Safe in Hell (1931). 73 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Dorothy Mackaill (as Gilda Karlson), Donald Cook (as Carl Erickson), Ralf Harolde (as Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (as Mr. Bruno), John Wray (as Eagan), Ivan Simpson (as Crunch), Victor Varconi (as General Gomez), Nina Mae McKinney (as Leonie), Charles Middleton (as Jones), Clarence Muse (as Newcastle), Gustav von Seyffertitz (as Larson), George F. Marion (as Jack), and Cecil Cunningham (as Angie).
Safe in Hell is a dark but wonderful pre-Code movie about a fiercely willed prostitute on the run from the law in New Orleans and the Caribbean. Although raped and exploited in the United States, and ultimately executed in the context of the seedy underbelly of the South Seas crime world, she lives out her days devoted to her lover and herself with a rebellious passion. And yet, in spite of its serious content, Safe in Hell is actually laden with a great deal of playfulness both thematically and technically, flirting passionately with danger and lurid exploitation while using inventive camera work and amusing staging. The movie is thus imbued with the irreverent, devil-may-care attitude that characterizes so many other pre-Code films such as Night Nurse (1931) and Smarty (1934), which were made before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code that came to govern internal industry censorship.
Safe in Hell tells the story about New Orleans prostitute Gilda Karlson. We follow her one evening to an appointment with a client who turns out to be Piet Van Saal, the man who previously raped her and sent her down the path of sexual exploitation. She is surprised to see him, and the two have an altercation, during which she knocks him out and accidentally sets fire to his hotel room. The hotel is destroyed, and news spreads that he has died. She must get out of town fast, and fortunately at the same time her boyfriend and sailor Carl Erickson arrives. He offers to put her on a ship to Tortuga in the Caribbean, allegedly the only place that lacks an extradition treaty with the U.S. She consents and hides in a shipping crate on board until they arrive. Carl sets her up in a hotel and promises to return. Before he leaves, he persuades her to recite wedding vows with him in an abandoned church and asks her to be faithful.
Carl has instructed to Gilda not to leave her room; the lobby is crawling with male criminals who have similarly relocated to Tortuga to avoid extradition and all have their sexual appetites trained on Gilda. She grows exceedingly bored upstairs, so one night she tempts fate and has an evening of fun with the men. Gilda surprises them afterwards, however, by rebuffing their advances, and many of them become hostile. Meanwhile, to Gilda’s surprise Piet arrives in Tortuga, alive and well and taking advantage of his falsified death to live off of a life insurance claim. When Piet attempts to rape her again, she shoots him with a gun the jailkeeper on the island, Mr. Bruno, has given her for protection. She goes to trial and learns that she will be exonerated, but privately Mr. Bruno tells her she can still be convicted because she was in possession of a gun, and he plans to turn her into a sex slave in jail. Gilda therefore surprises everyone by spoiling the trial, pleading guilty, and walking towards the gallows to be executed.
The movie’s ironic title implies that there is no real safety or relief for poor Gilda. Indeed, a kind of personal hell follows her wherever she goes like a curse. Safe in Hell begins with the conflagration in Piet’s New Orleans hotel, thus using fire imagery to suggest that even in the U.S., Gilda’s life is marked by the infernal. But it is only when she lands in Tortuga that we hear other people assert that they, too, are living in a kind of hell, suggesting that the movie spreads its torment around. The climate of tropical Tortuga may feel hellish to outsiders, but the seat of hell on the island is specifically the hotel crawling with violent offenders that Gilda inhabits there—a sort of house of the damned. All of the guests confess their crimes to Gilda with pride, as if their attempt to romance her is a competition to establish who is the greatest sinner. And yet we sense that they are hardly enjoying themselves from day to day at the hotel. We mainly see them sitting around, looking indefinitely bored, waiting for something exciting to happen. In this sense, while we know the special circumstances of Gilda’s anguish, and the men of the hotel do not share in her experiences, it seems at first as though Gilda might not be so poorly matched with the inhabitants of her new environment.
Gilda is the excitement the hotel residents have been waiting for, yet they take interest in her not as another person to be engaged with but rather as an animal to be hunted. They lie in wait for her to emerge, preying on her as if she were a lonely forest creature. Safe in Hell is very much a drama about being trapped and endangered, and the movie develops this theme with potent symbolism throughout. From Carl’s present to Gilda of a ship in a glass bottle back in New Orleans, to shots of Gilda’s legs ascending the hotel staircase with its banister of wooden planks that resemble bars, to the chair Gilda props against her door to keep out the hotel’s denizens, Gilda’s story frequently uses the visual symbols of enclosure and imprisonment. Of course, Gilda has already been horribly endangered back in New Orleans and knows how to handle herself. Whereas a later movie might insist on Gilda being a complete innocent, not only not guilty of doing harm to Piet but also virginal and untainted by prostitution, Safe in Hell is more sophisticated, more willing to insert into the challenging experience in Tortuga a woman who has already had a difficult life, someone who already knows what it is to be ensnared.
We must rely on Gilda for sanity and moral guidance, which is tricky because she is already distraught and in trouble. The result is a decentered story that can make us feel uneasy and uncertain, much as Gilda herself must feel. And yet the movie is completely on her side. As Danny Reid has documented on Pre-Code.com, Wellman’s lively camera compliments Gilda’s firebrand style. Although a victim of abuse, Gilda rebuffs other characters frequently and violently, slapping her way to her own twisted version of freedom, willing to flee her life in New Orleans for an unfamiliar tropical destination if it means being able to survive in her own way. The look of the film is similarly adventurous with inventive framing (including some of the shots I mentioned earlier) and traveling camera work. In this way, even on the level of the shot, the movie allies itself with its audacious protagonist.
Gilda, though vivacious and the life of the party on the night she comes downstairs for the first time, is nevertheless not keen to be a party girl, and, more importantly, not interested in being beholden to her male companions in Tortuga. You might say Gilda’s story is primarily about choosing whom she will be beholden to, or about being beholden to nobody. Safe in Hell is largely about how ugly attempts to dominate another person sexually can be. From ex-boyfriend Piet Van Saal to nicer guy Carl Erickson, to the many libidinous hound dogs who inhabit the hotel in Tortuga where Gilda ends her days, to the nefarious jailkeeper Mr. Bruno, men are scrambling in this movie to monopolize, exploit, and control the heroine. On the far end of the evil scale, Piet is a brute who does not mind pinning murder on poor Gilda, and Bruno plans to rape Gilda once she is his prisoner. But even the benevolent Carl has designs, taking Gilda to an abandoned church and insisting on reciting vows from a prayerbook with her. What is one of the sweeter aspects of the film also in retrospect and in the movie’s wider context can seem like yet another effort to control her, even though we know Gilda and Carl are in love and even though she consents to doing it.
Gilda is faithful to Carl to the end, even if that means to the gallows, which is the kind of over-the-top conclusion that actress Dorothy Mackaill’s contemporary Joan Crawford could be right at home in. Indeed, Safe in Hell looks forward to the pre-Code Rain (1932) that Crawford would star in just a year later. Rain also takes place in the tropics and focuses on the experiences of a stranded prostitute, Sadie Thompson, who inspires lust in the men who come to know her in the Samoan capital of Pago Pago. Both movies also make use of the song “St. Louis Blues.” But Crawford as Sadie acts in typical melodramatic fashion whereas Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda is more reserved, tosses her emotions around less flamboyantly, and has a harder edge. Gilda accidentally lights a hotel on fire, escapes the authorities in a shipping crate, and orchestrates her own hanging, and in those actions we see the markers of heavy melodrama, yet Safe in Hell is cooler than melodrama—darker, wiser, sexier, more daring.
There are two characters who stand out amongst the island’s thieves, cons, and victimizers as people of compassion and decency. Those are the two hotel owners, Leonie and Newcastle. Leonie runs the front counter, the bar, and the kitchen. She cares for Gilda, brings her tea when she is hung over, and gives her advice. It is easy to feel, in spite of the island’s danger, that Gilda might be momentarily safe outside of her room as long as Leonie is there. When Leonie serves the resident men a fine dinner one evening, she serenades them with a piece of music written especially for this movie, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” which later became Louis Armstrong’s signature song. It is charming, albeit laden with some of the racial clichés of its time, and it was co-written by Clarence Muse, the actor who plays Newcastle. When Leonie sings it, she contributes a sense of normalcy that seems familiar and American to the international hotel with its perverted criminals who drink and dine while bored in paradise. The fact that Leonie and Newcastle are black Americans who speak and act like the white majority cast is unusual for this period, which typically strives to make black people seem unusual and other. That the minority characters are also the most caring people Gilda meets in Tortuga further speaks to the film’s unconventional mores.
Safe in Hell was criticized at the time of its release for its unbelievability. A film critic from Variety, among others, found Gilda’s extreme fidelity to Carl in the end to be fairly incredible (insofar as she accepts the death penalty in order to preserve her chastity), and the movie on the whole to be unpalatable. But those critics could not see what Gilda thwarting Mr. Bruno and preserving herself for an absent Carl means: in claiming herself for Carl, she is also claiming herself for herself. This is, like many pre-Code movies, a story about someone finding value in themselves—their honor, values, and fierce independence. That the drama of fidelity to that aspect of the self takes place against a wild backdrop of temptation, crime, and impropriety is surely part of what must have made it seem sordid to some in the audience at the time of its release. But if you love pre-Code movies, its ending might strike you instead as the sleazy, tragic triumph that it is instead of something that is irredeemably contemptible, and you might be pleased that it survives, not merely as a delicious movie but also as a signifier of how bold movies can potentially be.