As part of The Museum of Modern Art’s multiyear institutional collaboration with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, I was invited to curate a film series that would give filmgoers in Atlanta an opportunity to view historic and contemporary cinematic treasures from MoMA’s Department of Film collection. Modern Masters of Film: From Edison to Scorsese, which opened October 15, 2011, and runs through March 2012, kicked off at the High Museum with The Story of Temple Drake (1933), based on William Faulkner’s controversial 1931 novel Sanctuary. Dr. Thomas McHaney, Kenneth M. England Professor Emeritus of Southern Literature, Georgia State University, provided an introduction and led a post-screening discussion. It was especially gratifying for me to meet Dr. McHaney who, as a noted Faulkner scholar, might be able to clear up some of the many rumors, urban legends, and downright eccentric stories surrounding the admittedly notorious novel and rarely seen film.
Sanctuary is an enduring example of Southern Gothic literature, in which Temple Drake, a society girl and co-ed at Ole Miss, drinks to excess and fraternizes with bootleggers, much to the vexation of her prominent Mississippi family. Faulkner sold Sanctuary, his sixth novel, to Paramount Pictures, but he did not write the screenplay; his affection for Hollywood had come to an abrupt end when his short story “Turnabout”—the first property he sold to a film studio—became the 1933 Joan Crawford star vehicle Today We Live, directed by Howard Hawks. Faulkner’s story was turned into a clumsy screenplay by Edith Fitzgerald and Dwight Taylor, and critics dismissed it as a monotonous World War I melodrama—hardly the stirring story Faulkner penned! In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review, Faulkner (WF) discussed his Hollywood experiences with author Jean Stein (JS):
JS: Can working for the movies hurt your own writing?
WF: Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much. The problem does not apply if he is not first-rate because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.
JS: Does a writer compromise in writing for the movies?
WF: Always, because a moving picture is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is a compromise because that is what the word means—to give and to take.
JS: How do you get the best results in working for the movies?
WF: The moving-picture of my own which seemed best to me was done by the actors and the writer throwing the script away and inventing the scene in actual rehearsal just before the camera turned on. If I didn’t take, or feel I was capable of taking, motion-picture work seriously, out of simple honesty to motion pictures and to myself too, I would not have tried. But I know now that I will never be a good motion-picture writer.
It’s ironic that Faulkner considered himself a failure as a motion picture writer just six years after receiving the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only did the Hollywood experience deplete Faulkner’s confidence, it also diluted the original voice and style with which he imbued his writing. By the time The Story of Temple Drake was released, on May 12, 1933, only seven or so months of cinematic freewheeling morality remained until the Production Code Administration (PCA) clamped down on the uncontrollable consumption of martinis, co-habiting unmarried couples, and see-through evening gowns on the silver screen. (As the arbiter of positive Hollywood morality, the PCA regulated the industry through 1954.) Indeed, by the time The Story of Temple Drake made it to theatres in small cities and outlying regions in late 1933, it was heavily censored, but its prurient nature could not be totally erased. This actual editing of “unacceptable” footage out of prints may have contributed to the early demise of copies in the marketplace, as well as less-than-favorable reviews. In MoMA’s collection there are 480 feet of black-and-white 35mm nitrate picture and track negative for The Story of Temple Drake labeled “Philadelphia Censor Cuts-Trims”—direct testimony to the long reach of the PCA under the direction of Philadelphia’s own Joseph I. Breen.
In his remarks at the High Museum, Dr. McHaney noted, “I have never seen this film because the common story during my academic career was than no copies existed.” One exasperated blogger on the Turner Classic Movies site even begged Universal Pictures (which many incorrectly presume to be the film’s current studio) to let it be seen already! While viewing copies of The Story of Temple Drake may have been scarce and possibly even unavailable, the film was never lost. The legend was sensational and the rumors were juicy, but for more than 35 years a copy existed in the MoMA nitrate vaults. Since 1974, when Twentieth Century-Fox donated the original 35mm nitrate picture and track negative to MoMA, the film archive world knew exactly where Temple Drake could be found. Additionally, The UCLA Film and Television Archive holds Fox’s studio print, as well as fine-grain master materials made in the 1960s.
One possible reason for the scarcity of viewing prints has to do with the rudimentary censorship editing that occurred from town to town, in keeping with the PCA requirements. Snip a few frames out in Kansas City and some more in Mobile, not to mention the ones removed in Philadelphia, and you have a very compromised 35mm print with splices, handling marks, and other imperfections throughout, easily subject to breaking down and being tossed away. (In 1933 the awareness of film preservation was minimal to totally nonexistent. The MoMA Film Library was not founded until 1935.) Also, the reviews were ambivalent, with New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall writing on May 6, 1933, “There are loopholes in the story as it comes to the screen, but the adroitly sustained suspense atones for such shortcomings.” And let’s not dwell on the fact that lead actress Miriam Hopkins, at a mature 31 years old, was playing a dewy girl of 19. Wink, wink.
Dr. McHaney concluded his introductory remarks by stating, “The film was further sensationalized by being banned in many cities, so that Paramount pulled it from circulation and never reissued it in any form, as far as I know, though a student once gave me a mysterious source to which one could send money and receive some kind of VHS copy. I never gave it a try.” In 1961 Twentieth Century-Fox released Sanctuary, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Lee Remick as Temple Drake. This modern adaption seemed more faithful to the book and less reliant on the sordid sensationalism of the 1933 production. Nevertheless, the film was not a tremendous success, and may have ultimately suffered from the lingering bias towards the earlier version.
Turner Classic Movies, who generously assisted in partially funding the film preservation of The Story of Temple Drake, screened this long-unseen potboiler at their 2010 film festival in Los Angeles.