BOOTLEG FILES 411: “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933 drama starring Miriam Hopkins and Jack La Rue).
LAST SEEN: The film is available on YouTube in an unauthorized multi-part installment.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has a very complicated history that keeps it out of release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.
One of the great disappointments of film scholarship is tracking down a long-unseen motion picture with a historic reputation and discovering that it is not a very good production. This is the case of “The Story of Temple Drake,” a 1933 Paramount Pictures release that created major censorship problems when it was released. The film has been out of circulation for many years – in fact, it wasn’t until a 2010 broadcast on Turner Classic Movies that most people ever got to see it. But despite its reputation of being a shocking film, “The Story of Temple Drake” is actually pretty dull.
“The Story of Temple Drake” was created during the so-called pre-code era, a brief period in the early 1930s when the Hollywood studios pushed censorship restrictions to provocative and mature lengths. Even among the films of this period, “The Story of Temple Drake” was more than a little daring. The fact that the film was ever made is something of a minor miracle.
Paramount bought the rights to William Faulkner’s best-selling 1931 novel “Sanctuary,” about a teenage daughter of a Southern judge who is raped by a bootlegger named Popeye and held captive as a prostitute in a Memphis brothel. The book was particularly brutal in detailing the sexual assaults on its central figure, the young woman named Temple Drake, by Popeye – he is impotent, so his initial attack is made with a corncob, while later he brings in a fellow criminal to have sex with Temple while he watches them.
Even in the pre-Code Hollywood environment, “Sanctuary” was an over-the-top source that could not be faithfully adapted for the screen. Indeed, Paramount would not identify the name of the source material in the film’s credits and advertising. Paramount initially called the film “The Shame of Temple Drake,” but opted for the more benign title “The Story of Temple Drake.”
Despite the lurid nature of many of the pre-code films, Hollywood had its own censors during this period (known as the Hays Office), and they were not pleased by the prospect of “Sanctuary” being made into a film. Paramount worked with the Hays Office in watering down the sensational aspects of the Faulkner novel, most notably the rape sequence. At the Hays Office’s insistence, there could be nothing to the suggest the corncob attack in the book and the dialogue at the Memphis brothel needed to be significantly scrubbed down; a sight gag in the brothel involving a hat rack overstuffed with men’s headwear was cut from the script.
Another major change was the name of the villain. In 1933, Paramount began releasing a series of cartoons based on the Popeye the Sailor comic strip. Needless to say, Temple Drake’s tormentor could not share the same name as Olive Oyl’s boyfriend – so Faulkner’s Popeye was renamed Trigger for the film.
But even with these changes, “The Story of Temple Drake” is disappointing for a number of reasons. For starters, Paramount opted to cast Miriam Hopkins as Temple Drake. The 31-year-old actress was much too old to play Faulkner’s concept of the role of a college student with a reputation for loose morals, so the film offers her as a free-spirited socialite who lives with her grandfather (played by Sir Guy Standing, whose accent is out of place in a story set in the Deep South). But, quite frankly, there is nothing in Hopkins’ appearance or performance that would attract any interest – she is a surprisingly dull presence, barely registering when her character is supposedly going through severe emotional convulsions.
Then there is Popeye/Trigger. Paramount initially wanted George Raft for the role, but he rejected it – the studio claimed it was because of a low salary, but Raft would later claim that he feared career ruination if he was associated with the project. While Raft would later make major career mistakes in turning down key parts (most notably the leads in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon”), he was correct here – the watered down script offered no challenge. This was confirmed by the performance of Jack La Rue, the tough guy character actor Jack La Rue who was given the part. La Rue’s acting was mostly achieved with a vaguely menacing stare and a cigarette dangling from his lips – as a villain, he is strictly one-dimensional.
“The Story of Temple Drake” is also weighed down by a surprisingly harsh view of poor white Southerners as idiots – oddly, Paramount and the Hays Office didn’t bother to clean up that aspect of Faulkner’s book. Except for “Deliverance,” it is hard to recall a film that presents such visceral stereotype of Southerners as dumb and vicious white trash. But Paramount obviously wanted to confirm it’s standing as an equal opportunity offender by throwing in tiresome comic relief bit parts for African Americans as maids and porters. (The great Louise Beavers is briefly on screen as the brothel’s maid).
For 1933, however, critics and audiences were amazed to see something as daring as “The Story of Temple Drake” on the screen. But not everyone was happy: censors in Ohio and Pennsylvania banned the film’s exhibition and the New York state censor demanded cuts. Nonetheless, the film turned in a quick profit.
By mid-1934, however, Hollywood caved in to pressure brought by religious and social organizations and grimly agreed to abide the Motion Picture Production Code, which severely censored provocative material. As a result, “The Story of Temple Drake” was removed from theatrical circulation.
From here, things get complicated. Paramount later sold the film and all of its pre-1948 productions to Universal Pictures, but Universal did not acquire the rights to the Faulkner novel. 20th Century Fox bought the book rights for its 1961 screen version of “Sanctuary” and acquired the 1933 film. But “Sanctuary” was not a hit film and the studio shelved it; Fox also never bothered to re-release “The Story of Temple Drake” for television broadcasts. Years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the original negative from Fox, and the museum went through the expense of restoring the negative for the film’s 2010 television premiere on Turner Classic Movies.
To date, “The Story of Temple Drake” has never been made available for home entertainment release. A scratchy print has turned up on YouTube, and it can be viewed in an unauthorized multi-part installment. Despite a growing interest in pre-code films, no plans have been announced to release the film on DVD.
As a missing piece of film history, “The Story of Temple Drake” is an important production. But on its own merits, the film is much less interesting than its sordid reputation would suggest.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!