February 17, 2014

Pre-code Perversion: Safe In Hell* (1931)

The film is called Safe In Hell. In the first four minutes alone two cigarettes are smoked, a pair of thigh-high garters are revealed, our braless heroine makes a lewd gesture at a hotel bellhop, a face is slapped (hard), a liquor bottle is thrown across a room and a dude gets himself killed.

Yup, you've guessed it ladies and gentlemen. It's a pre-code!

Safe In Hell was released in December 1931 (er, not the greatest holiday movie I can assure you) by First National Pictures and was directed by William Wellman. Pre-code hottie Dorothy Mackaill stars as Gilda Carlson, a down-on-her luck prostitute who tries to make ends meet whatever way she can (this usually entails sleeping around with greasy-looking Lotharios). Her pimp calls her up one night and gives her the following information: go to such-and-such a hotel and entertain some chap whose wife has gone out of town and needs some company (how romantic). Leaving the plot behind for a moment, I'd just like to say that I watched this film on Valentine's Day -- let's move on. Dorothy gets to the hotel and discovers that her 'gentleman' is the very man who raped her years ago and forced her into prostitution. Obviously, she gets pissed and unintentionally (but justly) kills the man.

Dorothy Mackaill stars alongside Donald Cook in Safe In Hell (1931).

While the police are out looking for Dorothy, her boyfriend returns from his life as a naval officer and whisks her away to relative safety on an extradition-free Caribbean island that seems as if its sole inhabitants are a bunch of inbred, ill-mannered men and one woman (a native hotel clerk). The men act as if the last time they'd seen a beautiful woman was eons ago when cave men hunted for their dinner. Being a woman myself - in case that wasn't apparent from the get-go - I felt slightly uncomfortable watching the men react the way they did to Dorothy. Their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, crotches rose in heat, and tongues were definitely wagging.

Just when I started getting somewhat used to this group of boys, up pops a gangster. No pre-code is complete without a gangster! It was getting to the point where I was actually wondering: hmmmm ... so when is the mob guy gonna show up? Well, this one's a real tough guy ladies and gents, a REAL tough guy (can you sense my sarcasm?). This dude is clad in white linen, pirate's gold hoop earrings and a single beaded strand of hair poking out of his floppy chapeau. Almost like a cheaper 1930s version of Capt. Jack Sparrow from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). He sits around sweating and chomping on a thin cigar that's probably the same size of his - well, you know!

All of the men housed in the same hotel as Dorothy try to win her over because she's the first white woman they've seen in ages. None of them get anywhere with her, but that doesn't stop them from trying. They're almost obsessed with gaining leverage with her and fight amongst themselves to come out on top. This is Dorothy's - and every woman's - idea of hell and I suppose this is where the title of the film came from. She's supposed to be safe from the law here but lies in constant danger of being groped to death by a bunch of rabid men. Not only that, but she must keep her wits about her at all times to remain one step ahead of them. She's a hard-nosed dame who does what she needs to in order to survive (literally, as you'll see).

There's a stirring twist that takes place about 3/4 of the way through the film that, at first, gives both the audience and Dorothy hope. But, like all pre-codes before and since, hope always shatters and what's left behind is an overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding. Without giving too much of the story away, I'll just go ahead and tell you this: a trial happens, a verdict is reached, a suggestion of further rape is hinted at, and our heroine makes a choice that will ruin everything yet save her soul in the end.

For a film that is only 74 minutes long, this pre-code certainly does pack a punch - err, more a wallop if I'm completely honest. It's everything an early talkie needs to be: experimental, dramatic, sinister, flamboyant, and endearing. This was my first time watching Safe In Hell, but I can tell you unequivocally that it will not be my last. Safe In Hell can be purchased on DVD through the Warner Archive website [click here].


  1. Awesome review. It prompted me to order the film immediately.

    1. Fantastic! You'll love it! Thanks for stopping by and commenting :)


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