“Black & white movies are so boring and fake,” a co-worker once said to me, with an accompanying look of disgust usually afforded to those who belch audibly in public places.
In my younger days, I might have taken the bait and tried to plead my case. But now that I’m older (and lazier), I usually don’t bother anymore. It never really worked, anyway, just like posting about politics on Facebook has never turned my Republican family members into Democrats. Talk is cheap, and prejudices are deeply ingrained – none more so than the “newer is better” bias. So now, when someone casts aspersions, I simply suggest they watch a film from the Pre-Code Era. And William Wellman’s SAFE IN HELL is one I suggest most enthusiastically.
Like many movies made after the on-set of the Great Depression in 1929 and before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, SAFE IN HELL is lurid, realistic and infused with an almost feral sexuality. Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) is a New Orleans hooker who inadvertently kills her prospective John, sets fire to his apartment house, and flees for her life. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) finds her holed up in her flat, and Gilda spills the beans: not only has she been turning tricks, but the man she killed was her rapist.
Carl demonstrates his sensitivity by belting Gilda across the mouth at these revelations, but then (because he’s religious, and religious people are forgiving) he has a change of heart. With the cops about to beat down the door, he helps Gilda pack a bag and escape through a window. Carl stows his fugitive fiancée away on his outbound ship, which just happens to be headed for Tortuga – the one Caribbean island from which an American cannot be extradited. Soon, he’s checking her into the only hotel on the island: a squalid, bug-infested hovel with no running water, but a steady stream of criminals-on-the-lam in residence.
“You sure this ain’t the YMCA?” Gilda asks, as a rogue’s gallery of miscreants eyes her up.
Does her loving boyfriend fear for her safety amongst these murderers, and perhaps try to figure out other arrangements? Of course he doesn’t. What he does do, however, is drag her to the nearest church so she can marry him, thus insuring the maintenance of her virtue after he ships out.
“There will never be anyone else but you. I swear it!” Gilda promises.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, the five horny male guests begin fighting over which one gets first crack at the new meat.
“Be patient, gentlemen,” one of them admonishes the others. “She’s the only white woman on the island.”
Soon, Gilda is locked in her barren hotel room, with a bad case of cabin fever. Solitaire isn’t cutting it, so she slips on her frilliest frock and graces the boys with her presence at one their boozy bacchanals. She’s greeted like royalty, and toasted with fine champagne (or, as fine as it gets at a cheap hotel).
“Wine is what you need,” says one of her male admirers.
“Wine is only part of it,” Gilda replies, with a winking candor soon to be verboten in American movies.
The spirts flow, and soon Gilda and her male harem are sloshed and slurring. Like boys do, the hotel guests begin trying to impress the new girl by bragging about their exploits on the wrong side of the law. First up is the Cockney-accented Crunch (Ivan F. Simpson), so nicknamed for his propensity to chomp loudly on nuts and spit out the worms.
Next up is Egan (John Wray), who spends most of the film in a rumpled jacket and tie (despite the tropical temps) with a three-day beard on his grizzled gangster puss.
Egan is interrupted by General Manual Maria Jesus Gomez (Victor Varconi), a pencil-mustached, monocle-wearing, Latin American revolutionary in a military uniform.
Gilda is unimpressed, but that doesn’t discourage Mr. Jones (Charles Middleton) from taking his turn.
“I’m a lawyer; crooked as they make ‘em,” he says, squinty-eyed and hunched over a champagne glass. “I put a police commissioner on the spot, and they took him ‘for a ride.’ The rest of these fellas are all small fry compared to me.”
Finally, Gilda asks Larson (Gustav van Seyffertitz ) the senior member of the gang, about his claim to fame, affectionately calling him “dear old Grampa.”
“I burned my ship; unfortunately the passengers and the crew were either drowned or roasted to death,” he says. “I and the cook, we managed to save ourselves. Unfortunately, he met with a little accident afterwards. I collected the insurance for my boat –$80,000 – and I hope to live happily ever after.”
As it turns out, Captain Larson is not the only insurance cheat drawn to the hotel. The next morning, the man Gilda supposedly murdered (Ralf Harolde) shows up alive, informing her that he faked his death and split town with the policy money. When he begins to get aggressive with his affections, Gilda kills him again, this time using a gun provided to her by the island’s creepy executioner, Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace)
Jones the lawyer represents her at trial and, when it appears that she will be exonerated on a self-defense charge, Bruno reminds her that possession of a firearm is illegal on the island – even if it came from him. There’s only one way she can avoid a lengthy prison sentence, and it doesn’t involve playing solitaire alone in her room. Rather than break her pledge to her husband, Gilda confesses to the murder and is sentenced to hang. But before Bruno can do his duty, Carl returns to the island. I won’t tell you what happens next, but let’s just say that SAFE IN HELL comes to the sort of grim conclusion typical of many Pre-Code potboilers.
SAFE IN HELL was produced by First National Pictures, a Warner Bros. subsidiary that can often be counted on to go even darker than the already-gritty parent company during this era. As Gilda, British actress (and Ziegfeld Follies veteran) Dorothy Mackaill is a force to be reckoned with: a world weary, hard-drinking, chain-smoking heroine who’s done things her Bible-thumping boyfriend can’t even fathom. As Carl, Donald Cook is typical of Pre-Code leading men: handsome, bland, and never getting in the way of the true star – the leading lady. Film historians have often pointed to Pre-Code films as a precursor of feminism, an all-too-brief period in which the true challenges of women in America were accurately depicted. Women may not always be presented as positive role models in Pre-Code movies, but the spotlight is always on them.
Director William Wellman keeps the action fast-paced and claustrophobic, often cluttering close-up shots with foreground elements. In movie lingo, these are often referred to as “dirty close-ups” (“clean” being a frame with the actor’s face only, nothing else), and the busy frames feel apropos to the sloppy, on-screen business.
Special attention should also be given to Wellman’s casting of two African American performers in key roles. Charismatic actress, singer and dancer Nina Mae McKinney (later to be known in Europe as “the black Garbo”) plays Leonie, the singing proprietress of the unnamed Haitian hotel. McKinney belts out a delightfully growly rendition of When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, written by her co-star Clarence Muse, who plays Newcastle the porter.
Leonie and Newcastle are arguably the only sympathetic characters in the film, and both characters are portrayed non-stereotypically. Muse, a classically trained actor with a law degree, speaks his lines in a distinguished, English-accented baritone — a far cry from the stereotypical burlesques many black actors in American film were forced to endure in the 1930s.
Largely unavailable for nearly 80 years, SAFE IN HELL has finally been released on DVD by Warner Archive. The transfer on the disc is not restored or remastered, and somewhat beaten up, with visible deterioration and image loss along the left side of the frame. This vertical line appears only sporadically, and may be limited to sequences that were excised from post-Code re-release prints and re-inserted at a later time, from a secondary source.
Surely, SAFE IN HELL deserves a complete and thorough cleanup by restoration professionals, but until then, I’ll take it any way I can get it. Once you own a DVD, it’s far easier to lend it to your blasphemous friends and co-workers. And when it comes to Pre-Code films, seeing is believing.
SAFE IN HELL
Format: Made To Order (M.O.D.) DVD
Quantity: 1 disc
Special Features: original trailer
SAFE IN HELL (1931)
Release Date: December 12, 1931 Duration: 73 minutes
Director: William Wellman Producer: uncredited
Writer: Houston Branch (play); Joseph Jackson, Maude Fulton (adaptation)
Studio: First National Pictures
Cast: Dorothy Mackaill (Gilda Carlson), Donald Cook (Carl Bergen), Cecil Cunningham (Angie, the madame), Ralf Harolde (Piet Van Saal), Nina Mae McKinney (Leonie, the singing hotel manager), Clarence Muse (Newcastle, the porter), Morgan Wallace (Mr. Bruno, the hangman), Ivan F. Simpson (Crunch), Victor Varconi (General Manual Maria Jesus Gomez), Gustav van Seyffertitz (Larson), Charles Middleton (Jones), John Wray (Egan), Noble Johnson (Bobo, a policeman)