Safe in Hell (1931): Wellman’s Pre-Code Thriller, Starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook

William A. Wellman directed Safe in Hell, a pre-Code thriller, starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook.

The screenplay by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton is based on Houston Branch’s play.

Safe in Hell was in production under the working titles of “The Lady from New Orleans” and “Lost Lady.”

Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill), a New Orleans prostitute, is accused of murdering Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man responsible for ending her  job as a secretary.

Old boyfriend sailor Carl Erickson (Donald Cook) smuggles her to safety to Tortuga in the Caribbean, from which she cannot be extradited. On the island, Gilda and Carl get “married” without clergyman to officiate, and she swears to be faithful.

After Carl leaves, Gilda, the only white woman in a hotel full of international criminals, is being seduced by many men. Among them is Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), “the jailer and executioner of this island,” who intercepts letters from Carl and steals his support money.

Later, Gilda is astonished relieved when Van Saal suddenly arrives on the island. He had feigned his death so that his wife can collect his $50,000 life-insurance. Once he got the money, Van Saal abandoned his wife and then fled after she “squealed” about his fraud.

Bruno gives Gilda a pistol to protect herself. When Van Saal attempts to rape her, Gilda shoots and kills him. She is tried for murder and seems destined for acquittal by sympathetic jury.

While awaiting verdict, Bruno tells her that even if she is found innocent, he will arrest her for possessing the “deadly weapon.” To foil Bruno’s trap, Gilda rushes back to the judge and gives false confession of killingl “in cold blood,” preferring to be executed rather than break vows to Carl.

The film ends with Gilda, followed by two policemen and Bruno, walking to the gallows.

The film suffers from implausible narrative and poly points, and the overall tone is dark and grim.  It is marked by a depressing conclusion that could only exist in the pre-Code era.  Yet Wellman’s direction is characteristically fast and taut and the acting, especially by Dorothy Mackaill (in a role that Stanwyck was born to play) is serviceable.

Rather unusually, the characters portrayed by the African-Americans–Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse–are the story’s main positive and reputable figures. The two spoke in standard American English, though their lines had been written originally in “‘Negro dialect’.”  McKinney and Muse, who were popular at the time, must have had clout with the studio in order to avoid the racial stereotypes.

McKinney sings “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” written by Leon René, Otis René and Clarence Muse.


Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda Karlson
Donald Cook as Carl Erickson
Ralf Harolde as Piet Van Saal
Morgan Wallace as Mr. Bruno, the jailer and hangman
John Wray as Eagan
Ivan Simpson as Crunch
Victor Varconi as General Gomez
Nina Mae McKinney as Leonie
Charles Middleton as Jones, a lawyer
Clarence Muse as Newcastle, the porter
Gustav von Seyffertitz as Larson
Noble Johnson as Bobo, a policeman
Cecil Cunningham as Angie
George F. Marion as Jack


TCM showed the movie on April 9, 2020.