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I liked Dorothy Mackaill in this film; her acting feels natural and her character is feisty when fending off the unwanted advances of men. She's a prostitute, but the back story revealed is that she was once a secretary who was raped by her boss, and it was discovered by his wife. Instead of that resulting in trouble for the boss, she was summarily let go, and then the two of them prevented her from getting work elsewhere, so she resorted to selling herself. He then has the nerve to turn up and ask for her as a client. The two struggle and she accidentally kills him. Her old boyfriend (Donald Cook) turns up at the right time, and the two of them flee for a Caribbean island known for its lack of extradition laws. Whew, and that's just in the first 10 minutes or so.
While the story may sound like it's sympathetic to the plight of this poor woman, I found it to be misogynistic and loathsome. The men on the island are all aroused by "the only white woman on the island", and when they're not ogling her or man-spreading (in one scene, almost comically, with chairs all facing her room), they take turns trying to get her into bed. She is expected to remain faithful to Cook, who had to leave her. When one finds out about her past and that she's not a virgin, he feels as if she's played him for a fool and betrayed him by turning her down. (The nerve of her!)
The religious morality messages are also heavy-handed. To the horror of being forced into prostitution, the message is trust that God has a plan. To being left alone with a bunch of sex-starved criminals, the message is to keep the faith, and remain chaste. The undercurrent is that the burden is always on this woman, even when she kills someone to prevent being raped. I'm all for pre-code raciness, but the sentiment behind this one just isn't all that pleasant. On top of that, the script is lazy, and the production quality is low. There are far more enjoyable pre-code films, even if one constrains oneself to those directed by William A. Wellman in 1931 (see 'Night Nurse' and 'The Public Enemy').
Frankly, the highlight of the movie was the African-American characters of Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse, who play the innkeeper and porter. They are presented to us as intelligent, playful, and articulate, which was a real rarity in films from this era. Their dialogue was apparently originally written in "Negro dialect", but happily they got away with not performing it that way. McKinney also sings a nice little number, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South".
Pre-Code (i.e., before censorship and enforced happy endings) Hollywood feature by William Wellman and starring Dorothy Mackaill (who is in every virtually scene). She is a call girl (the only way she can make a living, she claims, and the woeful status of women might support it) who accidentally kills her former pimp. When her true love, a sailor, returns just at that moment, he loyally helpls her to escape to a Caribbean isle with no extradition laws to the US. She promises to be faithful and, despite the fact that alcohol is not banned, not to party either. As you would expect, her new land is filled with dissipated criminals who are sex-starved for a white woman (the film is as racist as it is sexist, although the two black characters, who run the hotel, are not caricatured fortunately). Eventually gives in but still keeps her chastity awaiting the return of her sailor; instead her pimp arrives seemingly back from the dead (but of course he was never really killed, just using the opportunity to score some insurance money). But, lo and behold, when he makes a move on Gilda this time, she kills him for good. The plot goes on - will she get the death penalty or not? And there are a few more twists and a fully downbeat conclusion (after only 73 minutes). At the end, I thought, well that wasn't much -- but somehow, over night, it haunted me a bit. Mackaill is a charismatic figure and she evokes the desperation of her plight and the psychological issues (faithfulness vs. hedonism in the face of a cruel unjust world) pretty well. Director Wellman is better known for The Public Enemy (1931) and A Star is Born (1937).
awesome pre-code early talkie
<strong>Safe in Hell</strong> (William A. Wellman, 1931)
William Wellman was notorious for loving the ladies off camera and hating them on. He was also notorious for bullying actors of both sexes until they simply gave up and did what he wanted in the way he wanted it when he wanted, no matter how incomparably wrong he may have been. You can see how low these twin afflictions could make Wellman sink in <em>Safe in Hell</em>, today one of Wellman's most obscure releases. There's a good reason for that.
Gilda (<em>The Office Wife</em>'s Dorothy Mackaill, whose career pretty much ended with the enforcement of the Hays Code) is a prostitute in New Orelans. She kills an ex-boyfriend in self-defense, but who's going to take her word for that? So she enlists the help of another old friend, Carl (<em>The Public Enemy</em>'s Donald Cook), who whisks her out of the country and sets her up in a seedy hotel on a Caribbean island. She's safe from the American law there, but immediately becomes the enamored of every guy there, from the corrupt police chief (<em>Murder, My Sweet</em>'s Ralf Harolde) to the local drunks. Having promised fidelity to Carl, who's posing as her husband, she tries to remain chaste and sober while he's away at sea, but it's awfully tempting to go back to her old self...
When you had an actress who was capable of standing up to Wellman, like Barbara Stanwyck in <em>Night Nurse</em> or Ruth Chatterton in <em>Frisco Jenny</em>, that particular synthesis made for a solid, strong heroine equally capable of charming the teeth off anyone else in the film and eating nails. Mackaill, on the other hand, is something of a shrinking violet-or was when dealing with Wellman-and what we end up with is a doormat, and not a very interesting one, either, who's willing to do whatever's necessary to keep her man safe. But it's not just that she's playing the doormat, it's that everyone else around town is perfectly okay with her playing the doormat; if she's going to be nothing more than a sex object, well okay, let's treat her like one! (There's one marginally infamous scene where Mackaill is ascending the hotel staircase and the town drunks are trying to see up her dress that is, in fact, synecdochic of every male in the film's attitude towards her the entire time.)
To say this is not Wellman's finest work would be something of an understatement. I can't make a claim to having seen anywhere near all of Wellman's eighty big-screen features, but of those I've seen, this is easily the worst. Unless you're a Wellman completist, you can ignore this one entirely. **
MacKaill is a prostitute who, thinking herself responsible for the death of a client, flees with the aid of her lover to a remote caribbean island.
From the opening shot of MacKaill lounging in her underwear you know you're in pre-code territory. Having your leading lady employed in the world's oldest profession would be impossible for a film-maker a couple of years later. Wellman makes use of his limited window to give us one sweat drenched sleaze ridden movie.
The unnamed island is a sort of pre-code, low budget Casablanca setting, filled with a wonderful assortment of misfits and slimeballs. Five scurrilous rogues stay in the same hotel as our heroine and each one tries unsuccessfully to get his sweaty palms on her. There's a wonderful moment when, waiting for MacKaill to come down for breakfast, each man turns his chair to face the staircase as if awaiting a cabaret performance.
MacKaill spends the first few days fending off their advances and hiding in her room. Unbeknownst to her though, the local hangman, Wallace, has been intercepting money sent to her by her sailor boyfriend, forcing her to eventually start cosying up to the rogues. The landlady, singer McKinney, informs her the rent is due soon, and this being a pre-code flick, we know exactly where it will lead our heroine.
Many of these pre-code dramas are reminiscent of film-noir but with one major difference; in the later genre our male leads usually ended up down and out or dead at the hands of a woman, with these movies it's the opposite. This has a particularly downbeat ending which preempts the noir genre by a good decade.
Amid all the darkness though there are some comic touches, especially in the desperate actions of MacKaill's would be suitors. McKinney even gets a chance to show her crooning skills with a rendition of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South".
Barbara Stanwyck was considered for the lead role but Wellman favoured British actress MacKaill who starred in several tawdry dramas at the time. She would become a victim of the code sadly, as the studios associated her with the immorality of the pre-code days and this cost her many roles.
A fantastic film about a prostitute who escapes to the carribean, after accidentally killing a client. This film's pacing is absolutely perfect and at only 72 minutes, the script is lean and very well executed. This film really has everything, in terms of humor, action, suspense. Its amazing what Wellman did with the compositions, lighting, etc given the time period. Just an awesome tragic love story.
Gives meaning to the designation "pre-code." I mean, it's a 1931 film in which a prostitute absconds from a murder trial to a near-anonymous island where she's forced to wait for a well-meaning but negligent husband while horny criminals try day-in-day-out to get her in bed -- all of it ending in a gross perversion of justice. It's the kind of pulpy, almost farcical material that can make for real stinkers of movies -- especially early sound movies where the resources are generally limited and the filmmaking is often static. Thankfully though Wellman was a competent director from the start, and 'Safe in Hell' is great (I prefer it even to some of Wellman's other slightly better-known early works like 'Other Men's Women'). The film is patterned with subversions (some abiding and some film-historical), from the priestless marriage to the humanized African Americans to the lawless policeman. These touches make for a continually surprising viewing experience, whether your perspective is limited and casual or informed by knowledge of this particular period in American movies. It's a moving film with a whole lot of charm (Mackaill being the most charming of all as the movie's emotional center -- she's nearly as good as Stanwyck, whom the part was originally intended for). I wish TCM would air this more often so we could all get a closer look.
A lean, well scripted melodrama about a prostitute who escapes to a Caribbean island populated by criminals after accidentally killing a client, where she's the only white woman there. Most of the criminals are used as comic relief in an otherwise very bleak film. Not much I can say except that Mackaill was really good and that it doesn't settle for anything less than a heartbreaking ending.
good stuff an interesting pre-code movie about a hooker who thinks she committed manslaughter