Most classic movie fans are well aware of the impressive and versatile film legacy of William A. Wellman, who directed Wings (1927), the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar in the Academy’s history, as well as bona fide classics like the 1937 version of A Star is Born and the gritty WW2 drama, Battleground (1949). It has only been in recent years, however, that Wellman fans have become acquainted with the groundbreaking Pre-Code dramas he helmed in the early thirties thanks to DVD releases from the Warner Archive Collection. Outside of occasional airings on Turner Classic movies, most of Wellman’s racy, vibrant work in the Pre-Code era had been unseen for years. But suddenly the floodgates were open and film buffs were finally able to enjoy the eyebrow-raising excesses of Night Nurse (1931), Love is a Racket (1932), Frisco Jenny (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933), to name just a few. The diamond in the rough for my money though is Safe in Hell (1931), featuring a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created.
Even by today’s standards, Safe in Hell is a relentlessly grim and sordid tale of a woman, Gilda Carlson (MacKaill), whose descent into utter despair can only be resolved by her death. Yet, the film fascinates because of the way Gilda plays the rotten deck of cards she’s dealt and for Wellman’s twisted, bawdy sense of humor and his attention to the disgusting detail.
A lot happens in the film’s brief 65-minute running starting with a quick character sketch of Gilda whose backstory is revealed in the first twelve minutes of the movie. Once a respectable woman working as a secretary in New Orleans, she is fired from her job when her boss, Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), forces himself on her and they are discovered by his wife. Even after this Van Saal’s wife makes sure Gilda is fired from every job she takes until she has no other options to support herself except prostitution. Arriving at a clandestine hotel room for a “date” with an anonymous customer, she finds herself alone again with Piet whom she immediately rejects: “You’re the one man I’m drawing the line at.” He persists, she throws a heavy object at his head that apparently kills him and flees the room as Piet’s cigarette sets off a fire, burning the hotel to the ground.
When Gilda learns what happened, she goes into hiding but is tracked down by her boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook), who has been away at sea for months and just returned bearing gifts… and a marriage proposal! As Gilda confesses her desperate current circumstances to Carl, the police arrive to arrest her. The couple flee to the docks and Carl smuggles Gilda aboard a tramp steamer bound for an undisclosed island in the Caribbean which has no extradition laws. No U.S. law officials will be able to deport her for a trial and Carl will be able to return for her after his next assignment at sea.
Once Gilda reaches the island – we see a brief establishing shot of a barren, uninviting chunk of rocky terrain surrounded by water – Safe in Hell becomes a horror film, especially for female viewers. The movie is essentially a claustrophobic visualization of the male id run amok in a no-man’s land, a place outside society with no law enforcement and plenty of expatriate criminals. There are also no other women around with the exception of the hotel proprietress Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney), who left behind a shady past in New Orleans.
This unnamed Caribbean island proves to be a dry, dusty hellhole where the sun beats down mercilessly and the heat is oppressive and constant. Even worse are the ever-present bugs and insects that make the living conditions less than sanitary. Even the drinking water is infested with something the locals call “wrigglers,” worms that eat mosquito eggs and prevent the spread of Scarlet Fever. You can either swallow them in the water or strain them out first – your choice.
When Gilda first enters her hotel and future residence, she notices that all of the other boarders in the lobby are men (“You’re sure this ain’t the YMCA?” she says to Carl) and what a motley crew of losers they are! When they all turn to stare at her, their depraved faces glowing with lust (several try to look up her dress as she climbs the stairs), Gilda realizes what she’s in for and so does Carl who insists they get married before he ships out. The hotel porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse) informs them that the only minister resides on the other side of the island, adding that they might want to take a carriage because, “The centipedes are rather thick on the hillside this time of year.”
Once they reach the island church, they discover that the minister died several months earlier so they perform their own vows in the empty chapel – one of the few moments of tenderness in the entire film. Then Carl has to return to his ship and Gilda settles into her room, determined to remain incognito and unavailable to anyone.
On Gilda’s first morning there, all of the men eagerly turn their chairs away from the breakfast table to face the master staircase, anticipating her descend for breakfast. It’s a monumentally creepy moment you’ll never forget as the camera slowly pans across their leering faces. Wellman establishes each of these wretched characters quickly through odd physical tics, earthy dialogue, facial closeups and their crude behavior. One of them is so annoying with his constant spitting from eating nuts that he’s asked, “Why don’t you swallow them shells and all?” to which he responds, “These ain’t shells I’m spitting out. Them’s worms!”
Among this delightful group of deadbeats are a crooked lawyer (Charles Middleton), a dubious Mexican general (Victor Varconi), a captain who destroyed his ship for the insurance money, killing his passengers in the process and, most dangerous of all, Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the island executioner.
When Gilda declines to join the men, taking breakfast in her room, they begin a steady assault on her virtue with each boarder taking his turn at playing the ardent suitor. The first one steals a stray hen from the room (as a rival calls out “Senor, may I ask you what are your intentions toward the chicken?”) and presents it to Gilda as a gift which she refuses. It’s actually a generous present because it would greatly aid in keeping the insect population under control in her room. The second suitor, General Gomez, offers her his room under the condition that “they share it occasionally,” his voice going high-pitched and giggly on the last word. Gilda counters, “I don’t want you to be LONESOME – with her voice imitating Gomez’s comical enunciation – “so here’s a few little wrigglers to keep you company” and dumps a bucket of water on his head.
And so it goes until Gilda, going out of her mind with boredom and loneliness while waiting for Carl’s return finally breaks down. She joins the men in an orgiastic feast accompanied by lots of champagne and cigarettes. Although she returns to her monastic existence after the long night of drinking and sharing sordid backstories with the boarders, she has unintentionally ignited Bruno’s passion for her but he too is rejected: “Say big boy, I’ll tell you something you don’t know….I killed a man in New Orleans and I’m just as tough and hard as any of ‘em and the sooner you find it out the better. Now scram commadore!”
Bruno, who has been intercepting and keeping the letters and money Carl has been sending Gilda, doesn’t take rejection easily and plots to break Gilda’s spirit until she surrenders to him. Although you can probably predict the outcome of Safe in Hell despite a plot twist in the final twenty minutes, the film’s uncompromising finale could also be considered a happy one in the sense that the heroine finally discovers some kind of solace and self-respect in her darkest hour. But probably the most unexpected aspect of Safe in Hell is how Wellman transforms the motley crew of male failures into sympathetic, almost likeable human beings, who come to admire Gilda and rally to her defense at her lowest point.
Truly one of the strongest and most disturbing of all the Pre-Code films, Safe in Hell is especially noteworthy for Dorothy MacKaill’s moving performance which convincingly blends sexiness, vulnerability and a hard-as-nails toughness. A former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, MacKaill had a delicate beauty that contrasted strikingly with the streetwise heroine of Safe in Hell. It’s a shame she wasn’t given better opportunities during the sound era after enjoying great success as a silent star in such films as The Man Who Came Back (1924), Chickie (1925) and Joanna (1925). However, one of her better talkie-era features is Love Affair (1932) opposite a very young Humphrey Bogart in his sixth movie role.
After a final film appearance in Bulldog Drummond at Bay in 1937, MacKaill retired to Hawaii though she did pop up in a few TV shows, her last one an appearance in the series Hawaii Five-O, filmed on the island where she lived. She died in 1990.
A few final notes about Safe in Hell: Barbara Stanwyck was considered for the lead in the film and she would have been an equally formidable heroine. Michael Curtiz was reputedly assigned to direct the film before Wellman took over production. In one scene Nina Mae McKinney performs “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” which would become a signature tune for Louis Armstrong. It is also unusual to see the two black actors, McKinney and Clarence Muse, depicted as the only decent and truly likeable characters in the film despite the usual Hollywood stereotypes at this time.
Safe in Hell was released on DVD by The Warner Archive Collection in November 2011 in a no-frills edition with no extra features. The film’s lurid tone and subject matter will probably ensure that it is never remastered on Blu-Ray.
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