What I love and why I love it -- mainly classic stars and movies of the golden age. Backstories, links, sidelights -- details like these increase your enjoyment of classic films. What do they say to us now? Who were we then, and how did we solve our problems? What did we believe -- and what have we forgotten?
11 October 2014
The Essence of Pre-Code -- Safe in Hell
The denizens of the island menace Dorothy Mackaill
William A. “Wild
Bill” Wellman is usually thought of as a man’s director; most of his best-known
films – "The Public Enemy," "Wild Boys of the Road," "Call of the Wild,"
"Battleground" – are pretty macho. But despite his persona as a man’s man,
Wellman always displayed respect for women, and interest in their problems. He
doesn't treat his female characters as prizes standing around waiting to be won
by men, or as window dressing; they usually have their own independent agendas.
Think of such films as “A Star is Born” or “Lady of Burlesque.”
woman-centric movies are the pre-code, possibly because the code limited what
could be said about women’s experience. Drama wants to take the audience to the
extreme of danger; but some of the extremes women face became unmentionable
with the production code. Before the censorship kicked in, however, Wellman
made two astonishing films with female protagonists, “Lilly Turner” with Ruth
Chatterton and "Safe in Hell" with Dorothy Mackaill. The latter in
particular takes pre-code frankness just about as far as it can go.
extraordinary and disturbing film concerns Gilda, a young woman forced into
prostitution, who kills a would-be rapist in self-defense. She flees, escaping to Tortuga, an island
outside the law's jurisdiction (just like in the old pirate days), where she is
surrounded by a collection of thugs and racketeers similarly hiding out. As it
turns out, she might have been better off standing trial -- she's almost the
only woman on the island, and these guys aren't exactly trustworthy.
contains the single creepiest display of lechery I have ever seen in any film.
The local low-lifes hang out in the lobby of the island's only hotel, lounging
in the lobby in a row of armchairs. When the attractive Gilda first steps
through the door, you see each one of them change position, his legs falling
open, aiming his crotch directly at her. It is extremely gross, and it
certainly makes clear the new danger the heroine is facing. I don't know how
Wellman got away with it.
Gilda is a resourceful girl, for she has to spend much of her time fending off
these specimens. There are startling twists to the story; the man she was
supposed to have killed turns up alive, but ironically this doesn’t help her
much. The film is also notable for presenting completely unstereotypical black
Wellman draws detailed, motivated performances from his actors – everyone from
the direst villain to the bellhop knows what he’s doing and why -- and Dorothy
Mackaill is always wonderful. This isn’t a cheerful or happy picture, but it is
a gripping drama. In the production code years, some of the tools for creating
that drama – the specific threats of rape and violence -- were forbidden.
Despite the fact, of course, that they remained just as real in the real world.