Short Ends and Leader

Hotsy-Totsy: 'Safe in Hell'

Pre-Code Melodrama Goes to Hell

Safe in Hell

Director: William Wellman
Cast: Dorothy Mackaill, Donald Woods
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1931
USDVD release date: 2011-11-8

Many of William Wellman's tirelessly churned-out early talkies are fascinating and groundbreaking. This example, made the same year as The Public Enemy and Night Nurse, doesn't rank with those highlights.

At the beginning of this pre-Code melodrama, Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) accidentally kills the man she blames for turning her into a prostitute. She flees with her sailor boyfriend (Donald Woods), who drops her off in the Caribbean island of Tortuga because "it's the only place in the world with no extradition". They marry in an informal ceremony (without benefit of priests or certificates) and he leaves her in a hotel surrounded by male refugees who lick their lips lasciviously at this hotsy-totsy blonde in their midst.

After dragging for a while, the plot pulls a surprise and finally slides into an all-too-typical example of female punishment and suffering self-sacrifice that's supposed to be admirable. (For a very different approach, have a gander at Wellman's Midnight Mary.) Largely and surprisingly devoid of style, this movie combines the far-fetched with the needless to annoying effect. Those with a semi-masochistic compulsion for women's pictures (you know who you are) may seek it out while most viewers find it ultimately not worth sitting through, though by then it will be too late. The package sells it as "a twisted stunner" that's "as gripping today as it was eight decades ago" without clarifying that its contemporary reviewers didn't find it all that gripping.

The greatest fascination is incidentally provided by three important, pioneering African-American actors who avoid the standard stereotypes of dialect and comic relief. The most important role goes to Nina Mae McKinney as the sexy, perfectly intelligent woman who apparently owns and runs the hotel. At one point she sings "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", punctuated with honky-tonk growls, in a graceful unbroken shot as she sashays around the table pouring drinks.

I can't remember seeing a black entrepreneur, much less a woman, who runs a business during this period of mainstream Hollywood. (Louise Beavers is supposedly co-owner of a pancake empire in the 1934 Imitation of Life that's actually run by Claudette Colbert, who graciously offers her a percentage.) McKinney had starred in Hallelujah, one of Hollywood's first all-black movies, but she had trouble getting worthwhile roles afterwards.

Her employee is a porter and factotum played by Clarence Muse, who speaks in a posh English accent meant to evoke the Caribbean. It's so surprising to hear this, and to witness him going about his job without shuffling or rolling his eyes, you can almost believe the movie is more groundbreaking than it is. Muse was a Harlem Renaissance actor who starred in a major all-Negro Hollywood film that predated Hallelujah by several months, the Fox production Hearts in Dixie. He later co-wrote the unusual Way Down South with Langston Hughes, and his career stretched up to Car Wash and The Black Stallion.

A small but noticeable role as an island policeman is played by the towering Noble Johnson, who founded what seems to have been the first African-American film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company of the late 1910s. He can be seen in countless silents and talkies, often in a negligible role as a guard or a chief. All three actors are listed in the closing credits, so this is a rare 1930s Hollywood studio film that presents black characters with relative dignity and recognizes their work by name. The behind-the-scenes story about their working on this film together would make a more interesting movie than the movie.


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