Safe in Hell (1931) Review

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • The opening shot of the movie goes straight up Dorothy Mackaill‘s legs to her garters. Here’s a publicity still of this shot, for, you know, context:
If you’re playing the Pre-Code drinking game, do a shot for the ukelele.Also, I got this image from the Facebook Pre-Code Hollywood page, which is well worth joining if you have any interest for the period! 

  • Next, she goes to a man’s hotel room to turn a couple of tricks. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Ralf Harolde‘s character Mr. Van Saal; previously he’d raped her, his wife had found, and she was forced her into destitution, AKA her current predicament. He reassures her, “There’s no danger of the wife walking in this time!”
  • The island nation that Mackaill ends up on allows booze: “Oh, yeah, it’s a free country!”
  • Clarence Muse (who I pondered on back in my Night World review) is back playing hotel owner named Newcastle. Newcastle’s wife, Angie (Nina Mae McKinney) runs the hotel’s bar. They’re both vibrant, flirt with each other, don’t talk with any ridiculous accents, and are pretty much the most respectable people in the entire film. Oh, and they’re black; that’s worth noting.
  • Safe in Hell is about a woman trying to keep an island full of criminals from sexually assaulting her. Making a movie that calls out the patriarchy for doing horrible things to women? Yeah, that’s pretty Pre-Code.

The Particulars of the Picture

Dorothy Mackaill
Donald Cook
 Piet Van Saal
Ralf Harolde
 Mr. Bruno
Morgan Wallace
Nina Mae McKinney
Clarence Muse
Directed by William A. Wellman

The Tropical Inferno

“Just when everything’s going so well for us, you gotta cry!”
“Yeah, us women ain’t got any sense…”

Gilda, a prostitute in New Orleans, just arrived to turn a trick at a hotel when the man who’s there turns out to be the man who drove her into the business in the first place. He’s Piet Van Saal, and his wife is out of town for the weekend. After he attempts to make his way with her again, she snaps and clocks him with a bottle of alcohol. This starts a fire, and, in a panic, she rushes out of the room.

She packs up her sparse room and is just about to flee when Carl, her old beau, busts in. He’s been in the Navy, and completely unaware to the depths that Gilda has sunk. After he showers her with gifts, he slaps her, but once he hears the police siren in the air he agrees to help her out.

Carl smuggles her to a tropical Caribbean island that has no extradition treaty. The island is rather backwater and filled with centipedes and other nasty bugs. It’s only inhabitants are natives and others who are on the run from the law,  a gallery of despicable men who greet the arrival of a white woman– the only white woman– with lip smacking glee.

Carl has to get back to the Navy, but before he leaves, he takes Gilda to the island’s mission and performs a small wedding ceremony between the two of them. He has her promise her fidelity and then he departs.

The island is run with an iron fist by Mr. Bruno. Everyone else slinks away from him when he enters the room, and he chortles as people engage him in worried conversation. “So they say my jail is worse than my gallows, eh?” he smiles. One man notes that they’re all safe thanks to Bruno’s autocratic ways, and Bruno responds with the titular line, “Yes, safe in hell.”

As Gilda undertakes thousands of games of solitaire, the atmosphere in the hotel begins to whittle away her defenses. Mr. Bruno, quite interested in her himself, intercepts letters from Carl and keeps her off balance. She finally breaks down and allows herself one night of partying, where she reveals to the other hotel residents how she ended up on the island. This endears her to them, and soon many of the men find themselves feeling protective rather lecherous.

But when a surprise guest appears on the island, Gilda’s given a chance to escape… until the gun she’s given has to be used to its logical ends. There’s a trial, and Mr. Bruno’s attempts to blackmail her backfire, as she instead opts for the gallows. Carl arrives only too late, and she leaves him with the impression that she’ll be following along shortly. That’s not what’s going to happen, though, and instead she marches into the sunset, redeemed.

A note on the long forgotten Dorothy Mackaill: count how many times she gets away with slapping people in this movie. She’s an aggressive firebrand who does some excellent work as she swings between terror, anger and hope.

Safe in Hell is about how ugly the need for sexual power can get. Director Wellman’s camera is so energetic and crazy that it’s a dizzying experience, and matches Mackaill’s feisty spirit perfectly. Wellman takes rather stodgy material, most of it set in one hotel, and imbues it with a lurid sense of anger and dread. It’s an amazing experience, and something I really want to go into some depth on.

The Wellman Style

I wanted to run through a few (okay a lot) of screenshots of the film in order to talk about Wellman’s visual sensibilities, since I think this film proves just how far ahead of the game he was of other commercial directors of the time.

The title card of the film is immediately something that stands out, as the flames in the words burn intensely. This isn’t one for the kiddies, that’s for sure.
Okay, we’re a little into the movie at this point. Here’s Carl just returning, before he’s learned with Gilda has been up to. I love the darkness around his eyes– what Gilda has kept from him has turned him into something frightening.
Here’s right before she reveals the truth to Carl, as he busts out a big beautiful shawl. She can barely get her eyes above it, and sinks below the eyeline as he continues to tell her how beautiful and wonderful she is. The shawl is her guilt.
After wrapping her in the shawl, she stands in front of the mirror and confesses her past to him. The camera takes the place of the mirror, and we see from its perspective Carl hardening and Gilda breaking down. Wellman uses mirrors a couple times in this movie, all for Gilda reflecting on herself, and each time being disgusted.
After Carl helps her escape New Orleans, she hides out on a liner in a crate, while Carl works as a crewman. He sneaks into the crate, and we watch their conversation mostly as a pair of lips between a pair of slats. It’s an interesting way to frame a rather dry conversation, and the actors emote wonderfully. The focus on the lips also drives home the romantic connection between the two.
Arriving at the island, Gilda is immediately met with a bunch of bored and tired men whose eyes lights up and mouths drop as she enters. She goes up the staircase with Carl and all eyes follow her legs along on the journey. I took this shot because I like those supports; they look to me like flames, driving home the theme of the island being hell.
Carl and Gilda go to the church, but the minister has passed away. Carl instead performs the ceremony himself. This has no legal bearing, but it still means a great deal to Gilda. To the audience, it’s never made strictly valid, allowing for plot possibilities that would have been out of the question were this a legitimate ceremony. That, and the way it’s shot is incredibly sweet and touching.
The hotel’s other guests wait for Gilda to come downstairs. While most are simply lecherous, they’re all on the island for crimes they committed elsewhere as well. Their eventual devotion to Gilda make them to be more like the Seven Dwarfs than the scum they initially appear to be. This shot is also mirrored later in the movie. Here’s it’s a group of men all aglow with arousal, but later something a bit more paternal kicks in.
Well, I guess I should take that last caption back. Something paternal clicks in for everyone except for Mr. Egan here, whose first action is to offer Gilda a chicken to cake care of all the caterpillars. We never see the caterpillars, nor the bugs in the drinking water, but their mentions drive home what a hellhole the island is. Egan later begins to drink and make threats, though he always seems mostly harmless and pretty dumb, to boot. Like Dopey, if Dopey was sexually threatening.
The antagonist, Mr. Bruno. He spends the movie puffing on an extremely phallic cigar. Look at his posture here: relaxed, but dominating.
When Gilda finally emerges from her room, Wellman goes a bit over the top with the ‘trapped’ imagery. Look at how the wood ensnares her. And then she heads downstairs…
… and trapped again. Not the most subtle visual metaphor, but it works wonders. Also note Bruno lurking in the foreground, completely blackened out.
Oh boy. So here’s Wellman playing with the audience’s mental capacity, as we see first the dress, then the shoes, and then the stockings all getting thrown on the floor. And the next step…
Yowza. I mean *cough* see what implication can do in a scene?
I keep forgetting that Leonie sings a musical number as she dances around the table. It’s not so much forgettable as it is incongruous. She sure seems to be having fun.
The table’s centerpiece is a giant sailing boat in the middle. This boat matches one in an earlier scene (one I forgot to screencap since I didn’t notice this until my second time through) where Carl presents Gilda with a ship in the bottle. The larger boat’s appearance here very subtly emphasizes that Gilda herself has become trapped.
I wish I’d gotten off my butt to make this an animated .gif. Basically up to this point in the movie, Gilda has been hiding up in her room, slowly going stir crazy. We see her change into her pajamas (see that leg shot up above) and put a pillow over her head to try and keep the noise of the partying out. She gives in, but Wellman frames it as a gala event. The men all raise their champagne glasses to toast, and the camera follows their toast up to find Gilda standing on the balcony. Considering who the partiers are and how much Gilda has been trying to resist this, we know she’s made a mistake, and this revelation is celebratory but dangerous at the same time.This explanation would work better on a .gif.
Nothing super interesting in this shot of Mr. Bruno besides his eyebrows. If he isn’t meant to be Lucifer in this movie, then at the very least they traded fashion tips.
Bruno is attracted to her innocence until she reveals why she’s on the island, and the revelation of her as a murderer makes him respect– and want– her more. I love how she doesn’t recoil from his aggressiveness, instead treating him like a petulant child.
The morning after the party, there’s a nice, subtle touch with Gilda removing a chair that was up against the door. Demonstrating that she kept her virtue, but was also still together enough to keep her guard up.
The very last ‘trapped’ visual shorthand here, with the mosquito net separating her from everyone else.
So when Van Spaal shows back up, it’s hard not to love just how casual he is about the whole ‘Gilda attempted to murder and immolate him’ thing. After he faked his own death, he stole all of his life insurance award from his wife, which is simply charming, and that’s why he ended up on the island.
In fact, his exact reaction is ‘forgive and forget and maybe we can get together sometime’. The fact that Gilda is so sexually desirable that her attempted murder of him is something he treats with minor annoyance is astounding, and totally in character for a man who thinks he’s so completely suave and smart.
After Egan gets drunk and threatening after he learns that Gilda has a history, Bruno plants his trap: he gives Gilda a gun, even though guns are strictly outlawed on the island. Of course, he doesn’t imagine she’ll actually get the chance to use it.
See? I told you that shot before was paralleled. I’m not just making stuff up. Anyway, Van Saal goes upstairs to prove to the boys how easy Gilda is, and they line up again. This time, though, they seem to be more troubled than turned on.
The murder scene unlike in something like Mandalay, killing the man you’ve already killed before offers no relief for poor Gilda. I really like the composition here.
At the trial, Gilda’s gained a sort of saintly glow.
Have I mentioned before that Bruno may be Lucifer? Here he’s telling Gilda about his plan to imprison her for the gun possession charge, and how he’ll take care of her… as long as she takes care of him. You can really see it here, but the cigar smoke is wafting over his shoulder, and almost seems to emanate from him. Not a good man.
Faced with the threat of being forced into prostitution again, Gilda confesses to the murder and says that it was premeditated. You can see Bruno is furious, while the guard on the left has the reaction that everyone else has: complete bafflement. I love the composition here.
Of course Carl shows up when it’s too late. Thanks a lot, Carl. And nice angelic glow that you’re getting for your doomed romance. Catch an earlier boat next time, Carl!
Our last full shot of Gilda in the film from Mr. Bruno’s perspective. Note the look of utter defiance; perfect! And then it fades to just a keylight…
… and that’s where the noose will be going. Mr. Bruno looks uncomfortable in his last close up, and baffled. He’d so perfectly entrapped this woman, but she never acted that way. She stayed loyal to Carl and herself until the end. She’ll die for it, but it’ll redeem her as well.
What’s interesting is how this scene meshes with the shot of her removing her clothes earlier– in both we’re picturing something that’s not present. In essence, this shot is allowing the audience to tie the rope around her neck, if not just outright accuse them of being accessories.
Which is why the last shot of Safe in Hell is Gilda walking into the sunset in a silhouette, and Bruno clumsily stalking behind her. In death, she triumphs over life.

The Body as a Commodity

“On the level? I never thought you’d end up like this!”

This is the fourth movie in so many weeks I’ve watched that has dealt with the act of women using their body for monetary gain. A lot of critics are quick to point out the similarities with with Rain (and the 1928 silent version of that film, Sadie Thompson), which is similarly about a woman trapped on an island with lecherous men running afoot. While that certainly informs the setting as a forebear, the characters and situations couldn’t be much different. Thompson has a ball as a prostitute, while Gilda most certainly does not.

A couple of sites I saw lamented Gilda for becoming a ‘good girl’ during the course of the film, which strikes me as more than a little wrongheaded. They seem to view sexually voracious as a person’s natural state, which it doesn’t seem to be for Gilda. Gilda was forced into being a prostitute– her penance for being raped by Piet. Her character is abused by the wrong man with the wrong wife, and death is her only escape. Having her go out as the full Sadie Thompson would have been hollow, horrible, and wrong.

Safe in Hell is more similar to the Kay Francis movie I reviewed a few weeks ago, Mandalay, though that one came out three years later. Mandalay may represent a sort of regression, as its heroine finds personal redemption through murder rather than patriarchal damnation. While I won’t condemn Mandalay, the conflict in Safe is a more interesting examination of societal ills. Mandalay is a weepy, Safe is a lightning rod.

And that’s because the film’s portrayal of the white male sex is so inflammatory that it’s hard not to resent the whole lot of ’em! Running down the male characters, it’s awful. Besides the cadre of drooling islanders, there’s Piet, who is so interested in having sex with her, he even easily forgives her for trying to murder him. There’s also Mr. Egan on the island, who designates himself as Gilda’s protector and then grows furious when he finds out that she’s had sex before. Making it worse, during her murder trial, he consoles her and then immediately leads it back to a pickup line. Basically “I bet you won’t be convicted… now do you want to have sex?”

I think Egan’s in the film, though, to make Carl look good. Certainly Carl is cautious since the last time he left her, Gilda, you know, went into prostitution, but he still demands her total isolation while he’s away. Is he being safe or is he being a monster? His demands make any pleasure Gilda experiences become illicit, which complicate her morally and help further imbue her with the guilt complex that winds up being her end. He’s so terrified of the slippery slope that he keeps her precariously perched on a pillar.

But then it could still be argued that Carl is the ‘good man’, a person that someone needs for help. The thing about Safe in Hell is that it’s a condemnation, not a solution, of the situations that men force women into. It’s vicious, beautiful, and well worth seeking out.

Trivia & Links

  • Man, a lot of my work was done for me this week as Alt Blog lists out a dozen links with quotes about the film. It’s pretty handy, and I wish they did this for every film I watched…
  • It did miss this fun post from Krell Laboratories, which points out a couple of things I missed, like the camera placement during Mackaill’s transformations and how Bruno’s cigar reflects his current mood (up and erect when powerful, down when Mackaill is telling him off).
  • I like the illustration used in the film’s poster (it comes from one of the screenshots above):
Though that’s less of a tortured look and more of a ‘Jesus, not this shit again’ expression.

The most accurate criticism, pro and con, was delivered by a couple in the adjoining seats. The young woman wept piteously and the young man reassured her: “It’s only a motion picture.”

  • Goddammit, Mordaunt, what does that even mean?!


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

12 thoughts on “Safe in Hell (1931) Review

  1. This one looks pretty cool, especially with the black characters treated like normal people (gasp!) I’ll add it to the ever-expanding list of films (which at this point looks like Wonka’s contract…)

  2. I watched Safe in Hell last week and maybe it is because i don’t always understand Spoken English well,but i thought that Van Saal had raped her when she was his secretary.

      1. I just watched SAFE IN HELL tonight, and I gotta say – the thing with Piet changes the tone a fair bit. Gilda didn’t have an affair with him at all while Carl was gone, not in the usual sense. She was working for Piet and he forced her to have sex with him, as her boss. His wife found out and blamed the whole thing on Gilda, then spread rumors so that Gilda was fired from subsequent jobs – leaving prostitution as her only way to earn any money, as she explicitly tells Carl.

        So “Her character made one mistake of passion and fun with the wrong man with the wrong wife, and death is her only escape.” and the “penance” of prostitution is flat-out wrong there. Instead, it’s another example of the societal ills and wrongs done upon her by men. Gilda’s choice to admit guilt and go to the gallows is perhaps the one and only thing she does on her own terms and for her own benefit, the one thing that completely spoils any men’s plans for her.

        Anyway, I appreciated reading this review after watching the picture – a lot of what you pointed out helped me organize my own thoughts about it. I just figure that it’s not fair to leave up the bit about Gilda having an affair with Piet when she explictly said it was otherwise. 🙂

        1. Shoot! When I took my notes, I must have just made a point of their first encounter without writing down what happened when she explained things to Carl. That’s really embarassing, and I apologize. I changed a few places it was mentioned up top to clarify. Thank you so much!

  3. The picture, above, that’s identified as Cecil Cunningham, is actually (the underrated and wonderful) Nina Mae McKinney. Cunningham (who plays horny Aunt Patsy in The Awful Truth) wasn’t black. McKinney, sadly, was always shoved onto the back burner in spite of her singing and dancing talents…plus she was a good actress. In today’s world she would achieve greatness. She is very recognizable in the black chorus of the Carioca number in Flying Down to Rio, but is uncredited.

    1. Oh man, that’s embarrassing. I went ahead and fixed it above– thanks for the correction! And I agree, Nina definitely would have made it big nowadays.

  4. Trivia I picked up from the latest Stanwyck bio (didn’t see it mentioned in your review, but I may have missed the reference): Stanwyck was determined to do Safe In Hell, but involved in contract disputes with Columbia at the time. If I recall the bio correctly, she was already in pre-production costume fittings, with Mackaill brought in by Warners as backup because of the litigation. Stanwyck lost and was forced to drop out.

    1. I haven’t finished that particular bio yet (I think I got worn out around the 300 page mark), but that’s interesting trivia. It definitely feels like a role Stanwyck would have excelled in, though there’s something about Mackaill’s weariness that makes me still glad that the movie ended up the way it did.

Leave a Reply!