Jackson’s Pre-Code Essentials #38: SAFE IN HELL (1931)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! I promised you more Pre-Code coverage, and best believe, I’m here to deliver! Now, you may be wondering where the first 37 posts are in this heretofore unseen series. Let me explain. One of the reasons I decided to retire Film Fridays back in December 2015 was that so many of the movies we were covering ended up being average (or worse), meaning that there would only be one or, in a good month, two worthwhile Pre-Code pictures featured. In an aim to halt covering works that didn’t deserve my (or your) time and attention, I wanted to transfer our Pre-Code focus to Wildcard Wednesdays, where I could offer one or, in a good month, two worthwhile films, just like always, but without the distracting mediocrity in between. I’m calling today’s post #38 because from the 130+ cinematic offerings that we highlighted from June 2013 to December 2015 (and then the extra films from our recent series comparing Pre-Code works with their Code approved remakes), I have selected 37 that I believe to be essential. I will list those below. With today’s entry, we’re continuing this list of Pre-Code classics — the films you absolutely can’t miss. Each of these entries, which will come once or twice a month, will fill out my choices for the most important films of the era. Here’s the list of Jackson’s Pre-Code Essentials already covered.

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38. Safe In Hell (1931)

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On the run from the police, a New Orleans prostitute gets stranded in a tropical haven for outlaws. Starring Dorothy Mackaill, Donald Cook, Ralf Harolde, and Morgan Wallace. Based on the play by Houston Branch. Adaptation by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton. Directed by William A. Wellman. Produced by First National Pictures. Distributed by Warner Bros.

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“Betrayed by a ruthless man and all but forced into a life of prostitution in New Orleans, Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) has given up waiting for her sailor boyfriend Carl Bergen (Donald Cook). Taking a call to a hotel, Gilda discovers that her John is Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the very the man that caused her fall a year ago. 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 both Piet and the building. That’s when Carl returns. He assures Gilda that her past is not a problem and helps her flee from the police. Now promoted to an officer, Carl is able to smuggle Gilda on board his freighter and take her to an island in the Caribbean that has no extradition treaties. Carl has no choice but to leave her in a hotel while his ship continues on its voyage.

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“The hotel turns out to be populated by criminals that, like Gilda, are avoiding punishment for their crimes. She must stick to her room to avoid constant harassment from this group of degenerates. They are soon joined by the island’s jailer-executioner Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), a swarthy thug who also propositions Gilda, the “only white woman on the island”. Gilda is going mad with desperation and despair when events spin completely out of control. Already in “hell”, trouble with Mr. Bruno and a mystery man from her past lead to yet another charge of murder. The loathsome Mr. Bruno has figured a way to force Gilda into his bed, even if she’s found innocent.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of DVDTalk.)

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As for the story itself, once again, the rapid pace is essential, because the kind of exaggerated punches that the script pulls couldn’t be handled if slowed and drawn out. This actually isn’t a case I would make for most narrative films, but because Safe In Hell does derive a majority of its excitement from the decidedly taboo (for then and now) plot line, the ability to take each successive surprise without time to stop and ponder it ultimately delivers a necessary sense of overstimulation that parallels the action on the screen. Furthermore, the rhythm to the production mitigates any of the drastic elements of the story, or the parts about which we might question (like the relationship between Gilda and her betrothed), thus granting us the opportunity to enjoy the picture for all its rebellious charm.

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Of course, there’s absolutely no doubt that the primary draw of this picture is its leading lady, the scintillating Dorothy Mackaill, a quintessential Pre-Code dame who’s all but faded into the depths of obscurity due to a public persona that couldn’t survive in the conservative cinematic climate under the Production Code. Additionally, because Mackaill was repeatedly cast in B-pictures, or even C-pictures, she never had the classic role that could make her identifiable to the average old movie buff. As it stands, Safe In Hell is probably the closest work to which she’s associated today, and it’s only because the film is so outrageously Pre-Code that it often gets brought up in discussions on the era. But what Safe In Hell reveals conclusively is that Mackaill is a presence who deserves more than being remembered for one singular picture. In fact, I defy any Pre-Code fan to watch this film and NOT have a hankering to examine her others — just for the opportunity to come across another interesting, nuanced, layered performance in a film that’s even half as radical as Safe In Hell.

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Unfortunately, while I too need to brush up on my Mackaill (she’s only appeared one other time on this blog, when she took a supporting role in the 1932 Gable-Lombard vehicle, No Man Of Her Own), it seems that Safe In Hell is actually the most exciting work from her filmography. Yet it’s a testament to her talents that the film is as strong as it is — because, without question, the story wouldn’t have worked if the main role had been poorly cast — and that we watch the film and wish she had become a bigger star. In fact, this actress may very well be the embodiment of the Pre-Code era: genuine, cynical, sexy, and all-too-brief. Fortunately, this film gives us a tiny portrait of what this great actress was capable. So for Mackaill, and all of the other naughty reasons mentioned above, Safe In Hell is a Pre-Code Essential.

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!

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11 thoughts on “Jackson’s Pre-Code Essentials #38: SAFE IN HELL (1931)

  1. Fantastic, I live for these kinds of posts!! Dammit, I wish I could take a month off and see all the amazing pre code films like this along with Kay Francis’ & Miriam Hopkins’ ones (it still strikes me how amazing and unknown Miriam is in the PreCode days as opposed to the fuddy duddy later stuff–that I still love, like OLD ACQUAINTANCE & THE HEIRESS, don’t get me wrong)!

  2. Terrific, well-observed review of one of my favorite pre-Codes.

    I wasl lucky enough to see it for the first time on a huge screen at the TCM film festival. I had no idea what to expect, and the ending totally destroyed me. I have since showed it to anyone who would watch and screened it for a pre-Code course.

    Anyway, well done, Jackson. Here’s my piece:
    http://secondsightcinema.com/safe-in-hell-1931/

    • Hi, Lesley! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      And thank you so much for sharing a link to your page — looks great! I envy you seeing this on the big screen; this is one of my favorites too. Stay tuned in a few weeks for a spotlight on another one of my Essentials…

  3. Golly gee, Jackson, greetings again from Down Under. I’m rooting for this one. I’ll have to look it up — and the rest in your list. I know a few of them but not all. Many hours of naughty entertainment ahead. Thanks.

  4. Excellent choice for your series. I discovered “Safe in Hell” a few years ago and was amazed, been recommending it ever since

    Love all your other Pre-Code entries. I hope you’ll go on to films with Pre-Code King Warren William (“Employee’s Entrance” , “The Match King” , “Upperworld”, “Three on a Match”, and the awesome “Skyscraper Souls”). The utterly amazing “Downstairs” and “Gentleman’s Fate” with John Gilbert

    • Hi, mahler9! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You can check out my thoughts on the Essential EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE here and the strong but non-essential THREE ON A MATCH here. As for the others you mentioned, stay tuned; at least one of them will be highlighted here as an Essential before the year is out, while the rest remain possibilities…

    • Chiming in here to note that your comment led me to notice an error on my list. You see, this post (and also the next, on a Dietrich Pre-Code) was first written back in February when I had only selected 32 essential films from the ones previously covered. When I started plotting upcoming entries in early May, I decided to add in a few more selections, bringing us to a total of 37, making SAFE IN HELL #38. I did the necessary edits and then noticed a few hours after making my expanded list that I left off EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE, one of my favorites, so I swapped it for a film that I enjoy, but not quite as a Pre-Code (WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?).

      However, I realized after your comment that I forgot to put the newest version of my list in this post, which I have just remedied today (06/03/2016). The current list represents my actual selections for Pre-Code Essentials and the necessary changes have been made to said Dietrich post — thank you for inadvertently helping me catch this mistake!

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