One of the great advantages provided by the recent William A. Wellman retrospective on TCM was an opportunity to explore some of the director’s early sound era work, particularly a number of racy, vibrant Pre-Code films which are rarely screened anywhere.....The diamond in the rough for my money is SAFE IN HELL (1931) with a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created.

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One of the great advantages provided by the recent William A. Wellman retrospective on TCM was an opportunity to explore some of the director’s early sound era work, particularly a number of racy, vibrant Pre-Code films which are rarely screened anywhere.....The diamond in the rough for my money is SAFE IN HELL (1931) with a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created.

" />

One of the great advantages provided by the recent William A. Wellman retrospective on TCM was an opportunity to explore some of the director’s early sound era work, particularly a number of racy, vibrant Pre-Code films which are rarely screened anywhere.....The diamond in the rough for my money is SAFE IN HELL (1931) with a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created.

" />

Could Low Can You Go? – SAFE IN HELL (1931)

 

Dorothy Mackaill in SAFE IN HELL

One of the great advantages provided by the recent William A. Wellman retrospective on TCM was an opportunity to explore some of the director’s early sound era work, particularly a number of racy, vibrant Pre-Code films which are rarely screened anywhere with the exception of two which have aired often on the channel and are coming to DVD in March as part of the second volume of “Forbidden Hollywood” – NIGHT NURSE (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck and FEMALE (1933) with Ruth Chatteron as a female auto factory owner who calls the shots in the office and the bedroom with selected male staffers. Less well known and more obscure are OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931),  LOVE IS A RACKET (1932), FRISCO JENNY (1932), LILLY TURNER (1933), MIDNIGHT MARY (1933), Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in Chinese makeup in the risible tong war melodrama THE HATCHET MAN (1932) and THE PURCHASE PRICE (1932) with Barbara Stanwyck as a mail-order bride in a desolate farming community. The diamond in the rough for my money, however, is SAFE IN HELL (1931) with a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created (TCM airs it on 6/9/2011).   

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 which we’ll get to in a minute.

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. Still vengeful, 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 current degrading circumstances to Carl, who is outraged, the police arrive to arrest her. The couple escapes 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 for women, a claustrophobic visualization of the male id run amok in a no-man’s land, a place outside society with no culture, no law and no other women with the exception of the hotel proprietress Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney), who also left behind a shady past in New Orleans. The island is no Caribbean paradise but a dry, dusty hellhole where the sun beats down mercilessly and the heat is oppressive and constant. But 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.

Still from SAFE IN HELL (1931)

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….an assortment of criminals escaping extradition like herself. 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 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. She finally breaks down and joins the men in an orgastic 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 all the men, 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!”

Dorothy Mackaill in center

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 this despite a surprise plot twist in the final twenty minutes, the film’s surprisingly downbeat ending could also be considered a happy one in the sense that the heroine finally discovers an inner happiness and self respect in her darkest hour. But probably the most unexpected aspect of the film is how Wellman transforms the motley crew of male failures into sympathetic, almost likeable human beings who come to admire Gilda, rallying to her defense when she’s handed yet another crooked deal.

Certainly 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).  After a final film appearance in BULLDOG DRUMMOND AT BAY in 1937, she 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.

 

28 Responses Could Low Can You Go? – SAFE IN HELL (1931)
Posted By Anne : January 12, 2008 11:37 pm

Dorothy Mackaill was incredibly talented….and gorgeous. I don't understand why First National didn't renew her contract in the sound era. Her voice is perfectly fine and she's an amazing actress. Maybe she was as tough as her Gilda and the studio suits were afraid of her. This movie could easily be read as an early feminist film if you consider Gilda's character and how she never backs down on her own moral code which favors death over submission. Wellman was obviously a super macho guy but even he saw the beauty in a hard-luck loser like Gilda and built a shrine to her pride. I don't think it's a downer. She escapes at the end and is much better off!

Posted By Anne : January 12, 2008 11:37 pm

Dorothy Mackaill was incredibly talented….and gorgeous. I don't understand why First National didn't renew her contract in the sound era. Her voice is perfectly fine and she's an amazing actress. Maybe she was as tough as her Gilda and the studio suits were afraid of her. This movie could easily be read as an early feminist film if you consider Gilda's character and how she never backs down on her own moral code which favors death over submission. Wellman was obviously a super macho guy but even he saw the beauty in a hard-luck loser like Gilda and built a shrine to her pride. I don't think it's a downer. She escapes at the end and is much better off!

Posted By athena729 : January 12, 2008 11:46 pm

Good summary. TCM showed this film about 4 or 5 years ago when I first saw it. That particular night it was one of several using the song 'St. Louis Woman' as its musical motif since most of the films were about women in trouble.This is a standout film and I couldn't watch all of it during the Wellman retrospective but the parts I caught still impress me for their candor. It is a true standout in the precode features!  

Posted By athena729 : January 12, 2008 11:46 pm

Good summary. TCM showed this film about 4 or 5 years ago when I first saw it. That particular night it was one of several using the song 'St. Louis Woman' as its musical motif since most of the films were about women in trouble.This is a standout film and I couldn't watch all of it during the Wellman retrospective but the parts I caught still impress me for their candor. It is a true standout in the precode features!  

Posted By Chris : January 13, 2008 2:47 pm

Great blog. This is the kind of background information I expect on the Moorlock blogs. And I'm surprised that so few appear. The reason I watch TCM is to see films from a by-gone era that I can't see elsewhere. When I see the same things that show on other channels I get the feeling that TCm is sliding a bit off course. I say, more blogs and bio's and more films be shown like this one! Remember, a classic by definition is at least 25 years or older & the younger demographic needs to discover again the Pre-code classics!

Posted By Chris : January 13, 2008 2:47 pm

Great blog. This is the kind of background information I expect on the Moorlock blogs. And I'm surprised that so few appear. The reason I watch TCM is to see films from a by-gone era that I can't see elsewhere. When I see the same things that show on other channels I get the feeling that TCm is sliding a bit off course. I say, more blogs and bio's and more films be shown like this one! Remember, a classic by definition is at least 25 years or older & the younger demographic needs to discover again the Pre-code classics!

Posted By Marilyn K. : January 13, 2008 10:05 pm

This movie makes Thelma and Louise look sentimental…and you know what? It was. At the end of that, you get a long, drawn-long goodbye scene that hammers the inevitable into your skull even though you already know that had to happen. The final shot of Safe in Hell takes place under the "The End" with Gilda following two men on horses to her execution and we only see her from the back, walking down that road. So subtle and such a kissoff. Like a throwaway joke. This was a B movie after all but it had a one-two punch. Thelma and Louise as a tag team would be knocked out in the first round.

Posted By Marilyn K. : January 13, 2008 10:05 pm

This movie makes Thelma and Louise look sentimental…and you know what? It was. At the end of that, you get a long, drawn-long goodbye scene that hammers the inevitable into your skull even though you already know that had to happen. The final shot of Safe in Hell takes place under the "The End" with Gilda following two men on horses to her execution and we only see her from the back, walking down that road. So subtle and such a kissoff. Like a throwaway joke. This was a B movie after all but it had a one-two punch. Thelma and Louise as a tag team would be knocked out in the first round.

Posted By RHS : January 14, 2008 12:02 pm

“This is the kind of background information I expect on the Moorlock blogs. And I’m surprised that so few appear.” Chris, I hope you’re visiting the main TCM website as well, where making-of articles are more prevalent. With the Morlocks blog, I think all of our contributors are enjoying a chance to loosen up and not play film historian so much as film fetishist… or at the very least just plain film enthusiast.All of us eat, sleep and breathe titles, names, dates, factoids and tidbits on a regular basis but here we can have a little fun. And we hope you are, too.

Posted By RHS : January 14, 2008 12:02 pm

“This is the kind of background information I expect on the Moorlock blogs. And I’m surprised that so few appear.” Chris, I hope you’re visiting the main TCM website as well, where making-of articles are more prevalent. With the Morlocks blog, I think all of our contributors are enjoying a chance to loosen up and not play film historian so much as film fetishist… or at the very least just plain film enthusiast.All of us eat, sleep and breathe titles, names, dates, factoids and tidbits on a regular basis but here we can have a little fun. And we hope you are, too.

Posted By Marcia : March 7, 2011 2:38 pm

Can’t wait to see this movie…

Posted By Marcia : March 7, 2011 2:38 pm

Can’t wait to see this movie…

Posted By judith deponceau : March 7, 2011 8:19 pm

Jeese, Marilyn K., what a way to spoil a film. I was already to watch it until I read her BIG spoiler. It was so unnecessary. The writer of the whole review above managed to say a lot without giving away too much.

Posted By judith deponceau : March 7, 2011 8:19 pm

Jeese, Marilyn K., what a way to spoil a film. I was already to watch it until I read her BIG spoiler. It was so unnecessary. The writer of the whole review above managed to say a lot without giving away too much.

Posted By Karen : March 7, 2011 10:10 pm

This is a fabulous movie. I love pre code films…great story with no censorship but no gratutious sex and violence.

Posted By Karen : March 7, 2011 10:10 pm

This is a fabulous movie. I love pre code films…great story with no censorship but no gratutious sex and violence.

Posted By Debbie Chambers : March 7, 2011 11:24 pm

This was an absolutely wonderful and engrossing movie.Not one bit of useless sentiment in the whole thing. No punches pulled at all. Well worth the time.

Posted By Debbie Chambers : March 7, 2011 11:24 pm

This was an absolutely wonderful and engrossing movie.Not one bit of useless sentiment in the whole thing. No punches pulled at all. Well worth the time.

Posted By Harry Reid : March 8, 2011 9:36 pm

I was absolutely spellbound with TCM’s showing of Safe in Hell. I didn’t know there was anyone in H’wood who could portray such simple truth in the ’30s as did Dorothy Mackaill. Why would anyone let her slip through his fingers?

Posted By Harry Reid : March 8, 2011 9:36 pm

I was absolutely spellbound with TCM’s showing of Safe in Hell. I didn’t know there was anyone in H’wood who could portray such simple truth in the ’30s as did Dorothy Mackaill. Why would anyone let her slip through his fingers?

Posted By E.V. : June 9, 2011 10:39 am

Wished there was a happy ending. Bruno should have a conscience and help Gilda out. And she and her husband would be reunited.

Posted By E.V. : June 9, 2011 10:39 am

Wished there was a happy ending. Bruno should have a conscience and help Gilda out. And she and her husband would be reunited.

Posted By Dave : June 9, 2011 11:47 am

This movie floored me when I saw it this morning. Particularly a scene near the end, when Dorothy Mackaill sobbingly asks for one last kiss from her husband. She’s sobbing so hard she actually botches the kiss, huffing and missing Donald Cook’s lips yet pressing against him as if her life depends on it. Cook, to his credit, goes with it and presses even tighter to comfort her. Instead of the composed, pursed kiss typical of this era, this embrace is so awkward yet urgent that it feels utterly real. Kudos to Wellman for keeping it in when others would have tried to “improve” it. This film, like its heroine, is just too damn tough to cave in to faint-hearted conventions.

Posted By Dave : June 9, 2011 11:47 am

This movie floored me when I saw it this morning. Particularly a scene near the end, when Dorothy Mackaill sobbingly asks for one last kiss from her husband. She’s sobbing so hard she actually botches the kiss, huffing and missing Donald Cook’s lips yet pressing against him as if her life depends on it. Cook, to his credit, goes with it and presses even tighter to comfort her. Instead of the composed, pursed kiss typical of this era, this embrace is so awkward yet urgent that it feels utterly real. Kudos to Wellman for keeping it in when others would have tried to “improve” it. This film, like its heroine, is just too damn tough to cave in to faint-hearted conventions.

Posted By Vint : June 11, 2011 5:24 am

How is it possible that the star power of this wonderful actress collapsed after 1932? She had the kind of beauty and emotional accessibility that couldn’t help but connect with men in any audience. When you read the Wikipedia article you might note that her story has very many unfilled spaces that I guess will probably remain mysteries. If you haven’t already checked out YouTube do so if for no other reason to listen to her beautiful if undistinguished voice. Hail Dorothy! You are not forgotten.

Posted By Vint : June 11, 2011 5:24 am

How is it possible that the star power of this wonderful actress collapsed after 1932? She had the kind of beauty and emotional accessibility that couldn’t help but connect with men in any audience. When you read the Wikipedia article you might note that her story has very many unfilled spaces that I guess will probably remain mysteries. If you haven’t already checked out YouTube do so if for no other reason to listen to her beautiful if undistinguished voice. Hail Dorothy! You are not forgotten.

Posted By Shabu : December 3, 2011 2:47 am

I saw this movie recently through another source. It was so much more than the ‘So bad it’s good’ B movie I anticipated.

The references to the centipedes and worms in potable water to prevent mosquito borne disease were unique touches that added a lot of realism and highlighted the sacrifices made by the heroine (yeah, I’m very comfortable describing Gilda as a heroine).

The scene where she tells Carl about how she survived while he was away really made an impression on me, and it was where my appreciation for the story began. His almost cliche initial reaction set up a stronger punch by providing contrast to his change of heart once he knew she was in danger. He’s a good man, but not a pure one. He sneaks her away by merchant ship, displaying guts, street smarts, and the will to risk himself for her best interests.

And I thought it was a little funny when she said the kiss before they parted had to be a good (long?) one as it had to last her a long time, and how the last words were muffled because she went for that kiss rather than finish the line. But again, it set up their last kiss so perfectly. But I didn’t cry, not at all. I mean it!

The character arc was almost overshadowed by the arc of the resonance of the story and the strength of the acting. It feels like two movies.

Before the island, almost every scene could be cut and pasted into any ‘bad girl gets the standard whore’s fate’ so common of the genre. but as soon as New Orleans fades in the background, everything seems more real, more dangerous.

The tragic denouement is foreshadowed in a ham-handed way, but again sets up another emotional sucker punch. The seediness of the male hotel guests, all on the island for the same reason as Gilda, is nicely muted by the comedy imbued to the characters by the actors. I laughed at Bruno’s first scene, but by the end of the film, the primal lust and jealousy he displayed felt very credible.

The shift from cliche B flick to weird but believable sad tale reminded me of Browning’s ‘Freaks’ on some level.

If you’re deciding if this film is worth your time, or your DVR space, I hope you make the effort to treat yourself with this hidden little treasure.

Posted By Shabu : December 3, 2011 2:47 am

I saw this movie recently through another source. It was so much more than the ‘So bad it’s good’ B movie I anticipated.

The references to the centipedes and worms in potable water to prevent mosquito borne disease were unique touches that added a lot of realism and highlighted the sacrifices made by the heroine (yeah, I’m very comfortable describing Gilda as a heroine).

The scene where she tells Carl about how she survived while he was away really made an impression on me, and it was where my appreciation for the story began. His almost cliche initial reaction set up a stronger punch by providing contrast to his change of heart once he knew she was in danger. He’s a good man, but not a pure one. He sneaks her away by merchant ship, displaying guts, street smarts, and the will to risk himself for her best interests.

And I thought it was a little funny when she said the kiss before they parted had to be a good (long?) one as it had to last her a long time, and how the last words were muffled because she went for that kiss rather than finish the line. But again, it set up their last kiss so perfectly. But I didn’t cry, not at all. I mean it!

The character arc was almost overshadowed by the arc of the resonance of the story and the strength of the acting. It feels like two movies.

Before the island, almost every scene could be cut and pasted into any ‘bad girl gets the standard whore’s fate’ so common of the genre. but as soon as New Orleans fades in the background, everything seems more real, more dangerous.

The tragic denouement is foreshadowed in a ham-handed way, but again sets up another emotional sucker punch. The seediness of the male hotel guests, all on the island for the same reason as Gilda, is nicely muted by the comedy imbued to the characters by the actors. I laughed at Bruno’s first scene, but by the end of the film, the primal lust and jealousy he displayed felt very credible.

The shift from cliche B flick to weird but believable sad tale reminded me of Browning’s ‘Freaks’ on some level.

If you’re deciding if this film is worth your time, or your DVR space, I hope you make the effort to treat yourself with this hidden little treasure.

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