William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary came out to acclaim and derision in 1931. A story of the rape, kidnapping, and terrorization of a young Ole Miss student who, though the daughter of a respected judge, has a reputation, the book was scandalous. Despite the controversy — or because of it — Paramount bought the film rights the next year and the film was released in 1933. Prior to its release, the film was already being condemned in the press and by various organizations. That film, The Story of Temple Drake, is one of the films that led to the zealous enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, a set of moral guidelines that determined whether a film could be certified for release to the public.
Interestingly, the Hays Code was already gaining ground and in fact had an effect on the content of The Story of Temple Drake. For example, the film’s opening credit’s only mention that it is based on a novel by William Faulkner, not that it was based on Sanctuary. This elision was encouraged by the Hays office. There were several other changes as well that distanced the film from its source material. One change — the nature of the rape, which is surely one of the main reasons the book was so scandalous — was probably in the film’s best interest, though a shot of a pile of corncobs that slyly referenced Faulkner’s work is left in the film. Other changes make the film weaker, though, particularly to the ending, which I won’t get into other than to say this here. The film wants the scandal while refusing to be as audacious. Consequently it treats its important themes with a kind of moral condescension that should make lovers of the Hays Code proud.
While aspects of the film that explore Faulkner’s themes are weaker than I think is warranted, there is a lot to love in the film. First and foremost is the alway great Miriam Hopkins, who signed up to play the titular character over her mother’s indignant anger.
Though the film itself doesn’t seem to appreciate the depths of Temple Drake as a character — it’s too interested in leading her to condemnation — Hopkins nevertheless gives Temple depth and complexity.
If the film had its way, Temple would be easy to condemn. Here she is, a lucky woman with a morally stalwart man who loves her and asks for her hand in marriage.
But Temple is not interested. When the films opens, instead of accepting the righteous and correct man, Temple goes off with a drunken louse.
But even though Temple does something foolish that gets her in trouble, I cannot help but see humanity in Hopkin’s performance. Temple has her reasons, and they are valid.
That Temple falls victim to something terribly ugly is not changed from the book. But Hopkins — and, because I’m worried I’m discounting it too much, the film — never allows this to become a doom-and-gloom cautionary tale.
I also think the imagery in the film is impeccable. There is a beautiful use of darkness, shadow, and rain. I get claustrophobic just thinking of the way the film captures Temple’s time in this wretched home far away from those who have been trying to protect her.
If only the film stayed in this vein. Instead, while flouting the Hays Code and serving to strengthen it, the film embraces the Code’s insistence on moral resolution that punishes and leads to self-sacrifice. The resolution here is facile and embarrassing and, worst of all, dangerous. Nevertheless, I think the film is worth engaging with for many reasons, though, again, I’d easily choose it just to see Hopkins work her magic on the screen.