Actress Dorothy Mackaill isn’t a household name, this mentioned in the opening remarks that preceded the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s double-feature pre-Code series of Mackaill features. But what Mackaill lacked in name recognition she made up for in screen presence. Safe in Hell is the epitome of pre-Code with its saucy plotline that revels in sexuality and violence. At the same time, like some of the best classics, its examination of how women are exploited and treated by men is far too timely, with Mackaill’s performance feeling just as suited for 2020 as it did for 1931.
Mackaill plays Gilda Carlson, a woman who has turned to prostituting to make ends meet while her sailor love, Carl (Donald Cook) is away. When an old beau of hers gets fresh, Gilda whacks him with a bottle, presumably killing him. With Carl’s help Gilda flees to a small island in the Caribbean where she can’t be extradited. But as she waits for Carl to return once again, Gilda discovers that waiting for the heat to die down on her crime only amplifies the lust of the criminal men living in the hotel with her.
Safe in Hell is regularly brought up in discussions of pre-Code’s salacious qualities. With it’s open discussions regarding prostitution and just sex in general, it’s not surprising. But what separates Safe in Hell from being just an exploitation picture is the sensitivity director William Wellman and lead Mackaill bring to it. Because Mackaill was British she falls into a similar trap I find with Kay Francis, her dialogue is just so languid that it’s easy to fall asleep to what she’s saying. That being said, Mackaill has a toughness that bubbles under her soft, blonde exterior. We meet her as she’s obviously been making a living as a prostitute. She has a code of ethics, small as they are, and she knows that she’ll definitely be hung for murder. At the same time, her sailor beau returns and, while upset at how she’s been living, he offers to help her escape.
This small moment, wherein her lover Carl (Donald Cook), agrees to help her does a lot. These two aren’t bad people; they understand the sacrifices everyone has made. He doesn’t abandon Gilda again, but instead decides to help her and is willing to make an honest woman out of her. But because he has a job, Gilda is forced to hide out in the Caribbean until he can come back and find a home for her. Once she’s left on her own again, Gilda becomes the lamb (kinda) amongst a series of wolves, all with the belief that they will own or possess her in some way. The men are colorful, but Gilda easily gets their number, mocking them and generally avoiding them. The problem is her loneliness and isolation force her to desire human interaction, even though she knows that by associating with them the men will assume they can date her. It’s a fascinating look at gender relations that is still prescient, especially in terms of how men believe a woman owes them her time.
Safe in Hell doesn’t go for easy answers, but what it does show packs a punch. It’s frustrating that Dorothy Mackaill isn’t better known, and I thank the UCLA Film & Television Archive for giving me the opportunity to see this on a big screen. If you have the chance, you’ll find plenty to celebrate with Safe in Hell.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.