By Phil Hall | March 16, 2007

BOOTLEG FILES 172: “Safe in Hell” (1931 crime drama directed by William A. Wellman).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.


REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A film that is unfairly lost to obscurity.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: It doesn’t seem possible, but weirder things have happened.

In 1934, Hollywood began self-censoring itself with something called the Production Code. This basically took the risque and daring elements out of motion pictures, with strict guidelines on what could and could not be seen on screen.

Yet during the period between 1930 (when the code was written) and 1934 (when it was actually put into enforcement), a series of starkly mature films were produced that consisted of stories, dialogue and visuals that would later be unacceptable under by the code. Known as Pre-Code films, they offer an artistically provocative view of the world – and in many ways, they can still provide a healthy jolt to the senses.

A case in point: the 1931 feature “Safe in Hell.” A deeply cynical but richly entertaining view of the worse elements of human nature, it is one of the most compelling films from the Pre-Code era. Sadly, it is also among the most obscure.

“Safe in Hell” has one of the most remarkable opening scenes available: Gilda Carlson (played by peroxide platinum blonde Dorothy Mackaill) answers the phone wearing (barely) a floral bathrobe. Her telephonic salutation is an annoyed “Yeah?” The call is from an older woman who is dressed like a geriatric floozy. The call is strictly business: it appears that a man wants to hire Gilda for an evening’s entertainment at his apartment. Gilda sighs and agrees to get dressed for “work.”

Gilda shows up and is furious to discover her “client” is one Piet Van Saal. Not too long ago, Piet had an affair with Gilda when she was still respectable, but Piet’s wife found out about the liaison. The vengeful wife got Gilda fired from her day job and from every job she was able to get. Unable to get proper employment, Gilda wound up getting the only line of work that a discredited woman could obtain.

Gilda and Piet exchange words, then blows. A bottle to the head knocks out Piet, which is somewhat inconvenient as his apartment catches on fire during the scuffle. Gilda escapes but the unconscious Piet appears to be lost in the flames.

Gilda gets word that the police are after her and she packs her bags to make a fast getaway. As luck would have it, her old boyfriend Carl turns up. Carl is an officer on a cargo ship, and he’s been away so long that he is unaware of Gilda’s current occupational pursuit. But Carl is a noble sailor and he smuggles her on board his ship, which is making a convenient stop on the Caribbean island of Tortuga. The convenience is strictly legal – it has no extradition treaty with the United States. The island itself has little going for it except humidity and a corrupt police force.

Carl checks Gilda into a hotel populated a collection of American and European miscreants who have also taken advantage of Tortuga’s lack of extradition law. They are naturally interested in Gilda, since she is supposedly the only white woman on the island. Carl and Gilda head to the island’s only church to be married, but they discover the pastor is dead and a replacement isn’t coming for another month. That’s inconvenient, since Carl needs to ship out, so he plays both officiator and groom in an improvised wedding service (I have no idea if this is legally binding, but at this point in the movie I shouldn’t be worrying about legalities).

With Carl at sea, Gilda keeps herself in her room and away from the h***y criminals who populate the hotel. Those who get too close to Gilda get a door slammed in their face. But she becomes bored playing solitaire and decides to join the nasty bunch in the lobby. There’s much in the way of laughing, trading crime tales and drinking (this must have been an amazing sight for audiences in 1931, since Prohibition was still being enforced). It seems Gilda, having killed Piet, is the most dangerous person around!

Ah, but her glory is short-lived as Piet shows up. It seems he didn’t die in the fire, but managed to escape and fake his death. His wife cashed in their insurance policy, but then he took the money and dumped the nasty wife. She, in turn, called the cops. Thus, Piet is also in exile on Tortuga, away from the reach of the American justice system.

But Piet doesn’t want to be away from Gilda. The local head of law enforcement, the sleazy Bruno, gives Gilda a revolver for self-defense purposes. Obviously, the revolver reappears when it is most needed: Piet tries to rape Gilda. She fatally shoots him and is put on trial. But the sympathetic all-male jury clearly wants to acquit her.

However, Bruno pulls her aside with his own surprise: he is going to have her arrested after the trial for illegal weapons possession. He is willing to frame Gilda in order to imprison her in a jail he runs. Since Gilda is still faithful to Carl, the idea of being another man’s sex slave fills her with dread.

How does Gilda extract herself before Bruno can insert himself? Well, let’s just say the ending is something you would never expect – and I will not give it away here. You truly have to see it for yourself.

“Safe in Hell” is based on a play by Houston Branch, who specialized in writing pulpy stories and action-packed B-Movies. The film was directed by an A-list talent: William A. Wellman, who directed “Wings” (the first Best Picture Oscar winner), “Nothing Sacred,” “A Star is Born” (for which he won an Oscar for the screenplay), “Beau Geste,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Battleground,” “The High and the Mighty.” “Safe in Hell” was one of five films Wellman directed in 1931 – he also helmed three long-forgotten potboilers (“The Star Witness,” “Night Nurse” and “Other Men’s Women”) and one well-remembered classic (“The Public Enemy,” which launched James Cagney’s career).

The film is also a testament to a pair of remarkable performers who never received the level of adulation that they deserve. Dorothy Mackaill’s Gilda is one of the most refreshingly tough broads to come across the Pre-Code screen, holding her own against the roughest element and still maintaining life-of-the-party status. The British-born Mackaill was a minor star of the silent movies and was able to vocally adapt to the sound medium. Yet, sadly, her career stalled at “Safe in Hell” and it never regained any momentum. After a series of mediocre roles and no signs of better work to come, she retired from acting before the end of the 1930s, only returning in the 1960s for an occasional guest shot on television. If “Safe in Hell” is any indication, her great talent was barely tapped.

“Safe in Hell” is also offers the rare opportunity to enjoy Nina Mae McKinney (that’s her photo at the top of this article). The vivacious performer created a sensation in King Vidor’s all-black 1929 film “Hallelujah!”, which landed her a contract with MGM (the first time an African-American was signed by a Hollywood studio). However, MGM had no idea what to do with McKinney and thus did nothing except loan her out to other studios (“Safe in Hell” was a First National release). After appearances in this movie, a few musical short films and the British version of “Sanders of the River” as Paul Robeson’s wife, MGM finally cast McKinney in the 1935 feature “Reckless” – and then cut her substantial supporting part to a near-cameo appearance.

After being dropped by MGM, she appeared in a few independently produced all-black films. She maintained an active stage and nightclub career, but Hollywood had no use for her and by the 1940s she was relegated to playing a maid, often without screen credit.

In “Safe in Hell,” McKinney breaks the racial barrier of the time by playing the manager of the hotel where Gilda is staying. In an era when black women were only used in films as domestic servants or nightclub singers, this was a very unusual example of nontraditional casting. McKinney offered a sensual and light comic personality, and even sneaked in a playful rendition of the song “Sleepy Time Down South.” As with Mackaill, the film shows a talent that Hollywood squandered.

After the Production Code was enforced, “Safe in Hell” could not be re-released. Having been out of release for many years and lacking famous stars in its cast, it got lost in obscurity. Occasionally it is shown on Turner Classic Movies, usually in the middle of the night (my bootleg copy came from one of those broadcasts, complete with a TCM logo in the lower right corner). Unlike many films highlighted in this column, “Safe in Hell” has no problems with copyrights or music or other source material. Yet the title has no name recognition today, which has prevented a DVD release.

However, Warner Bros. (which owns the rights to the film) has recently begun issuing several Pre-Code films in a special DVD series. Perhaps “Safe in Hell” will turn up in that series in the near future. That would be great, since it is a fun old film that can still raise an eyebrow and a smile.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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