The very existence of The Story of Temple Drake (1933) doesn’t make sense. In fact, for decades, it was nonexistent, sitting in a vault and left unseen after the Hays Code made it impossible to be screened. Thankfully, the film has been recovered. Since a new restoration debuted at the 2011 TCM Film Festival, The Story of Temple Drake has popped up on the network occasionally. Eight years later, we finally have a home video release, thanks to the Criterion Collection. Now, this shocking movie, running 71 minutes long, can be seen by an even wider audience.
The Story of Temple Drake is loosely based on William Faulkner’s equally shocking 1931 novel Sanctuary. Like Faulkner’s book, the Paramount executives who greenlit the project were probably thinking of profits. Faulkner only wrote it because he wanted a commercial success that would drive interest in his previous novels. Paramount probably wanted a salacious movie that would drive up box office revenues. If that was the plan, star Miriam Hopkins, director Stephen Roberts and cinematographer Karl Struss were not in on it.
Hopkins stars as Temple Drake, the free-spirited and reckless granddaughter of Mississippi Judge Drake (Guy Standing). She refuses to be tied down by lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) and shakes off his latest attempt to convince her to marry him at a party by running off with idiot college boy Toddy Gowan (William Collier Jr.). During their drunken drive away from the party, they crash into a forest and suddenly… The Story of Temple Drake becomes a very different kind of movie.
Temple and Toddy wind up at a mysterious, broken down plantation, where they find a bizarre collection of characters. The most dangerous of these people is Trigger (Jack La Rue), a gangster who does not seem to belong there. Trigger’s motives are evil from the start, and his rape of Temple sets into motion a series of events that will tear her life apart.
Hopkins brings to life a character so rarely seen in early ’30s Hollywood movies thanks to a frightfully modern performance. Hopkins and Roberts, whose life was cut short before he could make another masterpiece, want to bring the audience inside Temple’s head. The close-ups of Hopkins come so close that they almost make you feel uncomfortable, as if you are invading her mind. That’s the point though, you have to get in her head to understand the motives behind every action. On the surface, they might seem confusing, but deep under cover, there is a woman tired of being underestimated.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release uses a high-definition digital restoration instead of a more recent 2K or 4K restoration. It’s possible that the restoration dates back to its re-emergence at TCMFF. Nevertheless, the presentation is remarkable, especially for a movie not seen for decades. The mono soundtrack is also clear and mostly free from damage.
The one disappointing aspect of this release is the supplements. Since the movie is so short, one would expect Criterion to really pack stuff on here, or at least include a really long documentary. We don’t get that. Instead, we get interviews with critics Mark LaSalle and Imogen Sarah Smith.
LaSalle’s interview focuses on the production code and, while he does not make any startling revelations that any pre-code fan hasn’t heard before, he provides a good crash-course on the subject for newcomers. Smith, whose interviews are always engaging and welcome, discusses The Story of Temple Drake‘s content and Hopkins’ performance.
The third and final extra is a featurette with cinematographer John Bailey and Matt Severson, director at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, looking over the storyboards for the movie and Struss’ work. It’s a fascinating piece, as the two show off the detailed storyboards of the rape scene, drawn by none other than Jean Negulesco!
The insert features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, who provides another analysis of the film and how it compares to Faulkner’s work. The insert’s design is fantastic, as it is covered with newspaper ads for the movie.
The Story of Temple Drake must be seen to be believed. It is an uncompromising nightmare, one that should make even modern audiences squirm in fear. You can hear the double entendres at the begging of the movie in dozens of pre-codes, but what makes this film special is its deeply serious take on its subject matter. This release is a must-have, and people discovering this movie for the first time are in for quite a ride.