TCM Classic Film Festival 2013: “Safe In Hell” (1931)
Safe in Hell is a trip. I don’t want to oversell it, because at the TCM Film Fest the initial sold-out show had such great word-of-mouth that the additional screening filled up as well. As happens at festivals, the film was gaining momentum like a snowball, so that just prior to the second screening, words were bandied about like “groundbreaking”, “unbelievable,” and “game changing,” none of which are true.
Safe in Hell is a great pre-code offering, and moves at a thoroughly enjoyable frantic clip, but to be honest, I’ve seen others, notably Baby Face, that deliver better on the tawdriness that we love about these early talkies – the crime, the sexiness, the ambiguity, the reality of life that was censored deeply from 1934 on.
But, the greatest and most surprising thing about Safe in Hell, and the element that was the least discussed, was the ending, which I won’t give away here, except to say that “Wild Bill” Wellman, the director, was definitely an early feminist, because it puts a tragic decision in the hands of the protagonist and ultimately reveals the horrible place women at that time held in society.
Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a “no-doubt about it” New Orleans’ prostitute is sent by her Madame to a hotel to meet a “John.” Once there, Gilda discovers it’s a guy she’d had an affair with who was married and treated her wrong. He tries to force himself on her, culminating in him being smashed in the head by a bottle of champagne and left for dead as a lighter sets the curtains and ultimately the hotel on fire. Gilda flees, and just as she’s about to leave town, meets up with her beau, a merchant marine, who had know idea how she was earning her keep. He quickly forgives her, and with the police sirens howling and the cops at the door, steals her away on his cargo ship, taking her to the little Caribbean island of Tortuga, where there is no extradition laws. He has to leave, and before he goes, marries her.
The island is full of other criminals who fled for extradition purposes as well, and so it has become a rogues gallery of low lives, all trying to get to Gilda, the only “white woman” on Tortuga. Mackaill is thoroughly enjoyable to watch. She had been cutting her teeth in silent films since 1920, but her tough persona is vivid and fun, and immediately has the viewer cheering for her. Probably the most surprising pre-code moment is when the social miscreants line their chairs up, waiting for Gilda to come out of her room, and slouch down, adjusting their pants crotches, giving their “business” room to expand upon seeing her.
William Wellman has a history of creating true-to-life scenarios that aligned well with the 1930s Warner Brothers ethos of telling stories of the people and of the times. The same year he directed the much better known “Public Enemy” with James Cagney, which yielded some of the most shocking and memorable gangster scenes in film history. When taken into consideration with the rest of Wellman’s work, Safe in Hell provides a greater canvas of this filmmakers breadth and depth, and is a welcome addition for anyone who hasn’t experienced this pre-code gem.
Gallery of Images from Safe in Hell