Donald Cook

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.

The Public Enemy (1931)

Even from a young age, it was pretty clear that Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) weren’t on the road to becoming fine, upstanding citizens.  They got their start working for gangster Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) as children, and when they grew up a bit, he put them to work on bigger jobs.  However, when their first real job goes horribly wrong, Putty Nose leaves them to fend for themselves.  With Putty Nose out of the picture, Tom and Matt get friendly with Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) and move into the bootlegging racket.

Tom quickly becomes a key player in the local bootlegging ring and starts living the life of a big time gangster.  He’s making lots of money, he gets custom made suits, and rides around town in a nice car.  On the other hand, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken the more legitimate route in life.  He goes to school, works on a streetcar,  and serves in World War I.  Even though Mike isn’t ashamed of earning an honest living, he has a hard time coping with the fact that he works so hard and barely gets by while his brother is getting rich by breaking the law.  Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) remains oblivious to how Tom really earns a living and only wants to think the best of her son.

The bootlegging racket continues to be extremely lucrative for Tom and he only becomes more cutthroat and aggressive with time.  When Putty Nose comes back to town, Tom and Matt shoot him.  The women Tom dates aren’t safe, either.  When his girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke) gets on his last nerve, he shoves a grapefruit in her face and immediately ditches her for Gwen (Jean Harlow).  Tom’s enemies don’t even have to be human.  After Nails dies from being thrown off his horse, Tom heads on over to the stable and guns down the horse.  So when his best friend Matt is killed by a rival gang, you better believe Tom is out for blood.  But even a big shot like Tom Powers isn’t big enough to take out an entire gang by himself.

Oh, how I love The Public Enemy.  It’s very easily one of my absolute favorite movies.  There’s so much I’d love to say about it that I don’t think I can possibly fit it all in one post.  I could watch it a hundred times and not get tired of it.  Not only do I love the gangster storyline, but I’m also fascinated by the conflict between Tom and his brother.  With two such strong stories going on, The Public Enemy fits more into 83 minutes than a lot of movies do in two hours.

And, of course, I adore James Cagney.  I believe The Public Enemy was the first Cagney movie I ever saw and he instantly became one of my favorite actors.  Originally, Cagney was set to play the part of Matt Doyle and Edward Woods was supposed to be Tom Powers.  But thank goodness director William Wellman realized that Cagney would have hit it out of the park as Tom and had them switch parts.  Cagney’s tour de force performance made him a full-fledged star after only one year of being in movies.

If you ever have the opportunity to see The Public Enemy on the big screen, I very highly recommend going.  When you think of movies that are best seen on the big screen, you probably think of movies like Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but believe me, James Cagney was meant to be seen on the big screen.  His screen presence is incredible if you watch him on just a normal-sized television. But when you’re seeing him on a twenty foot tall screen? Every little movement, smirk, and expression is magnified a hundred times and it’s a much more intense experience than it is to watch at home.  This scene in particular is absolutely incredible when you see it in a theater.  I was very pleasantly surprised by how much seeing it on the big screen really added to the whole experience.

Frisco Jenny (1932)

Frisco Jenny 1932 Ruth Chatterton

In 1906, Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was working in a saloon in San Francisco with her father Jim, the owner, and her boyfriend Dan McAllister (James Murray), the piano player.  Jenny and Dan are ready to get married, but Jim isn’t happy about it at all.  As Jenny argues with her father over their decision, the big earthquake of 1906 strikes and both Jim and Dan are killed.  Having no one else to turn to, Jenny makes friends with a Chinese woman named Amah.  We soon find out the reason why Jenny and Dan were in a rush to get married: she was going to have a baby.  Amah helps Jenny take care of her baby, also named Dan, but when Jenny has no money to buy food for Dan, she has to take drastic action.  With help from crooked lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern), she starts her own brothel.  One night, Jenny and her girls are at a party and Steve and a man named Ed Harris are doing some gambling in another room.  Steve catches Ed cheating and Jenny walks in just in time to see Steve shoot Ed.  Jenny tries to cover for Ed, but she still gets arrested.  When Steve gets her out of jail, she finds out that Dan will be taken away from her because of the whole mess.  Rather than have Dan taken away, Steve arranges for Dan to be given up to a nice, respectable family.

Jenny never stops caring for Dan and watches him grow up from afar.  She keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about him and eventually he grows up to run for District Attorney (adult Dan played by Donald Cook).  However, since Jenny is still running her brothel and has also taken up bootlegging, Dan’s opponent would act more in her best interest.  But Jenny still wants to see Dan win and even orchestrates a scandal for his opponent so he’ll drop out of the race.  Once Dan is officially District Attorney, his first order of business is to put Steve and Jenny out of business.  Steve, desperate to stay out of jail, goes to tell Dan the truth about who his mother is.  But not wanting to ruin Dan’s career, Jenny shoots Steve before he can tell Dan the truth.  Jenny is put on trial and her own son sends her to death row.

Ruth Chatterton is another one of those great actresses from the pre-code era who is sadly underrated today.  Even though Frisco Jenny is quite similar to Ruth’s earlier movie Madame X, which earned her an Oscar nomination, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting movie.  Ruth Chatterton once again brought her “A” game and made Jenny very likable and sympathetic, especially in her final scene where she agonizes over whether or not to finally tell Dan that she is his mother.  Ruth got some good help from Louis Calhern, who did a good job of playing smarmy, and director William Wellman.  The movie was entertaining, but as I said, the story’s been done before.  But ultimately, it’s got some good performances and it’s only about 70 minutes long, so I’m willing to forgive the unoriginal story.  I’ll gladly re-watch it just because I liked Ruth Chatterton in it so much.