Review of Safe in Hell
Forgotten leading lady Dorothy Mackaill delivers startling performance in pre-code film, Safe in Hell

Pre-code movies attract a lot of attention and Safe in Hell, screened at the 2013 TCM Film Festival, is no exception. The Chinese Multiplex theater was packed with festival-goers eager to see a classic produced in 1931, right in the middle of the time-frame after the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and before the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect in 1934.

Films made during this time often included subject matter that had not been examined closely in silent films. It was not uncommon for these movies to contain sexual innuendo, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion or extreme violence. Safe in Hell contained its fair share of several of these once forbidden topics.

Dorothy Mackaill

malicious is the island’s prison warden and executioner, Bruno, played by Morgan Wallace. He steals the letters and money that Carl sends her in hopes of making her more vulnerable to his advances.

At first, she ignores the other guests and stays in her room most of the time. Finally, she goes stir crazy and joins them for drinks in the lobby. Still, she keeps the men at arm’s length and her promise to Carl.

It isn't long before trouble follows her to the island. It turns out that Van Saal did not die in the fire. He came to the island seeking refuge and is surprised to find her there. When everyone thought he was dead, he and his wife concocted a scheme to collect his life insurance. Soon after, he ditched his wife, went on the lam with the money and is now wanted. Bruno gives Gilda a gun to protect herself without telling her it is illegal to possess a firearm on the island, punishable by months in prison under his watch.

William A. Wellman, the director of Safe in Hell, whose camerawork has been praised, extracted an intense performance from Dorothy Mackaill, a mostly-forgotten leading lady from the days of silent films and the pre-code era.

Throughout the movie, Mackaill’s character, Gilda, is an out-spoken, strong-willed woman who gets by the best way she can. Her emotions rule her at times. This causes her to act without thinking and she stirs up some of her own trouble. She’s gutsy to her detriment. She is in constant opposition to the men who want to take advantage of her, from her past clients, to the hotel’s guests to the lawless island authority. You can’t help but like her. She handles the disastrous events that propel the film to the startling and disturbing ending with strength, dignity and resignation.

After the film, William A. Wellman, Jr., who spoke about the film and his father, took questions from the audience. One tearful audience member asked him if it were possible that the movie didn’t really end the way it was shown. She was so caught up in Mackaill’s incredible performance that her suspension of disbelief was still in high gear, fueling her desire for an alternative ending.

I was misty-eyed myself and inspired to find out more about Mackaill. I was intrigued when I found out that she had made more than 70 films. How could an actress, who made that many movies and whose performance could still move an audience to tears more than 80 years later, become so forgotten?

My research continues and I plan to write a brief biography for this website. This research is taking me from Boston to Hawaii. Along the way, I’ve discovered an old publicity photo with strange notations and a date stamped on the back. The date conflicts with what is known about the years of her career. It sounds like a mystery. Check back for more details.

Dorothy Mackaill, forgotten silent film
and pre-code star.
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Safe in Hell
This publicity shot shows a scene in Safe In Hell of Dorothy Mackaill's character, a prostitute. The way she is dressed and her occupation are elements that distinguish it as a pre-code film.
Another characteristic of the pre-code films is that the leading ladies were usually very strong, capable women in roles that would be considered modern even today. Many of the films dealt with issues pertaining to women, which would not appear in films again for decades. After the Pre-code time period ended, women were not portrayed as strong or assertive as often and were more often victims.

Dorothy Mackaill plays a pretty New Orleans prostitute, Gilda Karlson, in Safe in Hell. Soon after the film begins, she smashes a lamp over a client’s head while he is trying to rape her. This man is the one responsible for leading her into prostitution. She leaves Piet Van Saal, played by Ralf Harolde, for dead, acci-dentally setting fire to the building.

Sought by the police for killing the man, she hooks up with an old boyfriend, Carl Erickson, played by Donald Cook. Carl is a sailor and he hatches a plan to smuggle her on a ship to safety on a Caribbean island, which does not extradite to the U.S. During a walk on the island, Gilda and Carl “marry” unofficially without a legal ceremony. She swears to be faithful to him.

Carl leaves her at a seedy hotel, promising to write and send money. Gilda discovers that she is the only woman in a hotel filled with guests who are international criminals. The whole lot is shady, disheveled and lecherous. Particularly lecherous and