Safe in Hell (1931): Greater Than Pre-Code Expectations

safe in hell

“Have a little faith will yuh? There’s a great big plan that we don’t get. But the fella that’s made the plan knows what it’s all about.”

Safe in Hell leans into its title as fire literally crackles behind the opening credits.  The story’s origins begin on the back alcoves of New Orleans at the Claybridge Apartments. For those familiar with the reference, Dorothy Mackail’s Gilda Karlson feels like she just might be a Baby Face prototype.

She is a woman strong and independent. She’s seen the seedy side of the street — knows what it means to survive in a man’s world — and she’s done precisely that. Even as the camera admires her slinking form, she sits propped up seductively in her room, speaking into the receiver of the old-fashioned telephone. This says everything that needs to be known about her character. At least at face value.

Mackail is not a remembered talent at least not to the extent of a Barbara Stanwyck or a tragic case like Jean Harlow, but she fits the bill here. If her eyes aren’t exactly sultry they are disaffected by the rotten world she’s grown accustomed to. Cynicism breeds everywhere like rats. It’s become a part of her life.

One of those rats is a man named Piet (Ralf Harolde). He’s supposed to be a picture of the average All-American working man. But he’s a philanderer formerly involved with Gilda while he was married and simultaneously getting the girl fired from her desk job. Now she works out of her hotel room, and he’s back for more.

But she lashes out. Wellman zooms in on her face for dramatics before she races down the stairs to make a frantic getaway. The place goes up in flames another inferno-inspired allusion.  Now she’s wanted guilty or not.

However, we get the benefit of witnessing another facet of Gilda’s personality. She has a hardened shell meant to protect her from the onslaught of a callous world. With her real man, the sailor named Carl (Donald Cook) there’s a skittishness even a sensitivity cloaked about her like the shawl he’s bought for her on his many travels. The way she says his name casual and smooth with a soft-hearted affection.

She deeply loves him and doesn’t want to hurt him by divulging how low she’s sunk. He doesn’t know what she’s been subjected to. It’s another stellar visualization as they stare right at the camera simulating a mirror, but it builds this instantaneous connection with the audience. It’s arresting and difficult to forget moments after. But there is no time to linger.

Carl almost feels Pollyannaish with an overt belief in Providence, but this undoubtedly is part of what makes him attractive to Gilda. He still maintains his optimism. Also, he does provide her a lifeline. With his connections he helps her flee the county as a stowaway, their destination is an island off in the Caribbean where fugitives cannot face extradition.

Far from fire and brimstone, it’s a man-made death trap. Nevertheless, it’s a haven run afoul with murderers and thieves — the lowest of the low from every segment of society.  The isle is ruled rather nonchalantly by the resident despot Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace) and it’s swarming with lusty-eyed suitors starved for a little female company.  There are slimy worms in the water and lounging in the hotel lobbies.

safe in hell mirror

They aren’t frequented by many white women and as Carl leaves her nervously in a local hotel, there’s an uneasy feeling, he’s leaving her to the wolves. They lounge in the downstairs chewing the fat, chewing on nuts, sinking down in their chairs, and kicking back in an odd community ritual. They wait for even a glimpse of her and she keeps them waiting — at arm’s length as much as possible — rebuffing each and every advance.

In the rogue gallery, the hotel clerk Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and the hotel bellman (Clarence Muse) stand out not just due to the strength of their characters in such a seedy milieu; they feel like genuine people rather than the stereotypical submissive blacks often propagated by Holywood with their ignorance and minstrel dialect. There’s none of that here and as a result, they feel positively modern placed opposite some of their brethren even decades later even as they become two of Gilda’s most sympathetic allies.

It’s when the wolves start circling we remember that when she wants to be, she feels like the female equivalent of James Cagney. Why should he have all the fun slapping and shoving faces in and dousing with water? It proves a universal pastime in Pre-Code cinema and Mackail gets in on the action with a plucky relish.

In fact, the movie is a battle for her propriety in some thematic sense. Carl and she pronounce their wedding vows in the only church on the island, ending with a fitting line out of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil.” This is the seat of her entire existence laid bare.

She resolves to remain steadfast and chaste for her sailor until he returns, but you can only play so much solitaire. She finally blows off steam with the boys who gladly oblige though she cuts it short of any monkey business. That doesn’t mean temptation or, closer still, her lingering demons don’t come back to haunt her. It’s a deja vu moment if there ever was one complete with another murder. And if we have learned anything, we know each act must come with a consequence. It’s all the more certain on an island of miscreants.

The ending of Safe and Hell precedes One Way Passage in its emotional heft conjured up in a moment of dramatic irony — all the unspoken feelings imbued through a kiss and an embrace meant to last a lifetime. Once again Carl heads off again on another voyage even as Gilda marches off to her own foregone conclusion.

The picture isn’t everything its title suggests; it’s actually more, and it gives its heroine the benefit of the doubt with multifaceted contours highlighting the fragmented, complicating factors of life.

What a delightful find it is and not for any amount of happiness or goodwill it supplies, but quite the opposite. It feels skeezy and despicable at times, but there’s also a surprising amount of virtue bursting forth. It meets our Pre-Code expectations and still somehow supersedes them to give us something even ampler — all packaged into 73 swift minutes of entertainment.

4/5 Stars

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