Safe in Hell (William A. Wellman, 1931)
[note: review originally published 27Apr2011]
William Wellman was notorious for loving the ladies off camera and hating them on. He was also notorious for bullying actors of both sexes until they simply gave up and did what he wanted in the way he wanted it when he wanted, no matter how incomparably wrong he may have been. You can see how low these twin afflictions could make Wellman sink in Safe in Hell, today one of Wellman’s most obscure releases. There’s a good reason for that.
Gilda (The Office Wife‘s Dorothy Mackaill, whose career pretty much ended with the enforcement of the Hays Code) is a prostitute in New Orelans. She kills an ex-boyfriend in self-defense, but who’s going to take her word for that? So she enlists the help of another old friend, Carl (The Public Enemy‘s Donald Cook), who whisks her out of the country and sets her up in a seedy hotel on a Caribbean island. She’s safe from the American law there, but immediately becomes the enamored of every guy there, from the corrupt police chief (Murder, My Sweet‘s Ralf Harolde) to the local drunks. Having promised fidelity to Carl, who’s posing as her husband, she tries to remain chaste and sober while he’s away at sea, but it’s awfully tempting to go back to her old self…
When you had an actress who was capable of standing up to Wellman, like Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse or Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny, that particular synthesis made for a solid, strong heroine equally capable of charming the teeth off anyone else in the film and eating nails. Mackaill, on the other hand, is something of a shrinking violet—or was when dealing with Wellman—and what we end up with is a doormat, and not a very interesting one, either, who’s willing to do whatever’s necessary to keep her man safe. But it’s not just that she’s playing the doormat, it’s that everyone else around town is perfectly okay with her playing the doormat; if she’s going to be nothing more than a sex object, well okay, let’s treat her like one! (There’s one marginally infamous scene where Mackaill is ascending the hotel staircase and the town drunks are trying to see up her dress that is, in fact, synecdochic of every male in the film’s attitude towards her the entire time.)
To say this is not Wellman’s finest work would be something of an understatement. I can’t make a claim to having seen anywhere near all of Wellman’s eighty big-screen features, but of those I’ve seen, this is easily the worst. Unless you’re a Wellman completist, you can ignore this one entirely. **
good lord, this trailer is ridiculous.