Safe in Hell

Safe in Hell is a 1931 American pre-Code thriller film directed by William A. Wellman and starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook, with featured performances by Morgan Wallace, Ralf Harolde, Nina Mae McKinney, Clarence Muse, and Noble Johnson. The screenplay by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton is based on a play by Houston Branch.[1]

Safe in Hell
Swedish theatrical release poster
(the same graphics were used
for the U.S. DVD release)
Directed byWilliam A. Wellman
Written byAdaptation & dialogue:
Joseph Jackson
Maude Fulton
Based onA play
by Houston Branch
StarringDorothy Mackaill
Donald Cook
CinematographySidney Hickox
Edited byOwen Marks
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 12, 1931 (1931-12-12) (US)
Running time
73 minutes
CountryUnited States

A copy is held in the Library of Congress collection.[2]


Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute. She is accused of murdering Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man responsible for ending her former job as a secretary and leading her into prostitution. Her old boyfriend, sailor Carl Erickson (Donald Cook), smuggles her to safety to Tortuga, an island in the Caribbean from which she cannot be extradited. On the island, Gilda and Carl get "married" without a clergyman to officiate, and she swears to be faithful to him. After Carl leaves on his ship, Gilda finds herself to be the only white woman in a hotel full of international criminals, all of whom try to seduce her. Especially persistent is Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), who describes himself as "the jailer and executioner of this island". He arranges to intercept letters Carl sends to her and steals the support money he includes. Bruno's intention is to make Gilda think Carl has abandoned her, hoping she will seek his assistance once she becomes desperate for cash.

Later, Gilda is astonished and relieved when Van Saal suddenly arrives on the island. It turns out that he had not been killed by her. He instead had feigned his death and enlisted his wife to collect on his $50,000 life-insurance policy. Once he had gotten the money, Van Saal abandoned his wife and then fled after she "squealed" to the authorities about his fraud. Bruno, now pretending to be concerned for Gilda's safety, gives her a pistol to protect herself. When Van Saal comes to her room and attempts to rape her, Gilda shoots and kills him. She is tried for murder and seems destined for acquittal by a sympathetic jury. While awaiting the official verdict, Bruno tells her that even if she is found innocent, he will arrest her for possessing the "deadly weapon" he had given to her. The sentence will be at least six months in his prison camp, where he will provide her with very comfortable living conditions, although she will be expected to give him sexual favors in return. To foil Bruno's trap, Gilda rushes back to the judge and gives a false confession of killing Van Saal "in cold blood", preferring to be executed rather than break her vow to Carl. The film ends with Gilda, followed by two policemen and Bruno, slowing walking to the gallows.[3][4][5]


Cast notes

  • Unusual in mainstream Hollywood productions of the time, the characters portrayed by the main African-American actors in Safe in Hell—Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse—are almost the "only positive and reputable" figures in the film.[6] The two minority actors also spoke in standard American English in the film, even though their lines had been written originally in "'Negro dialect'".[6] William Wellman's biographer, Frank T. Thompson, speculated that either McKinney and Muse, who were popular favorites at the time, had enough clout with the studio to avoid using a racially stereotyped style of speaking or Wellman "'just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche.'"[6]
  • McKinney sings "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", written by Leon René, Otis René and Clarence Muse for the film.[7]


Filming of Safe in Hell began in mid-September 1931, under the working titles of Lady from New Orleans and Lost Lady, and was completed a month later, on October 18.[8][9]

The production was originally scheduled to be directed by Michael Curtiz, and the casting of some male roles in the film initially included David Manners, Boris Karloff, John Harrington, Montague Love, and Richard Bennett. First National Pictures also considered Lilian Bond and Barbara Stanwyck for the part of Gilda.[9]


At the time of its release, Safe in Hell was publicized as being "Not for Children".[9] Time magazine gave the film a mixed review, noting that "Safe in Hell is crude, trite, sporadically exciting."[10] The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette derided the film as illogical and unintentionally humorous: "Miss Mackaill is too good for the likes of her role while the villains are acted with self-conscious bestiality and amusing indifference. ... " It called McKinney's performance "the best thing in the picture."[11] Variety, a leading entertainment trade publication of the period, found the film's storyline implausible as well and its overall tone excessively dark. In its review, Variety also noted that McKinney and Muse's performances provided the few bright spots in an otherwise "depressing" production:

Picture's story is hardboiled and sordid. Too much so most of the time, which is "Safe in Hell's" chief deficiency. Dorothy Mackaill plays a bad lady all the way to the finish, when she reforms morally while on her way to the gallows ... A sad and unsatisfactory finish is obviously an attempt to lend credence to an impossible yarn. It doesn't help, for as long as the story is thoroughly unbelievable up to the finish, no ending could change that impression. Those who go for this sort of stuff won't care for the exit ... Nina Mae McKinney, with one song, and Clarence Muse are the colored comedy relief, but up against too much of a handicap in the form of a constantly depressing air of evil which prevails throughout the picture.[12]

See also


  1. "AFI|Catalog".
  2. Catalog of Holdings The American Film Institute Collection and The United Artists Collection at The Library of Congress (<-book title) p.157 c.1978 by The American Film Institute
  3. "Overview" (Full Synopsis), Safe in Hell, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Broadcasting System, a subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc., New York, N.Y. Retrieved January 22, 2018.
  4. Wollstein, Hans J. "Overview: Synopsis", Safe in Hell, Allmovie. Retrieved January 22, 2018.
  5. Stafford, Jeff (2008). "How Low Can You Go?—Safe in Hell (1931)", review with film-related images, Streamline of FilmStruck, originally posted January 12, 2008. Retrieved January 23, 2018.
  6. Fristoe, Roger. "Safe in Hell (1931)", TCM. Retrieved January 22, 2018.
  7. "Soundtracks", Safe in Hell, Internet Movie Database (IMDb), a subsidiary of Amazon, Seattle Washington. Retrieved January 23, 2018.
  8. "Original Print Information", Safe in Hell, TCM. Retrieved January 23, 2018.
  9. "Notes", Safe in Hell, TCM. Retrieved January 23, 2018.
  10. "Cinema: The New Pictures: Dec. 28, 1931" Time (December 28, 1931). Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  11. Cohen, Harold W. "Dorothy Mackaill at the Warner in 'Safe in Hell' and 'Three Wise Girls' At The Davis and Enright". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 1, 1932. pg 17. Retrieved November 29, 2014.
  12. "Bige" (1931). "Safe in Hell", Variety (New York, N.Y.), December 22, 1931, pages 15, 19. Internet Archive, San Francisco, California. Retrieved January 21, 2018.
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