fighting stops and the top dog goes in to take his spoils.
Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Monday, November 5. Not on DVD.