Safe in Hell (1931; William Wellman)
By Daniel Barnes
*The Hollywood Before the Code series runs every Wednesday night through March 30 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
Safe in Hell is one of the five films that William Wellman directed in 1931, along with The Public Enemy. Three on a Match is one of the six films that Mervyn LeRoy directed in 1932, along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They worked on breakneck schedules for relatively small salaries. The cameras were heavy and awkward to wield; the lamps were blazing hot; the sound equipment restricted movements. Contract employees were borderline indentured servants and could get loaned out to other studios at any time. But I’m sorry, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, I interrupted your story. You were telling us about the time that you got cold and had to put on an extra sweater?
The Motion Picture Production Code got adopted in 1930 (it just wasn’t enforced until 1934), so “Hollywood Before the Code” is a somewhat misleading name for this Elliott Lavine-programmed series, which started last Wednesday and runs through March 30 at the world-famous Castro Theatre. Most of the films in the series come from the early 1930s, so they’re not so much “pre-Code” as they are the dying gasps of a cinematic era.
But what dying gasps! Shot and edited with Wellman’s usual violent economy, Safe in Hell follows Gilda (an excellent Dorothy Mackaill), a career girl turned prostitute turned accidental murderess from sultry New Orleans to an even sultrier South Pacific island immune to extradition laws. On this island of the damned, she attracts the attention of the white-suited lawman sadist who runs the place (“So they say my jail is worse than my gallows, eh?”), as well as every male gargoyle and sex addict living there. It’s a film of powerful faces, but for all of its seedy atmosphere and leering grandeur, it’s really about the limited options of women in a male-dominated world. Gilda can be a wife, or she can be a prostitute, end of list.
Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match boasts a much more recognizable cast, with Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak in the leads and Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in supporting roles, although the 65-minute runtime indicates they intended the film as program filler. A sweeping epic condensed to an hour, Three on a Match opens in 1919 on the eve of Prohibition. The film tracks the swerving fates of bad girl Mary (Blondell) and good girl Vivian (Dvorak) over the next dozen years. It’s soapier and squarer and less atmospheric than Safe in Hell, but it comes with that same level of visual efficiency. A typical LeRoy sequence moves from object to person to environment with brutal fluidity. And holy shit, what an ending!