Pre-Code Essentials: Safe In Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell Dorothy Mackaill

Plot

When prostitute Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) is sent out on a job, she’s not too happy to find out her customer is Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man responsible for sending into her life of prostitution. She gets into a confrontation with Piet that ends with him being knocked out and his apartment accidentally being set on fire. The next day, Gilda finds out she’s wanted for murder, so her boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her to an island in the Caribbean where she won’t be extradited.

Carl brings Gilda to an island full of criminals and she’s the only white woman there. Before leaving, Carl and Gilda “marry” each other in an informal way. Lots of men try to win Gilda’s affections, but she stays true to her vows to Carl and eventually, she wins their respect. The only one who doesn’t want to let her go is Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the island’s executioner. Things get even stickier when Gilda finds out Piet isn’t dead after all.


My Thoughts

There are three actresses whose work in pre-codes I’m very fond of, but unfortunately, their careers never flourished the same way after: Ann Dvorak, Mae Clarke, and Dorothy Mackaill. If you’ve never seen Safe in Hell, it’s hard to watch it and not wonder things like, “Why aren’t more people talking about Dorothy Mackaill?!” She’s just fabulous in it; a real revelation. If you were wondering why she didn’t go on to have a more prolific career, she retired in 1937 to live in Hawaii and take care of her mother, so it’s at least nice to know she left Hollywood on her own terms.

It’s also a pleasure to see Nina Mae McKinney as the hotel’s manager. Safe in Hell is noteworthy for being a rare movie from this era where black characters were able to interact with white characters without playing stereotyped roles like maids or mammies.

On the whole, the movie is pretty decent. The story itself isn’t anything incredible, but it’s well produced and exactly the sort of movie I’ve come to expect from director William Wellman.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Gilda’s entrance of the phone ringing and she puts her feet up to answer it, and the camera pans over, revealing Gilda in her skimpy outfit. Seconds later, it becomes obvious what her career is.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

With a title like Safe in Hell, you know you’re in for a sordid tale and it doesn’t let you down in that respect. It starts getting sordid within just a few seconds of the movie beginning. Gilda represents so much that censors hated: a good-hearted and loyal person who just happened to be a prostitute. And the notion of a person’s only sanctuary being an island full of criminals is definitely not the sort of thing that would sit well with censors.

Pre-Code Essentials: Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust Harlow Gable

Plot

Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is content with his life as a bachelor and the rustic lifestyle that comes with being a rubber plantation owner. He’s not too thrilled when he finds on-the-lam prostitute Vantine (Jean Harlow) crashing at his plantation house, but she eventually wins him over with her wisecracking ways. They get along well, but since Vantine plans to catch the next boat out of town, Dennis never means for their relationship to be anything more than temporary.

After Vantine leaves, engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his wife Barbara (Mary Astor) arrive for Gary to start work on the plantation. Dennis is immediately drawn to Barbara and does everything he can to spend time alone with her, but Vantine throws a wrench into his plans when her boat fails to set sail as expected. Vantine loves Dennis and is incredibly jealous to realize that he’s in love with Barbara. Dennis continues to relentlessly pursue Barbara and eventually convinces Barbara to leave her husband, but changes his mind when he realizes how much Gary loves Barbara.


My Thoughts

Before Jean Harlow was cast as Vantine, Greta Garbo had been considered for the part. As much as I love Garbo, I’m definitely not sorry that the part was re-cast. She would have been all wrong for this part and her chemistry with Gable, as seen in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, just wasn’t that spectacular. Passable, but not remarkable.

But as for Jean Harlow? She was perfect for this part. I just can’t get enough of her and Clark Gable together. Tied with Wife vs. SecretaryRed Dust is my favorite movie they did together. Here, they have the perfect rapport with each other for exchanging their snappy, saucy lines. Gable and Harlow were hardly a one-note duo, either. In Red Dust, they’re supposed to be a bit brash and have an overt attraction to each other. But on the flip side, there’s Wife vs. Secretary, where they were supposed to have good chemistry, but in a far more chaste way, yet with just enough of a spark left to leave the audience wondering, “will they or won’t they?”

Gable also had a wonderful co-star in Mary Astor. The scene where Dennis carries Barbara back to her room in the storm is one of the steamiest scenes you’ll ever see.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Vantine taking a bath in the rain barrel.

This exchange between Barbara and Dennis: “We shouldn’t have done that.” “But we did.”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Jean Harlow plays a very likable prostitute and Clark Gable plays a man stuck in a love triangle between the likable prostitute and a married woman. It’s the stuff pre-code dreams are made of.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake Miriam Hopkins

Plot

Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is the granddaughter of a prominent Alabama judge, which lets her get away with lots of wild behavior. She has a reputation for being a party girl and for cavorting with lots of men, but all the men in town know she’s all talk and no action. She could settle down and marry respectable Stephen Benbow (William Gargan), but she’d much rather live the high life. At a dance, Temple turns down Stephen’s marriage proposal to go for a ride with a drunk Toddy Gowan (William Collier, Jr.) instead.

After Toddy crashes the car, the weather starts getting bad and they are forced to take shelter at a dilapidated mansion occupied by bootleggers Lee Goodwin (Irving Pechel), Trigger (Jack La Rue), and their entourage. Todd wants another drink so he leaves Temple alone to go play cards with the bootleggers. Temple has a horribly uneasy feeling about that place and desperately wants to leave, but has no way to get home. To stay safe, Lee’s wife Ruby (Florence Eldridge) suggests that Temple sleep in the barn with Tommy (James Eagles) guarding her. But that doesn’t stop Trigger from murdering Tommy, raping Temple, and forcing her to come with him to a brothel in another town.

Back at home, Temple’s absence is explained by saying she’s visiting family, but most of the people in town don’t believe it. When Stephen is appointed to defend Lee, who is accused of murdering Tommy, he goes to serve Trigger with a subpoena and finds Temple being forced to be his girlfriend. He tries to convince Temple to leave, but she refuses. Once Stephen is gone, Temple tries to make a break for it and when Trigger tries to rape her again, she shoots him. When Temple gets back home, she arrives just in time for Lee’s murder trial.


My Thoughts

Have you ever seen a Miriam Hopkins movie before? If your answer is no, then you need to see The Story of Temple Drake ASAP! She was one of the great pre-code actresses, but in Temple Drake, she gives a real tour de force performance. This is a role that gave her a lot of complexity to work with and allowed her to demonstrate so much range. This movie is a big reason why I think Miriam Hopkins is vastly under-appreciated as an actress.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

The rape scene.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Over the course of this essential pre-code series, I’ve written about a lot of movies that are about fallen women and Temple Drake is quite possibly the ultimate fallen woman story. In the beginning of the movie, she’s dancing around dangerously close to the edge, but when she falls, she falls hard. I love how The Story of Temple Drake doesn’t shy away from showing how completely terrifying the situations she finds herself in are and how reprehensible Trigger is. This movie goes way beyond being gritty and gets absolutely filthy.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Claudette Colbert Sign of the Cross 1932

Plot

When Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) blames Christians for burning down Rome, the lives of all Christians in Rome are put in great jeopardy. Anyone who openly admits to being a Christian can be arrested and when Marcus (Fredric March) sees Mercia (Elissa Landi) defending a couple of fellow Christians, he instantly falls in love with her and tries everything he can think of to seduce her, but her devotion to her faith doesn’t waver.

Marcus’ newfound love for Mercia puts him in a very precarious situation. Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) is madly in love with him and is incredibly jealous when she hears Marcus is in love with a Christian girl. Poppaea wants Mercia killed and Marcus has a rival who wants to use this information to push him out of favor with Nero. Since Mercia refuses to turn her back on her faith, she is ordered to be fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Marcus begs her to renounce her Christianity to save herself, but she would rather die and Marcus would rather die than live without Mercia.


My Thoughts

“My head is splitting! The wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!”  This is a line delivered by Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero, but the phrase “delicious debauchery” is a perfect summation of Sign of the Cross. This is a movie that stars Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton, but let’s be honest here — the real star is Cecil B. DeMille; his unmistakable style is all over this movie.

Sin and debauchery never looked better than when it was being directed by DeMille. He made it all look incredibly lavish and decadent. DeMille was responsible for some other rather notorious pre-codes (CleopatraMadam Satan), but Sign of the Cross is definitely the most sinful of them all. On the whole, I think Cleopatra is a better movie, but Sign of the Cross has it beat as far as pre-code content goes.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Claudette Colbert’s milk bath.

The lesbian dance scene.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Censors had a field day when Sign of the Cross was first released and many scenes had to be removed for post-1934 re-releases, which have since been restored. Many religious groups despised Sign of the Cross because not only was it full of violence, skimpy costumes, nudity, and one scene that is widely referred to as “the lesbian dance scene,” they loathed DeMille for taking a story they felt should be “theirs” and turning it into this movie that is jam-packed with depravity. Regardless of the fact that the movie condemns Christian persecution, Sign of the Cross still pretty much made censors’ heads explode.

Pre-Code Essentials: Night Nurse (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck Night Nurse

Plot

When Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) lands a job as a probationary nurse at a hospital, she quickly learns the ropes with help from Maloney (Joan Blondell). One lesson she learns is that sometimes the patients she helps will be eager to show their gratitude. For Lora, that patient ends up being Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she takes care of after he’s shot. She breaks from protocol by not reporting his gunshot wounds to the authorities, keeping Mortie out of hot water.

After becoming a full-fleged nurse, Lora becomes a night nurse for the two young children of socialite Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). One of her children has already died and Lora immediately recognizes that the two surviving children are starving to death, but Mrs. Ritchey can’t pull herself away from the booze to care. She’s deeply concerned about the treatment the children’s doctor is prescribing and about how much authority their chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) has over the family. Lora does everything she can to get help, but has a hard time getting anybody to listen to her. When she finally gets help from a doctor she trusts, he advises her to stay and gather evidence.

As one of the Ritchey children is on the brink of death, a housekeeper tips Lora off about how she thinks Nick and the children’s doctor are plotting to murder the children as a way to get their trust fund. But the only person who can help Lora save the children is Mortie.


My Thoughts

Whether you’re a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck or of pre-codes in general, you’ll love Night Nurse. This is one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best tough talking dame roles; she is an absolute boss in this movie. Watching her fight with people for the sake of protecting the children is truly a thing of beauty. I also loved seeing Stanwyck teamed with Joan Blondell. I really wish Blondell and Stanwyck had done more movies together. They are two of my favorite actresses from the pre-code era, so I wish I could see more movies where they play best friends who go around being sassy together.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Gratuitous undressing galore.

The fact that a bootlegger ends up being one of the heroes.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Sure, Night Nurse has plentiful innuendo and gratuitous undressing scenes, but the ending is very distinctly pre-code. Not only does a criminal end up being one of the heroes, the movie ends with him casually alluding to the fact that he just had Nick bumped off, then happily driving off with Lora as Nick’s body is delivered to the morgue. Not that anybody is sorry to see Nick go, but it’s a much darker type of happy ending than a lot of people typically think of old movies as having.

Pre-Code Essentials: Female (1933)

Female 1933 Ruth Chatterton

Plot

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) spends her days running a car manufacturer and her nights seducing any man who catches her eye. Although she was a more romantic type in the past, now she’s far too busy dealing with her business to care much for romance. She’s set forth on a path to treat men the same way they treat women.

As impressive as Alison’s life is, she’s starting to get bored and feels like all the men she meets are only interested in her because of her position in life. To shake up her routine, she heads out to an amusement park, where she meets Jim Thorne (George Brent), an engineer for Alison’s company. Alison tries all of her seduction techniques on Jim, but he’s the only man she’s met in a long time to turn her down. But Alison isn’t one to back down from a challenge and continues to pursue Jim, and eventually succeeds. But can she have a happy relationship and run her business at the same time?


My Thoughts

Female isn’t anything Earth-shattering, but Alison Drake is a woman so far ahead of her time that she still feels very modern and edgy over 80 years later. The story holds up pretty well; you could do a re-make of it today and it would still feel relevant. Ruth Chatterton is great in it and is an actress I generally think deserves a little more credit. I’m not a huge fan of the ending, but on the whole, I’m quite fond of the movie, particularly those fabulous art deco sets.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Alison’s shameless seducing of her male co-workers.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

During the pre-code era, female characters had the freedom to be more independent and career minded than they could when production codes were being enforced. Alison Drake is not only a business woman, she spends most of the movie expressing disdain for the ideas of marriage and romance and openly says she’s living her life treating men the way men have treated her. It would be several decades before film/TV characters could live their lives the way Alison Drake did.

Pre-Code Essentials: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate Weissmuller O'Sullivan

Plot

Some time has passed since Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) gave up on civilization style to live in the African wilderness with Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and she couldn’t be happier with her new life. Some of Jane’s old friends miss her and when Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) and Marlin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) return to Africa to find an elephant graveyard so they can collect their tusks, they also plan to return with Jane. They bring her some of the latest fashions, cosmetics, and music, and although Jane is happy to have a little taste of civilization again, she wants to stay with Tarzan.

Harry and Marlin are also hoping Tarzan can lead them to the fabled elephant graveyard, but when Tarzan learns they plan to take the tusks, he refuses to help. When Harry and Marlin go ahead to the elephant graveyard anyway, he arrives with a herd of live elephants to stop them; forcing them to give up the ivory. Unfortunately, Harry and Marlin aren’t willing to go down without a fight, but they fail to realize the kind of power Tarzan has on the other jungle inhabitants.


My Thoughts

Adventure movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but I do have a soft spot for the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. Even some of the lesser Tarzan movies are still pretty entertaining. But Tarzan and His Mate is without a doubt one of the best of the series; I like it even more than Tarzan the Ape Man. It’s got plenty of action and excitement and is very fun to watch.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Without a doubt, that distinction goes to Jane’s infamous nude swimming scene.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Some movies have one scene that is so infamous, that one scene alone is enough for them to be considered an essential pre-code. Just like Miriam Hopkins’ undressing scene made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde an essential pre-code, Jane’s nude swimming scene puts Tarzan and His Mate in that same level of notoriety.

Although many people think Maureen O’Sullivan did her own swimming in that scene, Jane’s swimming skills can actually be credit to Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim. Quite famously, three different versions of this scene were filmed and sent out to different areas. Of course, there’s the version where Jane swims completely nude. In another version, Jane is topless, but has a bottom on, and in the third version, Jane swims in her usual outfit. The fully nude version of this scene wasn’t rediscovered until the 1990s and has since been restored.

As much attention as the nude swimming scene gets, Tarzan and His Mate is one of the few (if not the only) pre-codes I’ve ever seen that has gratuitous male undressing scenes in it.