“Wild Bill” Wellman gave us some of the wildest movies of the Pre-Code Era: THE PUBLIC ENEMY, NIGHT NURSE, FRISCO JENNY, HEROES FOR SALE, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. But for sheer, unadulterated sleaze, you can’t beat SAFE IN HELL, chock full of lust, murder, shady characters, and a marvelous performance by the virtually forgotten Dorothy Mackaill.
Scantily clad Gilda Karlson (Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute, and there’s no doubt about it right from the get-go! We see her lounging around as she takes a call from her madam (Cecil Cunningham) to go out on a job and show a john a good time. That john turns out to be Piet van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man she was caught in flagrante delicto with by his wife, leading to her current sordid life. Piet tries to rekindle that old flame (for a price, of course), but Gilda turns him down flat (“You don’t think I’d drink with you, you son of a…”). When Piet gets too aggressive, Gilda whips a bottle of hootch at his head, knocking him cold, and scrams just as his apartment catches fire. All this, and we’re only about ten minutes in!
The cops have a description of Gilda leaving the scene and, just as she’s about to take it on the lam, her seafaring beau Carl (Donald Woods) shows up at the door, newly promoted to officer and dying to get hitched. Gilda confesses all, including how she’s been paying the rent while he’s been away, and Carl almost walks out, but when they hear sirens wailing outside, he helps her escape. Carl smuggles her by crate to the Caribbean island of Tortuga, where there’s no extradition treaty. Gilda checks in under an assumed name, and the couple hold a DIY wedding ceremony in an abandoned church. Carl has to depart for the sea once again, leaving Gilda at the hotel amongst a bunch of leering thieves and cutthroats:
Since she’s “the only white woman on the island”, these seedy horndogs all try to hit on Gilda, without success. Worse of all is Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace ), the island’s jailer and resident hangman, whose lust for Gilda knows no bounds. In fact, the only people kind to her are hotel proprietor Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse ), both of whom are black – and may be the only decent people in the film besides love-struck Carl, which was pretty much unheard of in 1931! Carl’s letters to Gilda from sea are being diverted to Bruno, and Gilda, suffering from boredom and longing for Carl, finally exits her room to party with the criminals, drinking and smoking with abandon!
Having blown off some steam, while still remaining faithful to Carl, who should walk into the hotel but a very much alive Piet van Saal! Seems he escape a fiery fate and had his wife cash in on the insurance policy, only to abscond with the loot and head to Tortuga. Gilda’s now free to return to The Big Easy, and wires Carl to give him the good news. Bruno, not wanting her to leave, gives her a gun for protection, knowing full well carrying firearms is illegal. The hangman then goes to get a warrant for her arrest, but once again van Saal gets far too aggressive, attempting to rape Gilda, who shoots him dead (this time it’s permanent!). A trial is held, and it looks like Gilda will get off on self-defense, but Bruno insists she won’t get off on the gun charge, giving her six months in his prison farm, where she’ll do his bidding. Rather than letting Bruno get his slimy hands on her, Gilda bursts into court and states she shot van Saal in cold blood, and she’s convicted. Carl returns from sea, but it’s too late, as Gilda is led to the gallows.
Miss Mackaill is not only sexy as hell, but a fine, natural actress. She was a star in the silent era in such films as THE MAN WHO CAME BACK, THE MINE WITH THE IRON DOOR, CHICKIE, JOANNA, and THE DANCER OF PARIS. Sadly, many of her movies are considered lost today. She had a pleasant voice, good looks, and tons of acting talent, but after losing her contract with First National (which merged with Warners), she was relegated to smaller parts at large studios and bigger ones at the indies. Dorothy Mackaill retired from the screen in 1937, later moving to Hawaii, living at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as their star in residence. Her last acting roles were a couple of bits on HAWAII FIVE-O before dying of liver failure in 1990.
SAFE IN HELL, with it’s steamy plotline and wicked characters, is a film that could only be made in the Pre-Code Era. Dorothy Mackaill’s performance is top shelf stuff, and Wellman doesn’t pull any punches. Like I always say, they didn’t call him “Wild Bill” for nothing!