Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is known about town as a fast and loose party girl, but all the men in town know she’s really all talk and no action. She’s got a suitor in lawyer Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), who has repeatedly asked Temple to marry him, but she doesn’t want to give up her hard partying lifestyle. She’s also the granddaughter of the town judge, which gets her out of a lot of trouble. It also helps that her grandfather remains completely oblivious to her wild lifestyle. One night, she goes out to a party and ends up leaving with Toddy Gowan (William Collier, Jr.) to go get a drink. Toddy drives even though he’s already been drinking and he ends up wrecking the car. Stranded, they are met by gangster Lee Gowan, who brings them to a dilapidated mansion full of bootleggers. The couple is forced to stay there, even though Temple really, really doesn’t want to stay. She tries to stay in the kitchen with Lee’s wife Ruby, but Ruby doesn’t like her being there because she thinks Temple is trying to steal Lee’s affections. Unwelcome in the kitchen, Temple tries to go out with the bootleggers. When a bootlegger tries to make a pass at her, Toddy tries to defend her, but between the head injury he got in the accident and the fact that he’s still drunk, he’s of little help. Lee, on the other hand, does defend her. Ruby suggests Temple go sleep in the barn so the men won’t bother her. She does, and even though the men leave her alone during the night, Trigger comes in the next morning and shoots Tommy, who is supposed to be protecting her, then rapes Temple. He takes her with him to a brothel and forces her to be his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Tommy’s murder is under investigation and who else but Stephen is assigned to the case. Lee is reluctant to name Trigger as the murderer, but Ruby is more than willing to name names and even tells Stephen where to find him. When Stephen shows up at the brothel to serve Trigger with a court summons, he’s shocked to find Temple with him. He tries to get her to leave with him, but to protect Stephen, she tells him that she came with Trigger on her own free will. Stephen believes it and gives both of them summonses and leaves. Temple then tries to escape and in the ensuing tussle, she shoots and kills Trigger. She gets away and heads back to town, where she begs Stephen not to question her in the trial. Her grandfather also begs him to not put her on the stand, but he does anyway. However, once he gets her up there, he doesn’t have the heart to interrogate her like he planned to. However, she finally cracks under the pressure and confesses to everything: what happened the night of the party, witnessing Trigger kill Tommy, being raped, and killing Trigger herself.
The Story of Temple Drake is one of the most scandalous of all the pre-codes, with good reason. Very few movies deal with the subject of rape as frankly as The Story of Temple Drake. The only other one I can think of off-hand is Anatomy of a Murder. Not to mention it has all the classic pre-code elements of a loose woman, gangsters, murder, and violence against women. When it was first released, it was banned in Ohio and Pennsylvania and it ultimately went completely unseen again until the 1950s. If they tried to re-make this today, I’m sure it’d still create a huge stir.
I thought The Story of Temple Drake was quite fascinating. Miriam Hopkins was excellent in it, especially in the scenes following the rape. I loved that scene where Trigger is driving her away to the brothel and she just sat there with this look of absolute defeat on her face. To see her go from being a carefree, free-spirited party girl to apparently suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after being raped so effortlessly is really quite remarkable. I also found the structure of the movie to be quite interesting because it starts out looking like it’ll be a run of the mill pre-code, but then the script suddenly takes on the tone of a horror film. I felt like I should have watched this a few weeks ago around Halloween. A couple getting stranded with car problems on a rainy night and are forced into staying the night in a run-down old mansion full of sinister people sure sounds like the beginning of a lot of horror movies. That’s not even getting into how horrific of a character Trigger is. Not only is he an awful character, they kept showing him with an evil look on his face in tight close-ups that were really rather terrifying.
The Story of Temple Drake is still a rather hard to find movie, it’s not available on DVD. At the time of writing this, it is up on YouTube. If you have any interest in pre-codes at all, it’s absolutely worth tracking down. It definitely lives up to its reputation of being one of the most infamous pre-codes of all time.