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The Pre-Code Era
Remind Me
,Safe in Hell

Safe in Hell

Although chiefly remembered as a director of macho adventures, gangster films and war movies, William A. ("Wild Bill") Wellman also drew sensitive performances from several actresses in 1930's Warner Bros. Films, including Barbara Stanwyck (So Big, 1932) and Janet Gaynor (A Star Is Born, 1937). In the unfairly neglected Safe in Hell (1931), Wellman works his magic with Dorothy Mackaill, an actress who is little-remembered today but turned in a powerful performance in this grim pre-Code drama.

Mackaill plays Gilda, a character who - in the best Wellman tradition - chooses death over dishonor. A prostitute who believes she has killed one of her clients, Gilda escapes with her true love's aid to a Caribbean island from which criminals cannot be extradited. "You are safe from jail and gallows - safe in Hell," says the island's jailer and executioner. But when her old nemesis, alive after all, shows up on the island and attempts to rape her, Gilda kills him for real. The jailer forces Gilda to choose between freedom, with certain sexual "concessions" attached, or the gallows.

An interesting footnote to Safe in Hell is that Wellman cast two popular black actors of the day, Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse, as what are practically the movie's only positive and reputable characters. And this was a period in which blacks were routinely stereotyped or exploited. Frank T. Thompson, in a biography of Wellman, points out that, while the film's written script was filled with "a white writer's idea of 'Negro dialect,' no such talk reaches the screen. Either McKinney and Muse had enough clout to demand that they speak in normal language or Wellman just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche."

Director: William A. Wellman
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Screenplay: Maude Fulton, Joseph Jackson (from a play by Houston Branch)
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Editing: Owen Marks
Costume Design: Earl Luick
Cast: Dorothy Mackaill (Gilda Carlson), Donald Cook (Carl Bergen), Ralf Harolde (Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (Bruno), Nina Mae McKinney (Leonie), Clarence Muse (Newcastle).

by Roger Fristoe