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.
38. Safe In Hell (1931)
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.
“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.
“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.)
From the opening title sequence, in which the film’s scandalous title is projected in flames, the viewer knows that Safe In Hell is going to be a wild and, hopefully, sinful ride. In an era before motion pictures employed a rating (like G, PG, or R), this film was advised as specifically NOT being appropriate for children. It won’t take modern audiences long to see why. The premise, as evidenced above, is centered around a prostitute who goes on the lam after she thinks she’s killed her rapist. In hiding, she’s surrounded by a group of nasty convicts who want to sleep with her, and when her rapist returns, she kills him for real. To avoid the death sentence, she’ll have to sleep with the executioner. This is bonkers stuff, ladies and gentlemen — one of the most (deliciously) vile synopses we’ve seen on this blog! And that’s precisely why this film merits attention. With haggard madams, sympathetic black characters, and a hooker for whom we always root, Safe In Hell is loaded with that Pre-Code grit.
But Safe In Hell‘s Pre-Code-ness is not in contention. How does it stack up as a cinematic work? Dynamically. Wellman’s direction is revelatory, a surprisingly undersung masterwork in light of the other celluloid achievements of 1931, which still had to wrestle with stationary setups and an awkward fluidity. In contrast, Wellman not only imbues the film with beautifully well-structured visuals, but also gives the piece a pace that’s necessary to sustain the shocking, and even occasionally, grotesque elements of the story. For a film produced over a two-month period in late 1931, Safe In Hell transcends technical limitations — not to mention the narrative unpredictability — to exist as a work of entertainment that does precisely what it needs to do (entertain), while positioning itself as something more, something relevant, something artistic. And Wellman has a whole lot to do with its success.
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.
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.
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.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!