If there hadn’t been a Production Code crackdown brewing in Hollywood before The Story of Temple Drake (1933), this astonishing film might have tipped the scales. Based on William Faulkner’s sensational novel Sanctuary, it’s the story of a carefree Southern belle who teases men—until she is raped and turned into a sex slave. The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release provides everything you need to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this material and how potent it remains today.
I’m posting two pieces from 1933 that should be of interest: a publicity piece about Jack La Rue, who plays the notorious Trigger (named Popeye in the novel) and the first paragraphs of a review in the trade journal Motion Picture Herald.
Miriam Hopkins is excellent in the leading role. She gets belated and welcome recognition from Imogen Sara Smith in a first-rate interview on the disc. Film critic Mick LaSalle (author of Complicated Women and Dangerous Men) offers historical context and reminds us that “pre-Code” is not a genre but a time frame. And critic Geoffrey O’Brien adds lucid thoughts in a fine essay in the accompanying booklet.
Finally, master cinematographer and historian John Bailey chats with Matt Severson, director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. As they talk they examine an extraordinary collection of concept art created for Temple Drake by artist and future director Jean Negulesco. These striking German expressionist-inspired images are worth the price of the disc all by themselves. They represent a remarkable blueprint for the film’s director, the little-known Stephen Roberts, and his brilliant cinematographer Karl Struss. Struss’ work is properly celebrated here and makes me long for a high-quality Blu-ray of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which pairs Miriam Hopkins with Fredric March.
The Story of Temple Drake was difficult to see for many years. What’s more, a crummy print could obliterate the beauty of Struss’s use of light and shadows. When author/historian David Stenn tried to license footage from the film to use in his documentary Girl 27 Paramount said it didn’t own the rights. So did Fox, which released the remake Sanctuary. He finally spoke to the late Richard Zanuck, who ran 20th Century Fox in the 1960s. Zanuck confirmed that he had purchased the negative from Paramount along with the Faulkner book in order to make the 1961 adaptation. That cleared the way for a screening of Temple Drake at the TCM Classic Film Festival (where the Museum of Modern Art’s gorgeous 35mm print was shown) and this Criterion release.