Safe In Hell (1931)

Film Review


Release Date: 12 December, 1931

Studio: First National Pictures

Director: William Wellman

Starring: Dorothy Mackaill, Donald Cook, Ralf Harolde, Charles Middleton

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2013

Safe in Hell was presented as part of the Journeys of Self Discovery theme at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Film historian Donald Bogle discussed the film with writer/actor/producer William Wellman Jr., son of the well-regarded director.


A prostitute (Mackaill), believes that she has killed a client (Harolde) who was attacking her. Her sailor boyfriend (Cook), takes her to a small island where he believes she will be safe from the law. She must wait for his return, and she pledges her faithfulness. The island is home to a motley group of criminals who are also sheltering from arrest. The strongman of the island rules absolutely. He wants Mackaill, but she refuses him. Harolde, who was not killed, appears on the island, and Mackaill thinks that she will be able to go home. However, Harolde attacks her again, and this time she does kill him. At her trial she is defended by a disgraced lawyer (Middleton). She is about to be acquitted when the strongman tells her that she will be arrested for possession of a gun and spend 6 months in jail under his control. Rather than submit to him, she confesses to murder. The penalty is death by hanging. As she is led away, she asks Middleton to send Cook a letter telling him that she remained true.


Donald Bogle introduced William Wellman Jr., who as an actor who appeared in several films, such as High School Confidential (1958), College Confidential (1960), and Black Caesar (1973), as well as many TV series, such as Rawhide, Laramie, and Combat. He wrote a book about his father, The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture (2006). Wellman Jr. discussed his father's career. Wellman Sr. loved making movies and in the early 1930s he made many films for Warner Bros. He did not control the projects or the casts. The studio assigned films, and a casting director chose the cast.

Dorothy Mackaill probably was chosen because she was available at the time the film was about to start. An experienced actress, Mackaill is an excellent choice for the character; she is entirely believable as a woman who has been well used by men and earnestly wishes to remake her life. Wellman was assigned a lot of pictures about women who are either in trouble or are causing trouble. Of 18 films he made at Warner Bros. from 1930-1933, eight were "women-in-trouble" films. He worked well with major female stars, such as Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard.

Wellman was creative with this downbeat film. He added in humor (especially involving the motley assortment of criminals,) a variety of camera angles, and different approaches to opening and closing scenes. The cast includes two black performers who play the owners of the hotel where Mackaill and the criminals are living. Nina Mae McKinney, a talented singer and actress, had starred in King Vidor's first talkie, the African-American musical Hallelujah (1929). She sings Sleepy Time Down South, which was written by Clarence Muse, Leon Rene and Otis Rene in 1931. Her rendition may be the first filmed version of this jazz standard. Clarence Muse, who plays her husband, had a cultivated British accent rather than the racist "movie dialect" spoken by African American men at the period. His first line surprises the viewer who expects the usual derogatory dialect of a black character in a film from this period (this same element of surprise is used to comic effect in his appearance in Flying Down to Rio, 1933).