Dorothy Mackaill

Gable Lombard No Man of Her Own

No Man of Her Own (1932)

Babe Stewart (Clark Gable) has a reputation in Manhattan for being a crooked gambler and the police would love to be able to nab him. When his lover Kay (Dorothy Mackaill) doesn’t take too kindly to Babe trying to give her the brush-off, she threatens to rat him out to the cops. To stay a few steps ahead of the law, Babe takes cover in Glendale, a small town he chose at random.

Connie Randall (Carole Lombard) is a librarian in Glendale. She’s young, unmarried, and utterly bored with her existence. She’s dying for some excitement in her life and finds it when she meets Babe. She knows she shouldn’t go after the first stranger in town she meets, but he’s eager to pursue her and she desperately wants to let him. With the flip a coin, they’re headed toward the altar and headed back to Manhattan together.

Only Connie is totally oblivious to her new husband’s criminal history; she thinks he works on Wall Street all day. She discovers the truth when she finds a deck of stacked cards and shuffles them so his game will be ruined. When Babe finds out what she’s done, he’s angry at first, but ultimately still loves her and knows the best thing he can do is pay his debt to society and go straight.

I liked No Man of Her Own more than I expected to. Being able to see Lombard and Gable together absolutely made the film. If this movie had featured lesser stars, I don’t think anybody would still be talking about No Man of Her Own today. But they successfully took a movie with a so-so story and made it enjoyable through sheer chemistry. Even though this was made several years before they were married, they had fantastic chemistry together. If it weren’t for the fact that Lombard and Gable worked at different studios at the time, I like to think they probably would have done more movies together. I particularly loved their scenes together before they moved back to Manhattan. And I’m always happy to see Dorothy Mackaill, even though she doesn’t get much screen time here. All in all, there are far worse ways you could spend 85 minutes.

Pre-Code Essentials: Safe In Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell Dorothy Mackaill


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.

Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell 1931

Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill) had been working as a secretary until she g0t involved with a man named Piet (Ralf Harolde), who caused her to lose her job.  Unable to get any other work, she turned to working as a lady of the night to support herself.  One night, she’s called to entertain a gentleman and when she arrives, she realizes the gentleman is none other than Piet.  The two of them get into a fight that ends with Piet being knocked unconscious and Gilda accidentally starting a fire.  Gilda flees the scene and is ready to flee the whole country when it’s reported that Piet is dead.  Luckily for her, her old sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) comes home and agrees to help her get to Tortuga, where she can’t be extradited.  When they get to Tortuga, Gilda and Carl are married before Carl has to leave for work again.

Gilda stays in a hotel where she instantly becomes the object of affection for all the other men staying there.  But Gilda mainly just holes up in her room to avoid the attention.  Eventually, the loneliness gets to her and she goes downstairs to be her old, life of the party self again.  But when she makes it perfectly clear that she won’t be breaking her promise and the men accept that fact.  Bruno, the executioner, is the only one who doesn’t want to give up so easily.  He does anything he can to make Gilda think that Carl has abandoned her.  After a surprise visitor shows up at the hotel and tells everyone about Gilda’s past, Bruno gives Gilda a gun to protect herself even though guns are illegal on the island.  When one of the men attacks her, she shoots him.  She is put on trial and Bruno announces that even if she’s cleared of murder, he’d still send her to jail for having the gun he gave her.  The only way she could save herself is to be to start seeing Bruno.  Realizing she’s been set up, Gilda decides she would rather be executed than be unfaithful to Carl and confesses to a murder she didn’t commit.

Oh, how I love Safe in Hell.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie announce its pre-code status faster than Safe in Hell did.  The first scene is the scene of the phone ringing and Dorothy Mackaill answering it, lounging with her feet on the desk and wearing a robe.  Pure pre-code.  I love how complex Gilda is as a character.  She may be a hooker, but she isn’t a bad person.  She doesn’t become a lady of the night because she wants to, she did it because she had no other choice after being completely ripped off.  At heart, she is a truly faithful and honest person.  When she promises to be loyal to somebody, she goes out of her way to remain true.  As we see in the end, she would rather die than be unfaithful.  Dorothy Mackaill did a phenomenal job playing her.  Safe in Hell is also noteworthy for the fact we get to see two black actors, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney, regularly interacting with white actors and not playing stereotypes.  Pretty much my only complaint about this movie is that the big twist was extremely far-fetched.  I didn’t see it coming, but that’s because it was such a stretch of the imagination.  But otherwise, it’s a fantastic movie.  It’s a pre-code through and through.  I can’t believe this wasn’t released as part of one of the Forbidden Hollywood collections.