Safe in Hell

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Safe in Hell
Safe in Hell 1932.jpg
Swedish theatrical release poster
(the same graphics were used for the U.S. DVD release)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Adaptation & dialogue:
Joseph Jackson
Maude Fulton
Based on A play 
by Houston Branch
Starring Dorothy Mackaill
Donald Cook
Cinematography Sidney Hickox
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • December 12, 1931 (1931-12-12) (US)
Running time
73 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Safe in Hell is a 1931 American pre-Code thriller film directed by William A. Wellman and starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook with featured performances by Morgan Wallace, Ralf Harolde, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney. The screenplay by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton was based on a play by Houston Branch.


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.[1][2][3]


Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell

Cast notes

  • 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 script, they spoke in standard American English in the film itself.[4] 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 that Wellman "just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche."[5]
  • McKinney sings "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", written by Leon René, Otis René and Clarence Muse for the film.[6]

Production and response[edit]

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.[4]

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.[4]

At the time of its release, Safe in Hell was labelled as being "Not for Children".[4] Time magazine reviewed it, saying: "Safe in Hell is crude, trite, sporadically exciting."[7] 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."[8]



  1. ^ TCM Synopsis "Full synopsis"
  2. ^ Wollstein, Hans J. "Plot synopsis" on
  3. ^ "How Low Can You Go?" at TCM Movie Morlocks
  4. ^ a b c d TCM Notes
  5. ^ Fristoe, Roger "Safe in Hell" (TCM article)
  6. ^ IMDB Soundtracks
  7. ^ "Cinema: The New Pictures: Dec. 28, 1931" Time (December 28, 1931) Accessed: September 13, 2015.
  8. ^ Cohen, Harold W. "Dorothy Mackaill at the Warner in 'Safe in Hell' and 'Three Wise Girls' At The Davis and Enright". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 1932. pg 17; accessed November 29, 2014.

External links[edit]