"Vile! The most lurid and horrible details of the book have been put into the picture. It is filthy and nauseating in its intent, horrible in its characterisations" - Harrison's Reports (May 1933)
"A sordid tale...dubious fodder for Hollywood in the first place. No amount of seasoning to camouflage the basic rancidness of the theme can square it" - Variety (May 1933)
These are but two of the flood of criticism that greeted this pre-code version of William Faulkner's notorious 1931 novel "Sanctuary". Even the New York Times who tried to give a more objective review of the film labelled it as "grim and sordid", despite complimenting the production on its intelligence. Needless to say I was dead keen to see it, since it has never been released on video or DVD and has never been shown on television -- such is its notoriety. It took a 'Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies before the Censor' at the British Film Institute to provide the opportunity.
Now that I have managed to cross the title off my little list, I must confess that like so many film rarities, it falls into the category of 'happy to have seen it, but why all the fuss?' Granted we have moved on as to what we regard as suitable subject matter for films and are far less readily offended by what is depicted on the screen nowadays. However, casting one's imagination back to the mind of the 30's moviegoer, I fail to see just what was so very shocking at the time. If one compares this film with the actual details of Faulkner's novel, it is something of a Sunday School parable and very little of the book's salacious content is actually shown on the screen.
Miriam Hopkins plays the title character, a flighty Southern belle, a bit wild in her ways -- drinking and cock-teasing, but no more immoral than most of her peers, not ready to commit to her faithful boyfriend, lawyer William Gargan. Spoiled by her grandfather, Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing), she finds herself one rainy night stranded with a different drunken beau at the remote farm of a bunch of bootleggers. There she is stripped of her wet clothes by the tawdry housekeeper (Florence Eldridge -- later the elegant Mrs Frederic March), leered at by the male assembly, and given purportedly safe refuge in the barn. It is here that she is raped by big baddie Jack La Rue, who also shoots the feeble-minded chap who has been 'protecting' her. It is all implied and the viewer sees absolutely nothing distasteful -- it is left to one's imagination.
It's rather tasteful in its way when one considers that the La Rue character in the book is actually impotent, normally getting his kicks by watching, and in fact assaulted Miss Drake with a corncob. Now that is distasteful! Anyhow with her reputation in tatters, Hopkins can not risk going home and takes refuge in the local bawdy house (as one would - NOT). Gargan finds her, but she rebuffs him by actually kissing the sleazy La Rue. However when the latter knocks her about and refuses to let her leave, she shoots the scoundrel. The whole sordid saga finally comes out in court, but despite the disgrace, Hopkins is not tried for murder and goes on to be reconciled with grandpapa. Perhaps that is what really offended the moral sensibilities of the Hays Office.
The fact remains that Faulkner's book, branded as "probably the most sickening novel ever written in this country", was a bestseller, not just for its content, but because of the author's lofty literary reputation. One can understand the studios wanting to cash in on its popularity, but the film they created has been so cleaned up that it really doesn't warrant its own reputation for sordidness. The fact that it is not actually particularly good, well-acted, or well-made are more cogent reasons why it is not really worth seeking out.