Before the ultra-conservative half-wits of a century ago took over Hollywood and put in place a motion picture sanitation effort, known as The Production Code, that would snarl artistic freedom in motion pictures for the next half century, there was a time when film artists Hollywood were free to express themselves. They dealt with hardcore subject matter. They dealt with sexual issues, relationship issues, taboo issues. They dealt, basically, with things that nice people didn’t talk about.
This was Pre-Code Hollywood, which lasted from the early silent-era until The Hays Office took over the industry in 1936 in an effort to make it more respectable – essentially they were successful with the Motion Picture industry at doing what The 18th Amendment tried to do for alcohol. Yet, it’s fascinating to look at the time before, when Hollywood was free
One of the best examples of Pre-Code Hollywood is a scandalous 1933 film called The Story of Temple Drake, a hard-bitten drama pried from William Faulkner’s equally scandalous novel “Sanctuary”. It tells the story of, well, Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins), an otherwise nice southern woman who falls in with a gang and is sexually attracted to it’s leader, a thug named Trigger, played by Jack La Rue. Trigger’s seduction of Temple leads to all manner of scandalous implications that lead to rape, murder and eventually a cover-up. I say implications because even though this movie was made before The Hayes Code, it suggests the horrible things that are happening more than showing them.
What works in The Story of Temple Drake is the story construction, which takes a nice Mississippi who is prone to flights of misbehavior and puts her through the hellish world of those her parents have warned her about. What happens to Temple is not her fault, or maybe it is. She’s a good girl, but not a wise one. She gets herself into trouble by associating with the wrong people. What happens to her in the end gives the movie a happy conclusion – well, happy in so much as this situation will allow. Yet, I prefer Faulkner’s ending in which Temple’s testimony sends an innocent man to his death. I love the film but I might have championed a less upbeat ending.
Is the movie a warning to young ladies to get back in the kitchen? Probably, but its also interesting to watch an otherwise intelligent person get themselves in deeper and deeper. And it’s interesting to watch early Hollywood deal with such trashy subject matter in the same manner as a trashy novel.