I love my DVR. Next to the Keurig coffee maker and the GPS, it is an invention that changed my life for the better. However, unlike the coffee maker, which gratifies me instantly with hot coffee and the GPS, that provides quick and (usually) correct directions, the DVR requires that I actually watch the movies I record. This year I have vowed to clean out the recordings in my DVR by actually watching them.
First, let me get this off my chest: I have a real issue with pre-codes lately. EVERY MOVIE MADE BEFORE THE ENFORCEMENT OF THE CODE IS NOT A GEM. There, I said it. Feeling better. Moving on.....
|Leave the kiddies at home|
"Safe in Hell" is one of those pre-codes I've heard so much about, how outrageous it is, how daring, how it pushes the envelope of decency. It is and does all of that. The problem is, it's not that great.
|The accidental murder|
Director William Wellman's hand is evident - tough, masculine and not especially female friendly. The story begins in New Orleans, where Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill), a prostitute, murders Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man who started her on the primrose path. Her naive sailor boyfriend (Donald Cook) - the dumbest sailor on the seven seas - smuggles Gilda out of New Orleans to escape the murder rap and parks her at a hotel on Tortuga, a tropic island where she cannot be extradited. In fact, that non-extradition status is the reason the island is populated with a pack of leering, mostly gross criminals of varying menace (the only decent man is the black hotel employee played by Clarence Muse).
|The object of their affection|
Into this cesspool walks poor Gilda, the only white woman on the island (her white vagina being the thing that puts her in danger, apparently). There is a black woman on the island named Leonie, played by the wonderful Nina Mae McKinney, who is the best thing in the film. Aside from some sassy talk and a soulful rendition of "When it's Sleepy Time Down South," she is given little to do except tend to Gilda's needs and try to help her navigate the lecherous waters of Tortuga.
|Leonie tells Gilda the facts of life, Tortuga-wise|
The person Gilda needs most to avoid is Mr. Bruno, the human tobacco stain who runs the island with a corrupt and iron fist. He has his stink-eye on Gilda and destroys all of Gilda's letters from the sailor boyfriend, leaving Gilda feeling forgotten and doomed to a long stretch in this hell. Anyway, Gilda manages to skillfully avoid ravishment until Van Saal, the man she thought she murdered, turns up very much alive on Tortuga, running from the law and ready to resume relations with Gilda. While fighting off Van Saal's rape attempt, Gilda really does manage to kill him with the gun Bruno gave her for protection. Bruno now has Gilda where he wants her, offering her freedom from a murder trial if he can have her white vagina. Gilda, correctly surmising that death would be preferable, nobly sets her boyfriend free and marches to the gallows.
|Mr. Bruno: to be avoided at all costs|
So, what set me off? I think it is pretty much the film's desire to be sensational for sensational's sake. While Gilda is tough, she longs to be a "good girl" true to her fella. And nobody here is very sympathetic. Dorothy MacKaill is okay, kind of pretty, but not really compelling. Donald Cook, as the dopey boyfriend, does a good impression of a log, and Morgan Wallace as Mr. Bruno is a drooling puddle of disgust. I did enjoy Victor Varconi (an actor I am always happy to see) as a rather polite political criminal.
|2nd time's the charm: Van Saal is finally dead|
A bad pre-code is like learning about your grandparent's sex life. It's kind of shocking to know such shenanigans took place long ago, but once you accept the idea, you need a good story to go with the shenanigans. "Safe in Hell" exploits all of the boundaries a film could push in 1931, but, like all things exploited for their scandalous implications, you kind of feel you need a shower after trafficking in it.
Next up on the DVR cleaning project: "Madam Satan"