NOTE: I am going to be using a star system for these films, something I am not usually fond of, but feel is appropriate for the purposes of this post. The star system I will be using will be similar to the Michelin Restaurant Guide. Most films made would receive no stars in my book, but then again, I do not often see films that I would not recommend to folks. "*" is a Recommended Film. "**" is a Highly Recommended Film. And, "***" is considered a Classic or a Masterpiece. There are no halfsies, either.
Murnau Connections: Struss and Rosher
Completely unwittingly did I decide to pair these two pre-code films together, both from 1933, The Story of Temple Drake and Bed of Roses, for this post, before realizing that each film was shot by one of the cinematographers that worked on FW Murnau's masterpiece, Sunrise.
Karl Struss shot Temple Drake and Charles Rosher shot Bed of Roses. Struss does a much better job with his film than Rosher did with his, though Rosher does have one moment during Bed of Roses that is a dead ringer for a sequence in Sunrise, which plays likes a vibrant joyous hallucination.
Bed of Roses is the first Constance Bennett film, I think, I have ever seen. Ms Bennett was the featured star on TCM a couple of months back, and I have been dutifully dvr'ing some of her films to check her out. I watched Bed of Roses first because of the subject matter -- a couple of prostitutes decide to go "straight" by becoming "legitimate" gold diggers instead -- and the fact that it is a pre-code picture.
The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, gets off to a bit of a rocky start, but really hits its stride by the time Bennett "bumps" -- she has jumped overboard, trying to escape a man she has rolled for sixty dollars -- in to Joel McCrae, who fishes her out of the river onto his cotton barge.
Ms Bennett is certainly a delectable treat, though not much of an actress. She is very sexy in her scenes with McCrae, and she seems inclined to play every scene with him, leaning back, practically supine despite standing up. And, McCrae and her do have a steamy kiss sequence that heats up the house.
But, watching her onscreen, one gets the feeling that she was quite aware of her limitations, and had no desire to improve her talents. She seems quite content, and bored, with being a sexpot.
The story goes like this: Bennett and her buddy, Minny, played by Pert Kelton, are released from prison in Louisiana, with just enough money to get on a steamboat that will take them about half the way to New Orleans, where they would like to start over. Kelton has to turn a trick, her last, with a grocery truck driver to get them to the steamer.
Upon the steamer, they decide to roll a couple of guys, so as to make it to NOLA. Bennett is able to procure sixty bucks from a soused Mr Oglethorpe, but not before Bennett has noticed another very attractive wealthy man on the boat, a publisher, Stephen Paige. Mr Oglethorpe does not have a complete blackout, however, and reports the stolen money to the purser.
Bennett jumps overboard and is saved by McCrae, but loses the sixty dollars in to the Mississippi River. The cash was in her stocking, of course. Is not that where all women carry their money?
McCrae gives her some dry clothes, and a catfish dinner, and promises to take her to the Big Easy. Bennett robs McCrae, and quits the barge before McCrae wakes up the next morning. Although a little turned on by the hunky bargeman, she has bigger fish to fry.
She finds Stephen Paige in the phone book, and poses as a newspaper reporter, wanting to do a syndicated feature for her chain on successful businessmen, such as Mr Paige. She asks his feelings on prohibition, and fakes a heart condition, pleading for a small drink. This is one of the finest moments in the film, thanks to La Cava, Rosher, and Bennett. The crystal decanter of bourbon glitters seductively on the desk as her prepares her drink. Then we get a close-up of Bennett, asking Paige if he would like a drink. He says no, and then Bennett takes three tiny tiny sips of her spirit, wetting her lips, making them shine.
She rolls Paige, naturally. Gets him rip roaring drunk, and stages the scene at his apartment while he sleeps it off, leaving her stockings and shoes, and dress on the floor, right next to the empty champagne bottle.
He has a reputation to uphold, so Paige, a bachelor, buys her a lavish apartment, and makes her his "kept" secret woman. But, Bennett, even as a gold digger, has a code. Now, that she has made enough money to support herself, she returns to McCrae's barge, to pay back the "investment loan" she stole from him.
Of course, McCrae is in love with Bennett, and asks her on a date. She very reluctantly agrees.
McCrae and Bennett begin seeing each other on the sly, while Bennett maintains her posh apartment. When Minny returns to our story, she finds Bennett lounging at home, bored. Minny has landed a Sugar Daddy, herself, the man she and Bennett rolled on the steamboat. Minny is impressed with Bennett's new lifestyle, but is suspicious. So is Paige. Both Minny and Paige are convinced Bennett has a secret lover stashed away somewhere. Bennett confesses her love to McCrae to Minny, and eventually Minny, under pressure, tells Paige about McCrae, but not where he lives.
Paige is stung, and mad, of course, and threatens to blow the whole relationship up in an argument with Bennett. Bennett reminds him of his reputation which he would like to uphold, and that makes for a very tenuous truce between them.
Then, Bennett leaves. She leaves Paige and McCrae, gets a job, and an apartment on her own, neither man knowing where she is.
Paige finds her, and tells her that he would like to marry her, and show the whole world how much she means to him. Though Paige is heartbroken when she demurs, he now has enough respect for her, that he lets her return to her life, able to fly on her own. He tells McCrae, though, where she is. McCrae finds her, asks her to marry him. She says, Yes, and that is the end of our story.
LaCava does a fantastic job with the story, and the film, and it is a saucy, pert little Woman's Picture Melodrama. I was not expecting much. In fact, I was probably going to consider myself lucky if I got a few good pre-code sexy lingerie moments in this film. There really is not much of that, but Bed Of Roses (**) shines, nonetheless.
The Story of Temple Drake (**), directed by Stephen Roberts, was based loosely on Faulkner's novel, Sanctuary. A novel so candid, so seamy, so "dirty", that upon Sanctuary's publication, the Hays Code told the studios to forget ever making a picture of it.
Well, we know what the studios thought of the Hays Code in those days, the early 30s. And Paramount did their own "cleaned up" version anyway.
And, it is really quite good.
We are in the deep south again -- this is Faulkner, right? -- and Miriam Hopkins plays Temple Drake, a spoiled rotten Southern Belle Party Girl, with dozens of suitors, who she strings along shamelessly.
There is a riotous crazy party held at her massive estate, but she gets bored and tromps off with one of her suitors. The suitor is already suitably wasted, himself, but insists he needs more drink. And, he says he knows where to get the best booze in the area, a gang of dangerous bootleggers, deep in the woods.
They make it to the gang's hideout, but barely, having to walk a good distance, because lover boy has smashed the car in to a tree.
The first person the two encounter is the "slow" boy the bootleggers have standing guard. The boy is dazzled by Hopkins' shiny frock and elegant ladylike ways, basically falls in love with her, and becomes protective of her.
The leader of the gang, Trigger, played expertly by Jack La Rue, falls in "love" with Hopkins, too, but has no desire to protect her. Trigger wants to own and exploit Hopkins.
Trigger rapes Hopkins in a nearby barn. The slow boy witnesses this, and Trigger then murders the slow boy to shut him up.
Another, the best, and most respected, suitor of Hopkins, is a defense attorney -- played by William Gargan -- who is hired to defend the man Trigger framed for the slow boy's murder. The accused man's wife gets the accused to reluctantly point the finger at Trigger, and Gargan goes to find him.
Gargan finds Trigger in the big city, in a bordello, sitting right next to Hopkins, who he has "turned out". Trigger threatens Gargan, but not before Gargan pleads with Hopkins to come back home. She defiantly tells Gargan, No. She is happy where she is.
I am going to stop with the story line there. You really should see the film. I am not sure if it is available on dvd yet. I saw it on TCM.
And, as lurid, seedy, and adult as the film version was for 1933, apparently, through my research, the screenwriters really cleaned it up from the novel (which I have not read.)
In fact, the film was so daring and provocative that Paramount withdrew it not long after its original release. And, it is believed, that The Story of Temple Drake, was finally the pre-code film straw that broke the camel's back, got the Catholic Legion of Decency in a serious tizzy, and helped end the pre-code days forever.
But the real stand-out amazing thing to me about this very fine picture is the way Roberts, Struss, and La Rue created and executed the performance of Trigger, and the way the rape scene was performed.
Every single time we see La Rue on the screen it is in extreme close-up with a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Every single time. Except for two. The rape scene is shown with a close up of La Rue as normal. A close up of Hopkins, demonstrably frightened. Then a close up of La Rue, the same but out of focus. A close up of Hopkins, also out of focus. Another close up, in focus, of La Rue, as he lifts his hand to take the cigarette out of his mouth. Then all goes black.
This is absolutely chilling to watch even now. The out of focus close ups completely unnerve the viewer, near to making you feel sick. I am getting creeped out now just thinking about it.
The Story of Temple Drake is a rough little ride, a pre-code heavy hitter with a serious melodramatic punch. Highly highly recommended.