William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-known pre-code film, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone.
Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with some prohibition gin and takes off, accidentally setting the hotel on fire.
Wanted for Piet’s murder, Gail goes on the lam. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her onto a ship and drops her off on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws.
Before Carl takes off on his maritime tour, he marries Gail and promises to send her monthly expenses, but mean island executioner Bruno (Morgan Wallace) intercepts the letter and takes the money.
Having faked his death, Piet shows up at the island and tries to rape Gail, who shoots him dead. Bruno offers to defend her in exchange for some nookie, but she’ll hang before breaking her wedding vows.
OK, it’s a tad melodramatic in the scripting and in some of the performances, but Mackaill’s feistiness and Wellman’s brisk direction override the films flaws, delivering a superior pre-code effort. Although it’s typical of early 1930s output in having little music and static vignettes, it moves quickly and preposterously, akin to late Hitchcock. Mackaill bounces off the walls and often gets physical, not hesitating to give one brute after another a slap to the face. Safe in Hellplays fast and furious with the Curse of Eve mindset. Gail refuses to be a receptacle for thugs; she’s the most ethical person in the film, and takes a hooker martyr’s sweaty halo. Lurid and emotionally charged, it’s not only pre-code, but ahead of its time and still relevant.
At the opposite end of the timeline—one of Hollywood’s last full-throttle orgies before the Production Code began rigorously enforcing moral censorship— Mitchell Liesen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanitieshas something for everyone. There’s Duke Ellington (who belongs on jazz’s Mount Rushmore) and his big band playing “Sweet Marijuana,” (so sweet, it almost inspired me to light up, and I hate pot); a nymph dick (private eye, that is); and interracial can-can dancing with scantily clad gamins and Busby Berkeley-like choreography. It’s a celebration of the end of prohibition, along with the eroticism of (unpunished) murder, with winks and fast-talking, wisecracking semi-pornographic dialogue.
It’s not as plot-oriented as Safe in Hell, and hell, I’m not even sure the plot is relevant whatsoever. It’s more of a musical comedy than a whodunit: you’ll guess whodunit within seconds, but you won’t give a hoot. It’s all about the wackiness of a lost time period. If you’re attached to anything approaching “realism” or “believability,” stay the hell away. It’s my personal favorite pre-code film, although it’s by no means the best, one that I’ve revisited countless times. It makes me warm all over.