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.
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.