Safe in Hell

Dorothy Mackaill is the original Gilda ‘Making a living the only way she could’ in this 1931 First National Pre-Code film. Accidental murder by champagne bottle and fire start Gilda on the road to perdition. Gilda’s fiancé Carl played by Donald Woods returns after a year of being at sea only to find that Gilda is not the same innocent girl he left behind. Carl’s forgiveness and knowing the extradition laws temporarily solve their problem. But as we all know from watching pirate movies the infamous Island of Tortuga is not a good destination for laying low for murder if you are trying to be good.
A quickie do it yourself marriage at the local Island church for Gilda’s protection (well Carl is a ship’s officer and has the official little book to conduct the ceremony) doesn’t help Gilda when Carl ships out leaving her at the only hotel in town. Gilda finds she has landed from the frying pan into the fire. Because the felons she meets at the hotel don’t care about Gilda’s promise to Carl that there will be no one else for her but Carl.
The motley crew of character actor Felons:
Devious safe blower Egan played by John Wray as the slobbering resentful ‘she chose him over me’ felon. This talented character actor’s performances always stick out in your mind. In Mr. Deeds Comes to Town he plays the unforgettable role as the farmer going to shoot Mr. Deeds because his family is starving and Mr. Deeds feeds Donuts to horses instead of people. Mr. Deeds has all that money and food, he should share the wealth. In this pre-code movie Egan’s mind is definitely not on family, food or money.
Lethal Pickpocket Crunch played by Ivan F. Simpson, cracks nuts in his toothless mouth, and spits out the shell indiscriminately aiming at the films parrot, chicken, or anyone else within spitting distance.
Scheming Revolutionary General Emmanuel Jesus Maria Gomez played by Victor Varconi finds out that suave definitely doesn’t wash with Gilda.
Crooked Lawyer Jones played by Charles Middleton easily recognizable as Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, does his best to save Gilda in her hour of need.
Homicidal Ship’s Captain Larson played by Gustov von Seyffertitz; his nonchalant and unapologetic confession to collecting eighty thousand dollars in insurance money by setting his ship on fire with passenger and crew aboard with no survivors is chilling (well there was one survivor but Larson took care of him too).
Gustov is also a Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Alumni as Dr. Emile Von Hallor.
Philanderer Corpse Insurance Agent Piet Van Saal played by Ralf Harolde also found out about extradition law after Gilda’s aim with the champagne bottle hadn’t been as good as she had thought. Having his wife collect $50,000.00 in life insurance worked perfectly for him until he double crossed the wife by running off with the loot. Pesky broad had to squeal to the cops on him. Piet lets his fellow felons know that Gilda won’t say no to him…he has technique, watch and learn.
Vindictive Lecherous Island Hangman Mr. Bruno played by Morgan Wallace gave the movie its title. As he explained to Gilda he was only concerned with Island crime and ‘as long as Gilda ‘behaved herself’ she would be safe from jail and the gallows; she would be ‘safe in hell’ wink, wink, nudge, nudge…
The prophetic words of Gilda to Mr. Bruno explain the ending of the movie ‘the only time you’ll ever touch me is when you tie the rope around my neck’.
Dorothy Mackaill is an excellent pre-code actress and a favorite here at Classic Hollywood. I enjoyed Safe in Hell there are so many ironic scenes by today’s standards it is well worth the watch.
This film also gives us a chance to catch the performances of actors: Nina Mae McKinney as Leonie the all-knowing, all seeing, Hotel Manager. Clarence Muse plays Newcastle the Porter who is a wannabe English butler and Noble Johnson plays Bobo the silent island policeman.

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