Safe in Hell put me on a Dorothy Mackaill kick. I’m sure it’s done the same for others and thanks to the Warner Archive we can now more immediately fulfill the craving. I’ve watched several Mackaill talkies over the past few months and while she elevates everything I’ve seen her in, none of the other titles can compare to Safe in Hell.
Mackaill is like a chameleon to me, her performances often calling better remembered actresses to mind. In Party Husband (1931) she carries herself with all the elegance of Kay Francis; in The Office Wife (1930) she’s as down to earth as screen sibling Joan Blondell will soon be considered; and in Bright Lights (1930) she’s really doing her own thing but until you know better she’s swinging it like Joan Crawford in her flapper days.
Perhaps it is because Dorothy Mackaill is a relatively new phenomenon for me that my mind seeks out comparable, more familiar talent. It also speaks to the variety of Mackaill’s roles and her ability to excel anywhere between sweet and sassy or tender to hard-boiled.
But it is Dorothy Mackaill’s best movie, Safe in Hell, that most naturally calls another big star of the period to mind: Barbara Stanwyck.
Mackaill’s Gilda is tough. Circumstance robs her of potential happiness and she finds herself exiled to the worst imaginable place. She fights hard to regain the future she’s spoiled. She battles to redeem herself for her man. Tossed in a lion’s cage she first keeps her safe distance before emerging to fit right in with the rest of a very ugly pack.
One could easily see Stanwyck of this period, the one who had previously worked for Safe in Hell director William Wellman in Night Nurse (1931), carving this out as one of her early signature roles. And so it was far from a shock when I learned that Barbara Stanwyck was associated with Safe in Hell more than once during its lengthy pre-production period.
Does the film miss Stanwyck? Not at all. Dorothy Mackaill brings her own charms to the part including all of the the legendary Stanwyck's New York swagger. Not bad for a girl Yorkshire born and bred.
If you've yet to run across Safe in Hell you may have spotted Miss Mackaill in No Man of Her Own (1932), best known as the only film co-starring Clark Gable and future wife Carole Lombard. Dorothy Mackaill is third billed, but she really only figures in a couple of scenes. At the open, pre-Lombard, Gable jilts Mackaill just after we meet his crew of card cheats. Mackaill then disappears for much of the movie only to pop up much later to share a scene with Lombard. Rather than the anticipated cat fight Dot knocks down a few drinks that Carole pours for her before making an amiable departure.
By the time of No Man of Her Own the bulk of Dorothy Mackaill’s film career, and certainly her best days, are behind her. This seems shameful when considering No Man of Her Own was released only about a year after Safe in Hell, the film which has all but single handedly resurrected Mackaill in our age.
But back at the end of 1931 critics and columnists didn’t receive Safe in Hell all that warmly. Praise was reserved mostly for Mackaill and Nina Mae McKinney, who plays Leonie, the melodic hotel manager. But the film, especially the ending, was savaged by many.
Film Daily thought Safe in Hell “comes to a disappointing ending that will get a razz from most audiences.” Motion Picture magazine called it “disappointing at the end because so much of it has been so very good.” Dan Thomas complimented Mackaill but thought that, “the cast accomplishes little because of the regulation unbelievable movie twist in this otherwise good story.” Photoplay reported that “The only redeeming thing about this picture is the fine work done by Dorothy Mackaill and Nina Mae McKinney, the colored actress. The story is sordid.”
Viewed through a modern eye the only thing disappointing about the ending of Safe in Hell is the practically obstinate dedication Mackaill’s Gilda has to her pious and bland sailor boyfriend, Carl, played by Donald Cook. In a world filled with crooks and murderers, one which Gilda fits in with just fine once her hair is down, Cook’s Bible toting Carl seems a bit of a stretch as her match. Love conquers all, I suppose, but Carl isn’t the fit I’d imagine for Gilda at all.
While I count myself as a fan of William Wellman, especially his pre-code work, his characters do seem a little black and white during this period. Not as fully developed as they’ll be later on beginning around the time of and certainly including A Star Is Born (1937). His pre-code women seem a lot tougher than the norm and stand as more complete characters than the men of his films, who seem trapped somewhere midway through adolescence. Safe in Hell practically plants us inside a high school locker room with its collection of lecherous psychopaths, a group which easily overshadows Mackaill's naive knight in shining armor.
Watching later interviews with an elderly Wellman, a nasty old codger who charmed me nonetheless, I could easily imagine him taking his own chair in the lobby of Safe in Hell and fitting in pretty well with the other boys. I just as easily imagine him having a hard time putting his finger on a character like Carl, who needs to be good, yes, but winds up on too high a pedestal for either Gilda or the audience to stomach.
Gilda herself, thanks to Mackaill, seems far more in her own skin at the open of Safe in Hell, when her madam lines up a date for her, and again later, when she believes Carl has abandoned her and she joins in with the lower element inside the island hotel. Dorothy Mackaill makes for the perfect Wellman heroine because she’s got the attitude to overcome no matter how many creeps Wellman tosses in her path.
The lowest of them all turns out not to be a convict, but Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the feared law enforcer on this anonymous Caribbean island. Bruno explains the charms of his island: “While we do not believe in the international law of extradition, our own laws are very strict. But as long as you behave yourselves here you are safe from both jail and gallows—safe in hell.”
It is definitely a constrained freedom offered to tourists on Mr. Bruno’s island. The typical stay is a sentence in itself: upon arrival there are no plans for departure. While Mr. Bruno may keep his island from ever being labeled a tropical paradise, it is far more palatable than life in a small jail cell or, more likely for anyone winding up there, the execution chamber.
Mackaill’s Gilda Carlson makes passage to the island hidden in a crate below deck of the ship her boyfriend serves upon. Had Carl (Donald Cook) arrived just a day earlier none of this would have been necessary, but as Safe in Hell unfolds it’s quite obvious that Gilda and Carl never enjoy good timing.
Carl had left Gilda in the employ of Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), an insurance agent who Gilda claims “broke into my room one night and stayed there.” Afterwards she made her living “the only way I could.”
Her trouble started after she received the call from Angie (Cecil Cunningham) lining up a date with a friend whose wife was out of town. “Show him a good time,” the madam suggests. Angie’s friend turns out to be Piet and Gilda can’t contain herself from an ugly scene. She pays him back for past misdeeds with a smack across the face and a bottle that turns out to be a bit too well flung.
Piet is knocked cold and his cigarette catches the curtain on his way down. A bellboy spots Gilda leaving as the hotel bursts into flames.
Gilda is still asleep when Angie calls her with the tip off the next morning. Piet’s dead and the bellboy squealed on Gilda. That’s when Carl arrives, fresh off his ship and ready to marry Gilda. Until she springs her story on him. He gives her a smack across the face but when the police sirens swell he comes to her aid. That’s how Gilda found herself boxed up below deck.
“Sure this ain’t the YMCA?” Gilda wisecracks as Carl brings her to the island’s hotel. “I don’t like the looks of those fellows at the hotel,” Carl says a little later, just before he’s to leave. Carl’s a perceptive fellow.
There are five of them, one worse than the next. There’s the lawyer (Charles Middleton), self-described “as crooked as they make them.” Egan (John Wray), the safe cracker—it’s a good idea to keep the brandy away from him. We up it a notch with Crunch (Ivan F. Simpson), who walloped a guy that never got up from the blow. General Emmanuel Jesus Maria Gomez (Victor Varconi) takes great pride, a little too much, in his multiple assassinations of Presidents and Vice-Presidents alike. And my favorite, the old-timer Larson (Gustav Von Seyffertitz), who tells his story without a hint of remorse:
“I burned my ship. Unfortunately the passengers and the crew were either drowned or roasted to death. I and the cook, we managed to save ourselves. He met with a little accident afterwards. I collected the insurance for my boat, eighty thousand dollars. And I hope to live happily ever after.”
“Amen,” says Gilda, the only lady amongst this group of damned exiles.
While the five gritty criminals and Mr. Bruno, sleaziest and most dangerous of them all, make for a fun movie experience, Safe in Hell is elevated beyond that by the performance of Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda.
In her natural state Gilda does what she wants and survives by her wits. Being good doesn’t come natural. But Mackaill successfully shows us her struggle to make herself good for sailor Carl, who folds her hands over his Bible as he prepares to leave her for the first time and tells her, “all you got to do is believe.”
Gilda tries hard. But she’s a flapper at heart, same as Dorothy Mackaill, and her free spirit is eventually the victim of boredom.
She tosses and turns in her bed. She musses her hair in the mirror, anything for change. Soon she appears on the balcony, standing high above the five men who’ve leered and waited ever since she’s arrived. She’s like a junkie whose fix has just kicked in as she throws her arms in the air and comes down to be center of attention.
“Wine is what you need, senorita,” one of the men suggests. “Wine is only part of it,” Gilda replies. “Oh boy, am I glad to be here!” she adds, a bit too obviously.
The next morning—which actually turns out to be late afternoon—there’s a knock on Gilda’s door. She’s sleeping it off and none too happy to be roused, but no matter her condition the night before Gilda still had sense enough not only to lock her door but also jam a chair up against it for more absolute protection.
It’s Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney), the hotel manager, bringing a bottle from one of the men. “Those bozos don’t mean a thing to me and they never will,” Gilda tells her. She explains, “I went downstairs last night because I had to talk to someone or go crazy.”
Gilda has lost hope because she stopped hearing from Carl. “You’re mighty high handed now,” Leonie says, “but the rent’s coming due and you’ve got to eat. Why they all got money … and maybe your gonna need somebody before you get through, because I’ve been fooled by them sailor boys myself.”
While another dose of circumstance saves Gilda from the pack of criminals down below and renews her hope in the process, Mr. Bruno wields enough power to crush any chance of physical freedom. Strong-willed Gilda forces his hand. Gilda finds salvation when Carl pays one final visit, reminding her, “Didn’t I tell you whenever something happens it’s always for the best as long as you believe in Him. Was I right?”
“I’ll never be bad again,” Gilda vows knowing that Mr. Bruno will soon by eying her throat. Even in a pre-code film a wanton woman can’t overcome her past. But no matter what is to become of her, Gilda can hold her head high as Safe in Hell comes to an end.
Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton adapted Houston Branch’s unproduced stage play Safe in Hell for First National Pictures. The film, eventually released December 12, 1931, first gained mention in the April 1 edition of Film Daily which anticipated it as “one of the biggest productions on the Warner program for the year,” slated to be directed by Roy Del Ruth.
Within a couple of weeks Barbara Stanwyck was attached as the star of Safe in Hell and soon Del Ruth was reassigned and Michael Curtiz was tabbed to direct.
Stanwyck had the unique distinction of being under contract to two different film studios, Columbia and Warner Brothers. She was set for Safe in Hell at First National, by then under Warner Brothers’ control, after completion of her next project at Columbia, Forbidden. But when Stanwyck walked off the Columbia lot after a disagreement with Harry Cohn over money she was also barred from working at Warner Brothers.Stanwyck was out and Marilyn Miller was cast in the lead of Safe in Hell, now retitled The Lady from New Orleans, in May. Curtiz was still to direct with a supporting cast including several of the players who would eventually wind up in the finished film plus J. Farrell McDonald and Boris Karloff.
Reports differ but Miller either backed out or fell ill and Lillian Bond was cast to play opposite David Manners, presumably in the role of Carl which was ultimately played by Donald Cook.
“I thought this was my chance,” Bond said upon reflection in 1941. “I worked hard to learn acting. I studied my lines every spare moment. Even at lunch. And the press agent wanted me to eat one noon with a newspaper correspondent. I was too busy. I asked that no reporters be allowed to see me.
“This same press agent came by the set the next afternoon with two newspapermen. I went into hysterics. Darryl Zanuck was in charge of the studio then.
Over at Columbia Harry Cohn was trying to get Helen Hayes to replace Stanwyck in Forbidden, but Hayes had to make Arrowsmith and do retakes on Lullaby, so that seemed unlikely. Perhaps it was the Hayes rumors that reopened the possibility of Stanwyck doing Safe in Hell for First National because in late August Film Daily was reporting that Stanwyck “will probably be the star” in the film that now had William Wellman attached as director.
The timing is a little muddled, but columnist Robbin Coons reported that First National assigned Dorothy Mackaill after the Lillian Bond experiment. Then they had to halt production when it appeared Stanwyck was coming back. Coons’ article of October 8 had Safe in Hell in limbo.
On the other hand Film Daily placed Mackaill in the lead as of September 13 and within another two weeks announced the full and final cast with Manners out and Woods in. Once everyone was settled into their proper places work proceeded smoothly and by the week of October 18 filming was completed with plans for a December 12 release that actually came off on time.
Besides Donald Cook Safe in Hell is filled with performances ranging from intriguing to strong. Count among the former that of Victor Varconi as the revolutionary whose voice peaks to a practical squeak as he relives his murderous past. John Wray is one of those character actors who has drawn my notice often recently and his Egan remains consistent with other characters I’ve seen him play—the guy scares me! Gustav Von Seyffertitz’s codger Larsen reminds of that latter day Wellman I mentioned earlier. Cecil Cunningham wasn’t in Safe in Hell for very long, but she’s so effective that I almost thought Wellman had gone out on the streets and grabbed a real madam from his favorite bordello. Nina Mae McKinney earns her praise and it was interesting to come across response from the black press who seemed to promote Safe in Hell as an important film for their community of actors. While McKinney was clearly the top African-American performer in Safe in Hell, I’m always happy to see Clarence Muse and got a kick out of the British accent he adapted for his porter, Newcastle. “Righto,” coming from Muse’s lips? Priceless.
But that entire group is basically window dressing when it comes to Safe in Hell. This is Dorothy Mackaill’s film and she makes the most of it.
Making your way from Safe in Hell to Mackaill’s own biography the first thing that’s going to throw you for a loop is the fact that was born and raised in Great Britain. But you’re not going to find a trace of Mackaill’s Yorkshire accent in this, nor any of her other talkies. She began working to get rid of that in Europe and especially once she hit New York in the early ‘20s as one of Ziegfeld’s girls. By the time of Safe in Hell she sounds as though she was born a block away from Stanwyck.
Born in 1903 the teen-aged Mackaill had made her debut in a bit part in a British film, but her silent movie career really got rolling once she was in America. She’s such a natural in later talkies that it is surprising to learn that she made her name pre-sound, but the provocative flapper could constantly be heard chirping away to the papers and fan magazines, who good-naturedly reported on her string of men and her modern attitudes towards relationships.
Her first marriage, to Lothar Mendes, only lasted a couple of years before ending with a 1928 divorce. Her second marriage came on the heels of completing Safe in Hell, and seems at least partially responsible for what we now view as her swift decline.
Mackaill’s own story was that she left the screen to be with her husband, an idea backed up by a Photoplay article claiming that she and crooner Neil Miller, her second husband, lived modestly upon his income alone.
Mackaill had settled on Miller after breaking with Joel McCrea and stirring the marriage rumor mill with links to both Walter Byron and John McCormick. By mid-1932 into ‘33 Mackaill had all but disappeared from the fan magazines and it was reported that she had embarked upon a vaudeville tour with Miller. Perhaps a case of the more famous spouse trying to prop up her lesser known husband’s career? Whatever the case, when divorcing Miller just three years later Mackaill stated that he had objected to her motion picture work.
Besides being a free spirit in her social life, Dorothy was known to give the studio a hard time as well. After refusing to appear in River’s End for Warner Brothers in 1930 she bolted home to England. Ordinarily this may have killed her career but her previous film, The Office Wife (1930), proved a hit and Warner Brothers brought her back.
According to DeWitt Bodeen in his 1977 biography of Mackaill for Films in Review the studio worked its way around any further difficulties with Dorothy by simply loaning her out whenever she turned up her nose at a project offered by the home studio. At a time when stars couldn’t say no to the studio that they were under contract to this couldn’t possibly have made Dorothy a favorite with the Warner high command.
Perhaps the simplest answer was Dorothy’s own. She had wished to devote herself to being Miller's wife, though she did work sporadically until their split in early 1934. The Bodeen biography incorrectly has Dorothy married to third husband, orchid grower Harold Patterson, from shortly after her divorce from Miller through 1938. That timing would possibly aid in further explaining Dorothy's departure from film, but in actuality she and Patterson did not wed until June 13, 1947. This turned out to be the briefest of Mackaill's three marriages, her divorce granted just before the calendar turned to 1949.
Another explanation that Mackaill gave for leaving the screen was that she wished to spend time with and care for her mother. But perhaps her career had just run its course.
She appeared in just another half dozen movies after No Man of Her Own, only one of those for a major Hollywood studio, MGM's The Chief in 1933. Following 1934's Cheaters she played on stage but never made it back to Broadway, where she'd last frolicked for Ziegfeld in 1921. Her final film, Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1937), was made in Britain. 33-year-old Dorothy Mackaill is as lovely as she had ever been and despite being back home still sounds just like she had back in Safe in Hell.
In the 1950s Mackaill happily retired to her favorite haunt, Hawaii, where she remained single the remainder of her days but surrounded herself with others via a permanent address at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. “I love it. I swim every morning and enjoy the Aloha spirit which is very much alive here,” she told Nancy Anderson in 1976, the year she resurfaced for the first of two eventual guest appearances on the television show Hawaii Five-O for her friend Jack Lord.
Asked about her time as a Hollywood star, Dorothy said “I’ve burned all my early pictures.”
She died in Honolulu, August 12, 1990 at age 87, and has only grown in prominence since that time. She has Safe in Hell to thank for that.
The screen captures illustrating this page were taken from my copy of the film as it played on TCM. I expect the Warner Archive edition is clearer than what I show you here.
For another look at SAFE IN HELL please see Will McKinley's write-up at Cinematically Insane HERE.
- Anderson, Nancy. “Yesterday’s Stars Today—Aloha Spirit Charm Dorothy.” Sentinel and Enterprise 28 Oct 1976: 9. NewspaperArchive. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
- Bodeen, DeWitt. “Dorothy Mackaill.” Films in Review. Dec 1977: 577-584.
- ”Columbia, or Else, Barbara Must Decide.” Motion Picture Daily 30 Jul 1931: 1-2. Media History Digital Library. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- Coons, Robbin. “Or Safe Somewhere.” Kalispell Daily Inter Lake 8 Oct 1931: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- Film Daily 55 (Jan-Jun 1931). Media History Digital Archive. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- Film Daily 56-57 (Jul-Dec 1931). Media History Digital Archive. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- Othman, Frederick C. “Four Times Miss Lilian Bond Had Her Chance to Become a Great Movie Star.” Telegraph-Herald 21 Dec 1941: 21. Google News. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- "People." Oakland Tribune 31 Dec 1948: 5. NewspaperArchive. Web. 16 Nov 2012.
- ”The Picture Parade.” Motion Picture 43 (Feb-Jul 1932): 67. Media History Digital Archive. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- ”The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay (an-Jun 1932. Media History Digital Archive. Web. 15 Nov 2012.
- Thomas, Dan. “Movie Chat.” Olean Time 25 Nov 1931: 3. NewspaperArchive. Web. 15 Nov 2012.