SAFE IN HELL (1931)

Dir. William A. Wellman

With its plot about a prostitute who murders an attempted rapist, this pre-Code treasure is, as ads warned, “NOT Recommended for Children.” Kept from the screen after the arrival of Production Code, which had come into effect in 1930 but wasn’t enforced until 1934, this early William A. Wellman film is ripe for revival. The director’s camera work is at times dizzying, almost making the viewer forget that most of the action is confined to a tropical hotel location. In addition, Wellman gets a truly powerful performance from now-forgotten leading lady Dorothy Mackaill. Her performance as a woman fighting back against the men out to control her seems years ahead of its time (though such roles were not uncommon in the pre-Code era). Also ahead of its time is the depiction of the black couple running the hotel. Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse play the only truly decent people in this little corner of hell. Moreover, even though the shooting script has them speaking the broad dialect typical of the day, Wellman instead had them speak perfect English, playing up the dimensionality of their roles in an era of stereotyped black characters.

In attendance: Donald Bogle, William Wellman, Jr.

SAFE IN HELL
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