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Safe in Hell

by Glenn Erickson Jun 17, 2023

William Wellman’s weirdly morbid thriller from the pre-Code years has been newly remastered, after the discovery of a quality print. The legendary Dorothy Mackaill’s luck goes from bad to worse as she finds herself trapped in a Caribbean hell-hole, to be victimized by lecherous outcasts and corrupt officials. The sordid story takes prostitution, perversion and squalid immorality as the normal state of affairs: be prepared for a wild ride that seems impossible subject matter for a film of 1931.


Safe in Hell
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1931 / B&W / 1:20 Movietone / 73 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date April 25, 2023 / 21.99
Starring: Dorothy Mackaill, Donald Cook, Ralph Harolde, John Wray, Ivan F. Simpson, Victor Varconi, Morgan Wallace, Nina Mae McKinney, Charles Middleton, Clarence Muse, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Noble Johnson, Cecil Cunningham, Rondo Hatton, Chris-Pin Martin.
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Costumes: Earl Luick
Art Director: Jack Okey
Film Editor: Owen Marks
Conductor Vitaphone Orchestra: Leo F. Forbstein
Written by Joseph Jackson, Maude Fulton from the play by Houston Branch
Directed by
William A. Wellman

We’ve covered several pre-Code pictures lately. We know we can be uncritical with them. Obviously, nothing in a ‘shocking’ 1931 picture is as extreme as what’s on ordinary TV today. That’s not the point: we’re fascinated by the pre-Code era, when there was an unyielding cultural consensus about proper movie content. Knowing that is what makes these movies remarkable, and inspires our enthusiasm.

Some pre-Code ‘shockers’ lean toward the horror genre, just as do some noted films noir. The most morbid of Val Lewton’s thrillers is the 1943  The Seventh Victim, with its surprisingly nihilistic philosophy. Of several pre-Code pictures obsessed with tragic squalor, the most prominent is William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell. It’s difficult to believe it was green-lit by the First National front office. The aim must have been to re-ignite the career of actress Dorothy Mackaill, who delivers a bravura performance.

William Wellman’s  The Public Enemy is the most socially conscious of the classic gangster pix. His provocative pre-Code dramas include a film or two that all but call for a social revolution. Safe in Hell leans in a different direction for its sordid shocks.

 

Early-’30s writers were as interested in obsessive pessimism as anybody. The bleak message of Safe in Hell  parallels that of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour: “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no reason at all.” Lovers of that movie will want to run, not walk, to this show. Unlike Detour’s closet masochist Al Roberts, who seems to perversely enjoy his fall from grace, the victim here is an ‘innocent sinner.’ She has no fatal flaw — she’s simply a woman in a world run by corrupt, predatory men.

The film’s premise also reminds us of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, a political thriller about a group of men trapped in a South American hell-hole. Then there’s Jim Thompson’s original novel The Getaway, which has an epilogue with an even more extreme ‘no exit’ situation South of the border.  *  Looking much farther back, Safe in Hell may remind other readers of the novel Manon Lescaut: make too many mistakes, and an ‘escape’ can be an escape to obliteration.

They don’t make ’em like this any more. Come to think of it, they didn’t make ’em like this back then, either.’

Betrayed by a former lover and all but forced into a life of prostitution in New Orleans, Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) has been waiting for her sailor boyfriend Carl Bergen (Donald Cook). Taking a call to a hotel, she discovers that her John for the night is Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man who abandoned her a year before. When Piet ignores her protests, Gilda floors him with a bottle and leaves. In the morning she learns that a fire broke out and burned the building to the ground, with Piet in it. That’s when Carl shows up, now promoted to an officer. To help Gilda flee from the police he smuggles her onto his freighter. Their first port is Tortuga, a tiny Caribbean island that doesn’t honor extradition requests.

 

Carl’s ship must continue on its rounds, so he has no choice but to leave Gilda in the island’s one hotel. As the ‘only white woman on the island,’ she must stick to her room to avoid constant harassment from the hotel’s other residents, all of whom are criminals avoiding arrest warrants.  She must also dodge the lewd overtures of the island’s jailer-executioner Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), a swarthy thug who demoralizes Gilda by intercepting and withholding Carl’s letters. Then the hotel residents to learn of Gilda’s past, and events lead to another charge of murder. Lawyer Jones (Charles Middleton) develops a defense for the trial, but the loathsome Mr. Bruno has figured a way to force Gilda into his bed, even if she’s found innocent.

Fans of pre-Codes will watch the unrelentingly negative Safe in Hell in a constant state of surprise. No attempt is made to hide its salacious content. When we meet Gilda she’s already established as a call girl, no excuses. Her rotten ex-boyfriend thinks he can have her for the price of a phone call. Her status all but guarantees that the New Orleans justice system will send her to Death Row for murder and arson.

 

The movie avoids mentioning the mystery island by name — until we see a mailing label with the word ‘Tortuga.’ Everything about the hotel is unpleasant, unsanitary. Gilda is advised to strain the ‘wrigglers’ from her drinking water: she’s told that the creatures are tolerated because they eat mosquito larvae. Such details run counter to the relative glamour of tropical ‘hell holes’ depicted in movies like MGM’s Strange Cargo, where Joan Crawford’s makeup is never out of place. Dorothy Mackaill looks good under the circumstances, but her spirit is soon broken.

The creepy hotel guests include a sneering fugitive general (Victor Varconi), a captain who sunk his own ship (Gustav von Seyffertitz), the crooked lawyer (Charles Middleton of Flash Gordon) and a lecherous safecracker (Ivan Simpson). When Gilda arrives they become a leering chorus, drinking and bragging. They try to look up her dress when she climbs the stairs. Several offer Gilda crude courtesies, each with an implied indecent proposition.

The crudity starts with the way these louts slouch in their chairs, watching the stairs as if waiting for Gilda to come down and perform for them. When the safecracker catches a chicken in the lobby, another guest jokingly implies that he intends to have sex with it. The hen is then offered as a gift for Gilda, because ‘it will eat the biting centipedes in her room.’

Carl’s last name is ‘Bergen’ but he’s also identified at least once as Carl Erickson. He’s a savior to Gilda in her hour of need, and tells her to put her faith in God. But their most hopeful scene still carries an aura of doom. Unable to locate a preacher, Gilda and Carl ‘marry themselves’ in an empty church. The self-performed ceremony is similar to the ”between us and God’ marriage in Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms, an important picture of the pre-Code era. Gilda is determined to live up to her vow, to redeem herself for Carl.

Gilda is never safe from sexual assault, not even in her locked hotel room. Mr. Bruno cannot arrest the hotel guests for their foreign crimes, but the local laws are harsh and his work camps are like a death sentence. Any serious crime could mean a quick trip to the gallows. As Gilda discovers, Mr. Bruno is not above framing people to get what he wants.

The rustic hotel has a porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse) and a cook-bartender Leonie (saucy Nina Mae McKinney of King Vidor’s classic Hallelujah). They are the only islanders that treat Gilda with any degree of decency. Just the same, Leonie takes one look at Gilda and decides that she’ll become somebody’s bed-mate in short order. 

William Wellman was given considerable autonomy on his First National pictures — Safe in Hell begins with almost no main titles, and its credits do not list a producer. We’re told that the shooting script gave the black hotel-keepers Newcastle and Leonie stereotyped ‘sho-nuff’ dialogue to read. Director Wellman instead asked his black actors to speak normally. Impressed by Ms. McKinney — a Broadway actress sometimes called ‘The Black Garbo’ — Wellman reportedly enlarged her part. She sings a sultry jazz song while setting the table. Leonie’s rendition of ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’ is one of the movie’s highlights.

Although MGM signed Nina Mae McKinney to a long-term contract, her acting career didn’t take hold. Hollywood movies offered few if any roles for black talent, and racist taboos precluded her playing romantically opposite white actors. She mostly appeared in musical short subjects.

Even for the pre-Code era, Safe in Hell is especially frank about the reality faced by women ‘on the edge of respectability.’ Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong’s in Shanghai Express defy a Chinese warlord entirely on their own — in what remains an idealized romantic fantasy. A later Code-approved story would not allow Gilda Carlson to ‘lose her virtue,’ and a happy ending would likely come via the intervention of a male Prince Charming figure. Gilda’s fate is more like that of a million real-life women with human weaknesses. The slimy Piet Van Saal thinks he owns her, and she can’t rely on Carl to save her. She’s caught in one awful male-concocted trap after another. Safe in Hell proposes that society victimizes women, plain and simple — and without a single feminist lecture.

 

Darker than Dark, Bleaker than Bleak.

The sordid sexual pressure takes its toll, until Gilda finally breaks down and joins the other hotel guests in a drunken party. Our only point of comparison is the wedding dinner in Tod Browning’s Freaks, where every expression of cheerful abandon is also frightening. The horror of Safe in Hell is in Gilda’s ultimate surrender to hopelessness.

Dorothy Mackaill enjoyed a brief popularity as a silent star. She could have made a fine Sadie Thompson for Lewis Milestone’s Rain, the part taken by Joan Crawford. But her film career soon faded. That’s a shame because Ms. Mackaill is excellent as a tough woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her expression while sizing up the hotel’s clientele feels ‘R’ rated in itself.

Donald Cook is appropriately virtuous as Carl, the nice guy who just can’t be there when he’s needed. Noble Johnson of King Kong fame plays one of Mr. Bruno’s quietly corrupt policemen. Chris-Pin Martin is easily spotted among the jurors at Gilda’s trial; I’m not so sure about Rondo Hatton but others insist he is there. When Carl hides Gilda in a packing crate in the ship’s hold, Wellman indulges his favorite eccentric directorial signature: seen through a slot between boards, their lips move but their eyes are hidden. Near the end, we’re given another expressionistic touch — the hangman Mr. Bruno looks at Gilda, and a masking effect isolates her vulnerable throat.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Safe in Hell is a revelation after seeing the poor condition of the earlier DVD release, from back in 2011. The only known copy of the movie was in ragged, somewhat indistinct 16mm, until Warner Bros. came across a 35mm nitrate print in near perfect condition. How did such an obscure show get the nod for this nice disc release?  My biased guess is that the presence of the African-American star Nina Mae McKinney may have helped.

The quality improvement is like night & day — the show no longer looks like a tattered remnant. The new encoding is remarkably grain-free, and the improved contrast range makes Dorothy Mackaill’s costumes pop and her eyes are liquid and bright. The set for the primitive hotel looks more impressive as well. The restorers also pulled the full range of tones from that old Vitaphone soundtrack.

The original trailer is one of those old music + photos + text constructions. It identifies Mackaill as ‘that girl with the naughty look in her eye.’ Also present are a trio of one-reeler short subjects. Crimes Square is a dramatic workout with Mary Doran and a very young Pat O’Brien. It plays almost like an audition for the actor, who had already appeared in 3 shorts and two features. I would bet that it was filmed earlier, and brought out only when O’Brien’s The Front Page became a big success.

George Jessel and his Russian Art Choir is novelty nonsense with Jessel doing some stand-up comedy. The choir is serious but eventually used for comic effect, not particularly respectful of its national origin. The Looney Tunes cartoon Dumb Patrol is a spirited one-reeler with the amiable black character Bosko as a pilot in an anthropomorphized airplane. Shot down, he romances a black French girl with music and ‘improvises’ another plane by jamming items onto a dachshund. It’s both inventive and demented.

The revival of Safe in Hell in such prime condition gives us hope that other arcane, exotic lost pictures might surface . If the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons can’t be located, perhaps the elusive, presumed lost Convention City will miraculously turn up . . . although the archivists seem to have fully documented its obliteration.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Safe in Hell
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
original trailer
Short subjects:
Crimes Square with Pat O’Brien
George Jessel and his Russian Art Choir
Cartoon Dumb Patrol.
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 14, 2023
(6944hell)

*  The fate of the fugitive outlaw couple in Jim Thompson’s The Getaway — not depicted in movie versions — reads like a ne plus ultra of the ‘no extradition’ island in Safe in Hell. Doc McCoy and Carol are welcomed to the Mexican ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sanctuary of El Rey, only to discover that there is no exit, and that the high cost of living there will soon consume their reserves of stolen loot. Other fugitives betray each other left and right, to avoid the horrible fate meted out to ‘guests’ that can no longer pay.

CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.