The Story of Temple Drake (1933): The good bad-girl


Pre-code Hollywood was frank about sex, and women were more than appendages to male heroics.  Though the male gaze ensured these dames were hot and not just adventurous.

While the Paramount adaptation of William Faulkner’s trash novel ‘Sanctuary’ took a while to get made, when it hit the screen the studio didn’t cut corners nor dolly things up. The Story of Temple Drake is all of 71 minutes and not surprisingly coherent story-telling is a casualty, yet the lurid plot is handled with a compelling economy and frankness, strongly abetted by the suitably dark lensing of Karl Struss, whose expressionist lighting of horrendous close-ups insinuates a decadent menace into the melodrama.

Temple Drake is a cheap little rich-girl from the South, who likes slumming with drunken lechers driving fast cars. One night she comes a cropper when her latest partner in sleaze crashes his roadster. After seeking help at a decrepit mansion they are abducted by a sinister gang of bootleggers.  The drunken beau is dumped, the girl raped, and then shanghaied to a bordello.  Is she a willing accomplice to her degradation? The scenario is ambivalent and you have to live with your doubts.

Wide-eyed and gorgeous, a not so young Miriam Hopkins brings a simmering sexuality to her portrayal of a woman whose lurid appetites are kept in check by a veneer of respectability – and a genuine awareness of her tendency to self-destruct.  For all her baseness, she has a moral centre that only needs to be coerced into action. Trouble is on both occasions she aids her own demise. First by killing, and then into making an admission of guilt that has severe consequences.

While Temple Drake is no femme-fatale and her actions are reactive, she cannily prefigures those hard dames that were let loose less than a decade later.

This notorious pre-coder is essential viewing.



4 thoughts on “The Story of Temple Drake (1933): The good bad-girl”

  1. “Wide-eyed and gorgeous, a not so young Miriam Hopkins brings a simmering sexuality to her portrayal of a woman whose lurid appetites are kept in check by a veneer of respectability – and a genuine awareness of her tendency to self-destruct.”

    I would have to agree Tony that the plot and story is second fiddle here (even with the obvious potential because of the great Faulkner’s prose as the source) and that Karl Strauss’ expressionistic cinematography gives this film visual distinction. More than any other film TEMPLE DRAKE is often given the credit for bringing about the creation of the Hays Code, and though the context here is tame by today’s standards, it was understandably quite a big deal in 1934. You dissection of Miram Hopkins’ now legendary performance is absolutely brilliant, and the best I have yet read on the film’s most vital component. Yes this essential viewing for both pre-code adherents and fans of American cinema. I had the great fortune of seeing this at the pre-code festival years back at the Film Forum.

    Great review here!


    1. Thanks Sam. I have read that movie did not cause much of a stir on release as the promotion was low-key. From what I have read of the period, the reactionaries were responding to lurid marketing more than the actual content, as few actually saw the movies they were condemning. The more things change…


  2. I did not see this review until now, so I am a little behind in commenting. Like this movie very much, but I wanted to make one correction: this was not a Warner Brothers film, I suspect if it had been it would have been issued in their “Forbidden Hollywood” series years ago. Since it was released by Paramount, and is now owned by Universal (they own all early Paramount talkies) it is not likely to be legally issued anytime soon, unfortunately.


  3. Thanks Bill for the heads up. I have corrected the post. Much appreciated.

    I do know that a new print was made when The Story of Temple Drake was shown at the 2010 TCM Festival. According to the Row3 site, TCM asked the Museum of Modern Art, which had received a high-quality camera negative from Fox as part of a general archive donation, to restore and strike a print for the festival. But yes, no DVD on the horizon.



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