SAFE IN HELL ( 1931 )

Was there any director who could expertly tackle so many different genres as William A. Wellman? When I look over his filmography, I see he’s one tough cookie. His films look issues squarely in the eye.


Think about his gangster, western, waradventure,  satire and message movies. Many of his films stand the test of time. I fasten my seatbelt when I watch a Wellman film. My blog post will be just one of many you can find here at Now Voyaging’s first ever blogathon: THE WILLIAM WELLMAN BLOGATHON. Do you see the list of films that’ll be covered? Click on this banner to check it out. And read here, to see that Now Voyaging even received an e-mail message from Wild Bill Wellmans son about this blogathon. What?! Im thoroughly impressed!!

During the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival back in April of 2013, I watched film historian Donald Bogle interview William Wellman Jr. before a screening of “SAFE IN HELL” which you may watch here:

Now, maybe I don’t know my early 30’s actresses as well as I thought, but I can’t think of any other actress who could have played this lead. Bette? Joan? Miriam? Kay? Barbara? Harlow? Carole?  I don’t know, there’s something not quite right about any of them. Gladys George…Ann Dvorak…Joan Blondell? Maybe. Glenda Farrell? Perhaps. But why go into the futility of re-casting this. I take my hat off to DOROTHY MacKAILL in Wellman’s 1931 film SAFE IN HELL”.

I know…you’ve seen THIS pihoto before

She does a phenomenal job of combining vulnerability and survival. Now, she’s not exactly a glamour girl like Harlow nor a tough dame like Gladys George, but Dorothy’s got just enough oomph to keep the boys interested and enough moxie to shoot any man who comes at her without her permission. Director Wellman is uncompromising as he weaves his web around MacKaill’s downward spiraling circumstances. Aaaah, those pre-codes…or maybe it’s Wild Bill. No sugar coating…no b.s.; straight, no-chaser. He doesn’t provide a sunny hopeful message for depression-era audiences. In fact from my 21st century vantage point, “Safe in Hell” looks pretty bleak.


SAFE IN HELL #6I see the traits of a latter day-Bette Davis, who just refuses to ask forgiveness. Dorothy MacKaill plays GILDA CARSON, who takes up a life of ill-repute to survive. ( ASIDE: I loved the brief sardonic appear-ance of one of my favorite character actresses: CECIL CUNNINGHAM [Aunt Patsy in “The Awful Truth”] as the Madam who sends Gilda to her client, a la “BUtterfield 8”). Gilda accidentally kills the client…who is also an old boyfriend. Her current seafaring boyfriend (DONALD COOK-Cagney’s older brother in “The Public Enemy“) helps her lam outta town by booking her passage as a stowaway on his ship to a fictitious Carribbean island – with no extradition laws. Already she’s in trouble ’cuz it ain’t glamorous. She’s not traveling like Joan Bennett in “Trade Winds”. We can barely see her face behind some slats down in the hold. At her destination, she’s one of two women in this island hotel. The other is played unstereotypically by NINA MAE McKINNEY who becomes, if not a real friend in 1930s-America, at least a confidante to Gilda. Nina does a good job of not being (much) of a caricature. And may I extend a shout out to CLARENCE MUSE, reliable as Old Faithful who ALWAYS infuses his roles with dignity, (with his voice and bearing, he cant help but do that) even if he IS playing a butler or manservant. He plays the porter of this lovely tropical maison.


The hotel is full of the scurviest scummiest guests this side of the Bermuda Triangle. It’s a veritable “can you top this??!” of dastardly deeds as these men ironically vie for MacKaills charms by revealing their crimes. One guy is worse than the next. You couldnt take not one of them home to meet your parents. The police chief ( the great NOBLE JOHNSON ) really wants her for himself. He puts on a full court press, but Gilda wants NOTHING to do with him…and he might just be the worst of the lot. Still, he even gives her a gun to protect herself at the hotel. Interesting men’s view on how they see her:

PROSTITUTE ( Collage )

( * ) The seafaring boyfriend is ready to drop her like its hot; he relents when he hears police sirens at her door.  He helps her escape.

( * ) The scummy hotel “guests” have a healthy respect for her as being one of them.  After all, shes killed a man. (YaY!)  But as soon as they find out she’s been a prostitute, they feel like they’ve been had – ( HUH? Again with this double-standard… ) – suckered.  Theyre ready to storm her Bastille. Interesting how even the worst of men still have their standards.

The man she accidentally kills is NOT dead. Hes ( RALF HAROLDE ) alive; resurrected like Madeleine Elster and he’s now on the island. If he’s alive, then Gilda’s free. She has hope again. Theres a spring in her step (Yay!) But he hasn’t changed; he still wants her. Conning his way into her hotel room, hes going to show the boys how its done as they sit lined up at the bottom of the stairs. The ex-boyfriend/client/cad/creep tries to “force” the issue and she shoots him with the gun the police chief gave her. Self-defense.

She has a second chance at life, to go straight, go clean. The seafaring guy will be coming back to get her and marry her; you know, make a “decent” woman of her. But now she’s on trial for murder. Her scurvy suitors are really pulling for her. How the heck did Gilda find herself in this mess? She was in the clear. She’s up, she’s down and she keeps fighting for herself. The judge and jury look like they will see things her way and finally cut this girl a break.


The final irony comes when the police chief makes his intentions salaciously and explicitly clear. See, the twist here is that giving her the gun was the Chiefs insurance policy on getting her into his jail. And once she was under his lock and key…nothing would spare her. He’s a man who thinks ahead. Yeah…hes dirt. His action is such a low low blood boiling blow, I cant even. You’ve heard the expression: I wouldn’t go to bed with you if you were the last man on Earth.  But girls, do you mean it? What would you do to really mean it?

I’ll spare you this last bit. I want you to see this movie. Watch MacKaill’s performance. It’s very modern, feels very current. Mature. She made my jaw drop. At first, from my 21st century vantage point “SAFE IN HELL” looks pretty bleak. But on second thought, it’s not. Not really. MacKaill is her OWN woman, whatEVER the cost. See the movie.

I thank Now Voyaging for including me in her inaugural blogathon and I congratulate her on its success. Click on the photo of Louise Brooks/Richard Arlen for my friend’s Guest Essay on an early Wellman film Beggars of Life. Click on the banner on the right to read the other blogged entries inspired by one of the great directors from Hollywood’s classic film era:



(  H O M E )


9 thoughts on “SAFE IN HELL ( 1931 )

  1. Pingback: The William Wellman Blogathon Has Arrived! – Now Voyaging

  2. Loved reading your entry Tess . And I’ll pay you with my greatest compliment: It’s so good that you made me want to see the film again. I remember that when I saw it it blew my mind literally. Wellman has become one of my favorite directors. He was a great artist; a honest, down-to-earth, unaffected man. Like him a LOT. Great idea this Wellman Blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Feaito – I want to promote the films, actors and directors I enjoy. And I thought “SAFE IN HELL” was a terrific one! I tend to look at plot and who’s playing what in a story. But reading Wendy Merckel’s Guest Essay on “Beggars of Life” gave me some insight into the director and his credo with women. The lead character in my piece certainly made her own final fatal choice and Wellman showed us there was nothing wrong with that. There are other directors I know so much better…but it’s about time a take a class in Wellman. I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. And I thank you (again ) for making the TIME to write.


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