Safe in Hell
|Safe in Hell|
Swedish theatrical release poster
(the same graphics were used for the U.S. DVD release)
|Directed by||William A. Wellman|
|Written by||Joseph Jackson
(adaptation & dialogue)
(adaptation & dialogue)
|Based on||A play
by Houston Branch
|Edited by||Owen Marks|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
Safe in Hell is a 1931 pre-Code American thriller film directed by William Wellman and starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook with featured performances by Morgan Wallace, Ralf Harolde, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney.
Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute. She is accused of murdering Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man responsible for ending her life as a secretary and leading her into prostitution. Her old boyfriend, sailor Carl Erickson (Donald Cook), smuggles her to safety on Tortuga, an island in the Caribbean from which she cannot be extradited. On the island, Gilda and Carl get "married" without a clergyman to officiate, and she swears to be faithful to him. After Carl leaves on his ship, Gilda finds herself to be the only white woman in a hotel full of international criminals, all of whom try to seduce her. Especially persistent is Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the island's executioner, who steals the money that Carl sends her, with the hope that she will think that Carl has abandoned her.
Van Saal arrives on the island, having ditched his wife, on the lam with the life insurance money he collected after his "death". Bruno gives Gilda a gun to protect herself. When Van Saal attacks her, she kills him. She is put on trial and is about to be acquitted by a sympathetic jury, when Bruno tells her that he will have her arrested for possessing an illegal firearm unless she has sex with him. To foil Bruno's trap, Gilda gives a false confession at her trial, preferring to die rather than to break her vow to Carl. She is convicted and sent to the gallows.
- Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda Karlson
- Donald Cook as Carl Erickson
- Ralf Harolde as Piet Van Saal
- Morgan Wallace as Mr. Bruno, the hangman
- John Wray as Eagan
- Ivan Simpson as Crunch
- Victor Varconi as General Gomez
- Nina Mae McKinney as Leonie
- Charles Middleton as Jones, a lawyer
- Clarence Muse as Newcastle, the porter
- Gustav von Seyffertitz as Larson
- Noble Johnson as Bobo, a policeman
- Cecil Cunningham as Angie
- George F. Marion as Jack
- Unusually for the time, the characters portrayed by the main African-American actors in the films, Nina Mae McKinney and Noble Johnson are among the most reputable in the film. Even though their parts were written in dialect in the film's script, they spoke in standard American English in the film itself. William Wellman's biographer, Frank T. Thompson, speculated that either McKinney and Johnson, who were popular favorites at the time, had enough clout with the studio to avoid using "Negro dialect", or else that Wellman "just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche."
- McKinney sings "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", written by Leon René, Otis René and Clarence Muse for the film.
Production and response
Safe in Hell began filming in September 1931 under the working titles of Lady from New Orleans and Lost Lady, and finished on October 18.
The film was originally scheduled to be directed by Michael Curtiz, and initial casting consideration was given to David Manners, Boris Karloff, John Harrington, Montague Love and Richard Bennett. Lillian Bond and Barbara Stanwyck were under consideration for the women.
At the time of its release, Safe in Hell was labelled as being "Not for Children". Time magazine reviewed it, saying: "Safe in Hell is crude, trite, sporadically exciting." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette derided the film as illogical and unintentionally humorous: "Miss Mackaill is too good for the likes of her role while the villains are acted with self-conscious bestiality and amusing indifference..." It called McKinney's performance "the best thing in the picture."
- TCM Synopsis "Full synopsis"
- Wollstein, Hans J. "Plot synopsis" on Allmovie.com
- "How Low Can You Go?" at TCM Movie Morlocks
- TCM Notes
- Fristoe, Roger "Safe in Hell" (TCM article)
- IMDB Soundtracks
- "Cinema: The New Pictures: Dec. 28, 1931" from TIME
- Cohen, Harold W. Dorothy Mackaill at the Warner in "Safe in Hell" and "Three Wise Girls" At The Davis and Enright. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 Feb. 1932. p 17. Web 29 November. 2014
- Safe in Hell at the Internet Movie Database
- Safe in Hell at the TCM Movie Database
- Safe in Hell at AllMovie
- South Seas Cinema website