My local art house is running another series of Pre-code movies this month. This is the third series, so having run through the most iconic and most egregiously batshit insane of the Pre-code films like Baby Face and Red-Headed Woman in previous installments, this series delves into the more obscure films. The kick-off film this year is William Wellman's Safe In Hell (1931), which is everything you want in a Pre-code film and then some. It's salacious, sophisticated, and surprisingly downbeat. It's all kinds of awesome.
The story in this film finds "working" girl Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) on the lam after she accidentally kills a client with whom she has a history. On the eve of fleeing New Orleans, Carl, her sailor boy lover returns and she has to tell him how she's been earning a living and why she's hellbent to get out of town. He chokes back his disapproval. Love is true, it seems, and he offers her an option: he'll take her to a flyspeck island in the Caribbean where there's no extradition treaty. This doesn't work out quite the way everyone wants. Carl sets her up in a hotel and trots her off to a church to marry her, but he has to return to his ship. He extracts a vow from her to leave her past behind. Unfortunately, Gilda is the only white woman on the island, and the other various fugitives and lowlifes on the island draw her into their sights. The men at the hotel take turns trying to romance her, but she spurns every offer. She vows to be good, and she takes it seriously. The man who is the real threat to her is Bruno the Hangman, the local constable and executioner who runs a prison camp on the other side of the island. He's a piece of work. He intercepts her letters from Carl and generally works to isolate her. Meanwhile, Piet, the man who she thought she killed, shows up. He's on the lam, too, because he used the accident Gilda caused as a springboard for insurance fraud. Gilda realizes that she can go home. Unfortunately, neither Piet nor Bruno is ready to give her up. Bruno gives her a gun, hoping to frame her for possession of a deadly weapon. Piet, on the other hand, attempts to rape her, during which Gilda uses the gun to kill him. Soon, she's on trial for murder...
As cinema, this is par for a good early talkie. It's essentially a stage play, but director William Wellman shoots the film in a way to give his limited number of sets a sense of reality and depth. Wellman was a storyteller as a director--he's not a formalist except where he can adapt form to tell a story--but that works for this period of filmmaking. The movies were still figuring out how to tell stories with the technical limitations imposed by sound and those technical limitations crippled more ambitious films than this one. I'm surprised to find non-diegetic music in this film, but Wellman was known for his impatience with the conventions of film in the early Pre-code era. He famously ripped a camera off its mounting while making Wild Boys of the Road, refusing to let sound put the kibosh on decades of advances in filmmaking technique. This film, made two years earlier, is a bit more restrained. And that's fine. The material works in a more limited idiom. Pumping up the melodrama with tricky, expressionist lighting or a more mobile camera might have caused the pot to boil over. Wellman knows what's important and puts that on the screen at the expense of any kind of narrative fat.
There's so much bubbling underneath the surface of this film, I scarcely know where to start. Let's start with Gilda. She's a familiar figure from Pre-code movies: the whore with the heart of gold. She also has a familiar character arc. Like the heroines of movies like Baby Face and Rain, she starts hard-boiled but goes soft in the end. This is a little disappointing. It's always a little disappointing in Pre-code films when dynamic, hardboiled women go a soft, but it happens so often that you get used to it. This sort of character arc provides a moralizing cover for the utterly nasty things in Pre-code movies even if it diminishes their heroines. There's a strong feminist quality to the depictions of women in Pre-code movies. Women are far more self-determined in these films than they are later on. They have much more autonomy when it comes to deciding what to do with their own bodies. But there's always a grain of salt. Safe In Hell completely subverts all of this. It doesn't matter if Gilda redeems herself in the end: the patriarchy still destroys her. Given that Gilda is damned either way, I prefer the bad-girl iteration myself, because the "bad" Gilda has a good deal more personality, spark, and self-assurance than the "good" version. Dorothy Mackaill is a far more dynamic actress when she's fencing with the men who mean her ill than she is when she's a devoted little wifey. She makes use of a terrific talent for mimicry and a willingness to move her body in ways "nice" girls don't. She looks good in garters, too. By contrast, the "good" version of Gilda consists of the actress staring up at the camera with glistening eyes, hoping for her prince to come. Ironically, her prince DOES come and it doesn't actually make a difference. There's a telling "language of cinema" element to this. The camera tends to look up at the "bad" Gilda, or at least meet her at an eye-level, but the camera almost always looks down at the "good" Gilda. In the lexicon of classic Hollywood, looking up at a character indicates power. Looking down at them indicates powerlessness. This strikes me as significant. Wellman tips his hand here.
I frame the plot of this film as a fairy tale when I describe Gilda as waiting for her prince, and that's not an idle comparison. This is a specific fairy tale. It's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with the various lowlifes in the hotel playing the role of the dwarfs. There's an inversion of social structures in these characters. These men are all moral voids, whether it's the revolutionary general in exile, the fallen lawyer, the murderous Swedish boat captain or what have you, but they all find a redemptive nobility eventually. Their sexual desire for Gilda eventually gives way to a respect and a paternalistic love for her. When she's at her lowest, they're there for her and they don't judge her. Contrast this with the film's representative of law and order, Bruno, who has no respect for Gilda beyond a sexual interest, and no respect for the law except for how he can manipulate it to satisfy his own desires. This is essentially subversive. It's the kind of film that could only have been made in the early 1930s, when the Great Depression had put all social institutions under a skeptical magnifying glass. This was the height of the labor movement, and it calls to mind Emma Goldman's assertion that the policeman is the enemy of every working man. When the film puts Gilda's change of heart against this backdrop, it's suggesting that no good deed goes unpunished, that it's the lowlifes and outcasts and "Others" who are virtuous and "respectable" society that's corrupt. Gilda's moral transformation is for naught.
Race relations in this movie are equally damning toward the conventions of Hollywood, particularly once the bluenoses get their way after 1934. The first thing one notices about the black characters in this movie is that they don't speak with an affected "ethnic" dialect. Nina May McKinney and Clarence Muse both have accents (New Orleans and Caribbean, respectively), but they aren't accents that demean or other either character. McKinney, in particular, is striking for being the proprietor of the hotel (even if that role has an overtone of servitude), for having an air of sexuality about her, and being able to hold her own in a room full of white men. She is self-determined and not an adjunct to the narrative of a white character. The movie gives her the opportunity to sing "When It's Sleepytime Down South," thus stealing the camera's gaze away from the white people for a while. Mind you, this is still a pretty racist movie. This is still an example of white people playing out their drama against a "native" backdrop that functions as a symbol of the id, but it's a LOT more tolerable than most such narratives. There's a racial dimension to the sexual politics in the film, too. There's a running gag throughout the film in which the various men rush to light Gilda's cigarette. This is a coded sexual act, and when in one scene she spurns the white men and lets Newcastle light it for her instead, one of her spurned suitors lashes out at the man. The meaning to an audience of racist white men who are suspicious of the sexuality of black men is plain and this scene is incendiary, if you'll pardon the pun.
Sexuality is at the core of this film, even despite its moralizing at the end. The film doesn't judge Gilda for her past or even her present, which is refreshing. There's an air of punishment in the way the film ends, I won't deny it, but it's a punishment that shows up patriarchal authority as essentially murderous when thwarted. It's not Gilda's fault that Bruno sees women as his personal property, nor is it her fault that he won't give her up even if it means she has to destroy herself rather than submit to him. This is a rape narrative, and in the way this is framed, it's men who come out on the short end of the stick, particularly given that by the end of the movie, Gilda is almost a paragon of virtue. The sexual narrative is explicitly symbolized by the cant of Bruno's cigar during the latter part of the movies. When he thinks he has her, it's at an upward tilt. When she finds a way to elude him, it sags. Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar, after all.
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