The Movie Waffler Pre-Code Retrospective - Safe In Hell (1931) | The Movie Waffler

Pre-Code Retrospective - Safe In Hell (1931)

Directed by: William Wellman
Starring: Dorothy MacKaill, Donald Cook, Ralf Harolde, Nina Mae McKinney, Morgan Wallace

MacKaill is a prostitute who, thinking herself responsible for the death of a client, flees with the aid of her lover to a remote caribbean island.

From the opening shot of MacKaill lounging in her underwear you know you're in pre-code territory. Having your leading lady employed in the world's oldest profession would be impossible for a film-maker a couple of years later. Wellman makes use of his limited window to give us one sweat drenched sleaze ridden movie.
The unnamed island is a sort of pre-code, low budget Casablanca setting, filled with a wonderful assortment of misfits and slimeballs. Five scurrilous rogues stay in the same hotel as our heroine and each one tries unsuccessfully to get his sweaty palms on her. There's a wonderful moment when, waiting for MacKaill to come down for breakfast, each man turns his chair to face the staircase as if awaiting a cabaret performance.
MacKaill spends the first few days fending off their advances and hiding in her room. Unbeknownst to her though, the local hangman, Wallace, has been intercepting money sent to her by her sailor boyfriend, forcing her to eventually start cosying up to the rogues. The landlady, singer McKinney, informs her the rent is due soon, and this being a pre-code flick, we know exactly where it will lead our heroine.
Many of these pre-code dramas are reminiscent of film-noir but with one major difference; in the later genre our male leads usually ended up down and out or dead at the hands of a woman, with these movies it's the opposite. This has a particularly downbeat ending which preempts the noir genre by a good decade.
Amid all the darkness though there are some comic touches, especially in the desperate actions of MacKaill's would be suitors. McKinney even gets a chance to show her crooning skills with a rendition of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South".
Barbara Stanwyck was considered for the lead role but Wellman favoured British actress MacKaill who starred in several tawdry dramas at the time. She would become a victim of the code sadly, as the studios associated her with the immorality of the pre-code days and this cost her many roles.