Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Story of Temple Drake

The Story of Temple Drake (1933) takes the dark Southern Gothic of William Faulkner's 1931 novel Sanctuary and transmutes it into a 1930s gangster story. Faulkner's novel itself is not "Southern" in a conventional sense. There is the small Southern town in which Temple Drake and other characters reside, and there is Lee Goodwin's home, the "Old Frenchman's" plantation house, which the film portrays as half-collapsed and wholly decayed. In the novel, the South provides a background against which the characters move and talk. But the novel's story of physical and moral corruption is no more dependent on the Southern setting than it would be dependent on New York if it were set there, or on Los Angeles, or Chicago. The Southern setting helps explain certain mannerisms and accents of the characters, and it provides a sordid context for the motley crew of characters who hover in and around Lee Goodwin's house. One could argue that the Old Frenchman's place is the novel's symbol of a decadent and vanished Old South. Finally, the South in the novel with its tradition of vigilante justice and of privilege for the wealthy and disadvantage for the poor helps explain the horrific conclusion of the novel.

The film gives us a few Southern accents, mixed in with Chicago and British accents. Some black servants and the house where Lee Godwin's crew lives alert us to the Southern setting. But the film is not really about the South.

In a number of ways the film replicates important aspects of the novel. Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) remains a central point of interest, as do Lee Goodwin and his wife Ruby Lamar. The film changes Popeye's name to Trigger, and Horace Benbow becomes Stephen Benbow, a former spurned flame of Temple's. Temple's dangerous flirting personality, the way she entrances men with the offer and then the refusal of her sexuality, is largely present in the film. (Made before the advent of the Production Code, the film's frank treatment of sexuality, even if by implication and innuendo, is still surprising). We can glimpse the trappings of Faulkner's novel, even if ultimately we realize there is only slight substance behind them.

Sanctuary is about the moral and physical corruption of its characters, specifically of Horace Benbow, Temple Drake, and others. Its story is unrelentingly despairing and pessimistic, and it savagely destroys most of its characters. Horace himself is complex, self-deceived, and unlikeable. His attraction to beautiful women, his fascination with the sexuality of women, is a motivating force in his defense of Lee Goodwin (whose wife Ruby he wants, just as he wants his wife's daughter, even as he wants his sister). This is a frequently seen character type in Faulkner—the deluded male who thinks he is doing good when in fact what he is doing is trying to steal another man's wife). In the film, Benbow is a young lawyer attempting to do the right thing. He is earnest and moral and lacks any fixation on young women at all. Faulkner's novel is also about the corrupting force of female sexuality—a force that corrupts men as well as women. Temple is the prime agent of this force. She is a flirtatious flapper, a vacuous Southern belle who flaunts beauty and sex and who once she experiences sex through her brutal experience of rape cannot have enough of it. She is Faulkner's paragon example of a woman corrupted by her own sexuality. Faulkner's treatment of female sexuality is complex and multilayered. Sanctuary is one of the novels critics turn to in order to label Faulkner a misogynist.

The Story of Temple Drake is about a woman redeemed. The film seems to agree with the novel that Temple's reckless and flirtatious behavior placed her in the way of rapists like Trigger, and it suggests as well that she enjoys what happens to her. Even before the rape, she tells Stephen Benbow that there is an evil side to her—she seems to imply that she is incapable of virtue. This is the film's way of suggesting her nymphomania, her inability to be satisfied with any one man. For this reason, she suggests to Stephen, she rejects his proposal of marriage, even though she claims to like and even to love him. So Temple in the film is possessed of a moral self-awareness not allowed her character in the novel. The film provides Temple with a number of opportunities to redeem herself, each of which she seizes. The first comes when Stephen barges into the room where Trigger is staying with Temple at Miss Reba's whore house. Stephen is shocked to find her there and assumes she is a prisoner. But Temple, who knows that Trigger is ready to shoot Stephen, lies and tells him she is there willingly. Shortly after Stephen leaves, she prepares to abandon Trigger, and when he stands in her way, striking her and telling her that he is not through with her, she shoots him. This is her second opportunity for redemption. And her third is when she testifies on the witness stand in Lee Goodwin's trial that she saw Trigger kill Tommy, revealing in the process that she was raped and that she killed Trigger. This moment of personal and social disgrace is her final act of self-redemption. She saves Goodwin at the cost of her own reputation. She then collapses. As Stephen carries her out of the courtroom, he turns to her grandfather Judge Drake and tells him that "You should be proud of her. I know I am." The film ends.

This hackneyed and corny cinematic ending contrasts markedly with the triple conclusion of the novel—Lee Goodwin's lynching, Popeye's hanging, and Temple's grim appearance in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. It's difficult to think of a grimmer, more disturbing, more apt conclusion for any American novel than this one.

The film captures the shock value of the novel but ignores or fails to understand the reasons for the shock—the moral hollowness of the characters and of their world. Sanctuary condemns its world, while The Story of Temple Drake confirms that in the world it portrays virtue always wins out.

Both Sanctuary and The Story of Temple Drake seem to be premised on the notion that small Southern towns are threatened by the invasion of big-city evils—gangsters, sex, crime, violence—though it is well worth pointing out that those menaces were really there to begin with, just hidden away, unacknowledged, called by other names.

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