When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

Don’t know if it was legal, but someone posted a scandalous pre-Code film THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE online [at that r-e-a-l-l-y popular online video-sharing site].

The movie may be in public domain: the original film was so scandalous that the Production Code demanded it never be screened again. So why would Paramount have renewed the rights on a banned movie? TEMPLE DRAKE was remade by Fox in the early 1960s by Tony Richardson under the source novel’s title, SANCTUARY (with the overlooked-yet-brilliant Lee Remick as Temple), and sometimes — as with the remake of John Ford’s STAGECOACH — the producers of the remake let the original film’s copyright run out as a way of keeping it out of competition.

TEMPLE DRAKE was a film version of William Faulkner’s SANCTUARY. It was the only book Faulkner wrote strictly with an eye for cash, catering to what mass audiences probably thought went on during thunderstorms in Mississippi. The result is the most lurid Southern Gothic melodrama you can find. [And as a Georgian who grew up living the Southern Gothic novel, I should know.]

Georgia native Miriam Hopkins (who grew up in the town that’s now infamous for its tainted peanut butter: Bainbridge) portrayed Temple Drake. This was Hopkins during her period as an Art Deco sylph for Paramount (she made this film directly after Lubitsch’s TROUBLE IN PARADISE), which is one of my two favorite periods in her career: the other being her final years when her looks were gone so she poured out breathtaking performances in everything from the totally unhinged Brando / Lillian Hellman / Horton Foote / Jane Fonda / Robert Redford / Arthur Penn Texas-based drama THE CHASE to her appearance as an alien’s procurer in the TV series THE OUTER LIMITS.

In this film, Temple Drake, a pampered socialite and notorious cockteaser, was out joyriding on a rainy night with one of her wastrel boyfriends when their car cracked up. They sought shelter from a storm in a decaying mansion populated by grubby degenerates. Her boyfriend soon passed out and Temple tried to sleep in the barn. Came the morning, she was raped with a corncob by an impotent gangster (Jack LaRue in another of his great pre-Code sleazebag performances) who then abducted her and kept her in a whorehouse. [Around now, I should mention that even before the Hollywood Production Code, this film was banned in a couple of states.]

The director, Stephen Roberts, graduated to features after cranking out two-reel silent comedies in the 1920s. His work holds the shots together, but little more. Fortunately, the D.P. was the gifted Karl Struss, who gave the shots in the mansion some Caligari-like dimensions. Another joltingly energized facet of the production was the appearance of stage actress (and wife of Fredric March) Florence Eldridge, who was given the best line: when Temple is in the mansion’s kitchen, she sees a baby in the wood box by the stove. Asking why the baby is in there, Eldridge replies, “So the rats don’t git it!”)

This film is a double whammy: a lost film that’s totally tweaked. All through the viewing, my mind would alternate between thinking “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing this film” and thinking “I can’t believe I’m seeing this crazy sh*t!” And even crazier for me, TEMPLE DRAKE is about the 8th or 9th feature film I’ve viewed online. The narcotic of seeing a film I’d probably never get to see anywhere else has totally eclipsed any previous reservations I’d have concerning an “acceptable print.” The archeologist in me has wrestled the aesthete to the mat in this round of my Grande Affaire with the movies.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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