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I saw this for the first time a few years ago in a festival of pre-Code films, and it was a revelation--Dorothy Mackaill was new to me and she is excellent as the "loose woman" who finds a very strange salvation on a Caribbean island that is a stand-in for hell, if not in fact the real thing. The atmosphere is palpable--you can almost feel the heat and smell the sweat. This movie is uncanny in being both intensely grim and very funny. Sort of like a painting by the German Expressionist George Grosz come to life. Wonderful camera set-ups, such as the front-on shot of the row of seated disreputable lechers, legs spread and ogling Dorothy as she climbs the rickety stairs to her hotel room. Also unusual for a film of that time is the respectful treatment of Black characters--there is a very nice camaraderie between Dorothy and the woman who works at the hotel.
I caught this film on TCM in Dec. of 2007. It was being shown as part of their William Wellman festival. I had not heard of it before, and didn't recognize any of the cast names. The story is a bout a woman accused of a murder in New Orleans, who is helped by her sailor boyfriend to an island in the Caribbean. This is a refuge for scoundrels and criminals. Romantically, the sailor marries her in a very private ceremony, and then he leaves her behind while he sails away for work. Clearly, the focus is on her, since he has very little screen time. The bulk of the film is the long time she has to wait for his return, fending of the lecherous advances of the motley criminals and a corrupt lawman. The ending was dark and surprisingly odd for any Hollywood film. And I was so surprised that I need to see it again, just to make sure I didn't imagine it. It is a somewhat slow film, but it is also intriguing in ways that only pre- code features can be. It seemed even modern in it's dark sensibilities. Also, the lead role, portrayed by Dorothy MacKaill, is a fascinating mix of spunky and trashy, showing more depth and complexity than one might expect from a standard H'wood feature. I'll be looking for her in other films. Definitely a noir predecessor. The black major-domo and the woman running the bar are terrific, too.
A case can be made that director William Wellman did his best work at Warner Bros-First National from 1931-1933. "Safe in Hell" is a prime example. There isn't much plot in this saga of a "bad" woman (Mackaill) redeemed by love, but the atmosphere of sin, desperation , and hope is efficiently evoked. The compositions are continually inventive, and the camera movements are as energizing as Wellman pulled off the same year in "The Public Enemy". He also coaxed fine work from the beautiful Mackaill; it's telling that this tough guy director seemed to work so well with actresses. In his Warner Bros. tenure, Wellman did great films with Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, and Ruth Chatterton, too. Look up his resume, and check out the films.
"Safe in Hell" proved to be a stunning movie in many respects, a major
precursor of film noir both thematically and stylistically. Wellman and
cinematographer Sid Hickox stage many of the scenes in chiaroscuro
darkness, and even the opening title in which the words "SAFE IN
HELL" appear as cutouts in a black field with fire billowing forth from
behind the letters is visually stunning and sets the mood for the
film instead of merely announcing what it's called. (The title and the
director's name in small print on the same card are the only
credits we see at the outset; the other credits are relegated to the
end, in the fashion that's now become standard but was highly unusual
in 1931.) The script requires the actors, Mackaill and Cook in
particular, to make some pretty abrupt hairpin turns in emotions and
motivations, but it's a testament to their skill (especially Mackaill's
Cook's is a pretty straightforward good-guy lead and his only
spectacular sequence is the early one in which his loathing suddenly
turns into desperate protectiveness and love when she's about to be
arrested) that all the emotional turns are quite credible and she's
equally believable as a bad girl and a good one. Like Charles Vidor's
"Sensation Hunters", made for Monogram two years later and the closest
film I could think of to the mood of this one, "Safe in Hell" manages
to convey the oppressiveness of the environment and the desperation
with which the heroine is faced in trying to maintain (what's left of)
her virtue in the face of the economic and sexual pressures on her.
It also features two remarkable characters, the Black proprietess of the hotel on Tortuga where most of the action takes place (Nina Mae McKinney, the femme fatale of "Hallelujah!" here cast as a positive character) and her assistant, Newcastle (Clarence Muse). The screenwriters wrote the lines for McKinney and Muse in phony dialect but they actually delivered them in normal English. (Score one for William Wellman for allowing them to get away with that!) McKinney also gets to warble the song "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," ostensibly to a recording no doubt the song got in the film because her Black co-star Muse co-wrote it with Leon and Otis René! Originally released with an advisory that the film was "Not for Children" (anticipating the Hollywood rating system that would ultimately displace the Production Code), "Safe in Hell" is a great movie, a forgotten gem that deserves to be better known than it is and an example of the Hollywood studio system working on all cylinders and producing something that acknowledged the clichés and yet also defied them quite movingly. Why Warner Home Video didn't include this on the boxed set of Wellman's pre-Code films for Warners when it's a better movie than any of the ones they DID include is beyond me.
Enjoyed this great 1930's film and enjoyed the down to earth language and a true to life story with a very realistic ending! Dorothy MacKaill(Gilda Carlson),"Bulldog Drummond at Bay",'37, played a great role and was very sexy and teased all her gentlemen admires in her hotel on a island with horny old men! Gilda was down and out and had many lovers, but fell in love with Donald Cook(Carl Bergen),"Bowery to Broadway",'44, who was a naval officer who was always leaving her alone and at the mercy of lusting men. Gilda and Carl decided to take their marriage vows in a church by themselves because there was no minister to marry them. Gilda remained faithful to Carl, however, you will have to view this film in order to find out what happened to these Two Lover Birds!
Although this film directed by the versatile William Wellman is not essentially different from many other fallen women pictures of the early talkie era, it has elements that lift it out of the ordinary. For contemporary viewers it's an opportunity to see Dorothy Mackaill in a starring role. She was a beautiful and self-possessed actress whose career came and went too quickly. At times she looks so much like Marion Davies that you could easily mistake them for twins. Here she plays a prostitute fleeing the law with a young fellow who loves her. He deposits her in a hotel on a steamy Caribbean island inhabited by escaped male criminals. There is the appealing shock of seeing two African-American actors actually speaking and behaving in a dignified and even admirable manner: Nina Mae MacKinney and Clarence Muse as a hotel proprietress and porter, respectively. Muse speaks the King's English better than the blonde leading lady and comports himself in a far more civilized manner than any of the white men. MacKinney is spectacular. She holds her own no matter who she is playing against and even sings a spirited round of "Sleepy Time Down South" as she pours wine for a large table of diners. Another case of wasted talent in the old Hollywood days.
"Safe in hell" what a title! When you watch it,you will agree that the
title was thoroughly justified.
It was hard to be a hero (or a heroine ) in Wellman's brilliant movies of the thirties:from the wild boys of the street to Lilly Turner ,they all got a raw deal.
Gilda leaves a macho world to wind up in another macho world even more awful than the one she left behind.
The movie is short (about 70 minutes) and there are only two "happy" scenes in the whole story: the "wedding" ,a peak of romanticism and restrained emotion,and the short moment when the lovers meet again ,a scene very Borzagesque (there's a similar scene in "street angel" when Janet Gaynor asks the cop for one hour to say goodbye to the one she loves).
As for the rest ,it's a ruthless depiction of hateful males who only know one rule:theirs.The arrival of Gilda in this seedy place could only be filmed in the pre -code Hayes days: those men salivate like Pavlov's dogs ,getting an eyeful as Gilda comes up the stairs.
Like Tom in "heroes for sale" ,Gilda wants to keep her promise ;like him she gave everything;Tom hits the road and becomes a tramp ;Gilda's fate will be more terrible than his.
Another unusual melodrama by one of the past masters of the American cinema of the thirties/forties.
Safe In Hell is is a cross between Sadie Thompson and The Getaway, with Dorothy Mackaill in stunning form as the 'bad girl' who runs away to a remote Caribbean island to escape her past. Director William Wellman delivers another quality picture, and we get to see Nina Mae McKinney's star power on display (including one hot jazz number!). The story is silly but fans of early thirties cinema need to see this.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Robert Osborne talked about this being one of Wild Bill Wellman's
pre-code classics, so naturally, it immediately got my attention. But I
wasn't prepared for this. An amazing story of a hooker played by
Dorothy Mackaill who is sucked into "the life" by one of the most
vicious, but underrated movie villains ever on screen. The quirky,
psycho, delicious Ralf Harolde.
The story is unusual. Gilda the hooker falls in love with a sailor. He accepts her warts and all. She gets into confrontation with Ralf Rotten and thinks she killed him. Her sailor boyfriend helps her lam out to an island to hide out. They marry in a private ceremony and he ships out. Meanwhile, she is left to fend for herself on this island, surrounded by a half dozen lecherous criminals. She holds her own until Ralf suddenly shows up by accident. It seems he didn't die after all, but had to lam out himself after pulling off a scam. In an ironic twist, he tries for a rematch and she actually does kill him. Up till now, the story was almost poetic, but the last twenty minutes had my head spinning. She is about to be found innocent when she finds the Jefe de Policia is going to frame her for another crime and ravish her in his prison. In order to be true to her "husband" she convinces the court that she, in fact, is guilty of murder so she can be hanged. Her line to El Jefe is something like: "The only time you will touch me is when you put the noose around my neck." I've seen lots of pre-code movies. Mostly WB, and they can be pretty raunchy, but this one leads the pack. Dorothy Mackaill puts in an "A" performance in a decidedly "B" movie. It has the feel of the movie "Rain", but it seems less stylized and more authentic. I recommend it for a lot of reasons, but keep your eyes open for Ralf Harolde. Once you've seen him, I think you are going to want more.
DOROTHY MACKAILL is a name unknown by today's moviegoers but she was a
pretty good actress judging by her work as a prostitute on the lam in
SAFE IN HELL. It's the kind of tough gal role that would have suited
someone like Barbara Stanwyck, but Mackaill is a pretty blonde who
nails her character completely.
After giving her ex-lover rough treatment and thinking he's dead after his apartment catches fire, she's advised to flee to a tropical island where there's no extradition to the United States for criminals. What she discovers is that the island is a living hell and all of its inhabitants are fugitives from the law.
There's such a ring of familiarity about the whole story that I can swear it must have been remade years later, perhaps for an Ann Sheridan movie or a vehicle for Jean Harlow. I'll have to check it out, but I'm sure I've seen this whole story before in a later version.
For pre-code fans, this is a "must see." All of the situations are racy enough to send the censors reeling and some of the dialog is crisp and believable in a way that most films of the '30s never achieve.
About as downbeat as any film about sinners, it's directed in forthright fashion by William A. Wellman, with some decidedly unpleasant looking men cast in supporting roles as island outcasts. Worth a watch for the performances of Dorothy Mackaill and Nina Mae McKinney in the only femme roles.
Only other recognizable cast member for me was IVAN SIMPSON, who had a brief scene in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD where he played the proprietor of Kent Road Tavern who admits Maid Marian so that she can inform Robin's men about his capture.
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