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Safe in Hell

Channeling Movies: Sex and Sin on Pre-Code Fridays on Turner Classic Movies

‘Red Dust’

Turner Classic Movies is turning all the Fridays in September over to films from that brief period in the early thirties when the studios thumbed their collective noses at the toothless Production Code and pushed the boundaries of sex, violence, and bad behavior without judgment or consequences in film after film. The iron boot of censorship came down in 1934 and stomped out all that deliciously salacious content, but for a few years Hollywood acknowledged and even flaunted sex between consenting adults (married or not). The films from this era were branded “Forbidden Hollywood” when they were rediscovered and revived for audiences in the 1990s, but today they are better known as Pre-Code. Turner Classic Movies has four full Fridays full of forbidden Pre-Code delights.

While there are gems aplenty throughout the month, I’ll spotlight a few of the most interesting and audacious rarities and lesser-known glories, including two from the coming Friday line-up.

Set those DVRs now!

Friday, September 5:

Safe in Hell (1931) – Think of this as a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a merciless brutality by William Wellman. It stars the largely forgotten Dorothy Mackaill as a scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and she is amazing as the hooker who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the spiritual with equal commitment.

Dorothy Mackaill is hardly ‘Safe in Hell’

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MOD Movies: ‘Safe in Hell’ and other Pre-Code Pleasures

11 sassy, sexy and sometimes stiff early sound pictures with attitude from the Warner Archive.

When Hollywood was trying to find its way in the early sound era, learning to work around the sudden production constrictions imposed by sound recording and editing while struggling to find its own distinctive voice and delivery, it was also getting downright racy. It flaunted the sexual play of unmarried couples (and worse, the affairs of married characters with other partners), the flagrant boozing at the height of prohibition, and the thrill of bad behavior, which it presented without the requisite lessons learned soon to be imposed on Hollywood productions by the Production Code, reluctantly accepted by the studios (the alternative was separate censorship boards in each state, a much more demanding and expensive proposition for the film industry to deal with).

Dorothy Mackaill in 'Safe in Hell'

Not all the pre-code movies took that attitude, of course, but a couple of decades ago a handful of sauciest of these otherwise forgotten films were branded with the promise of “Forbidden Hollywood” for a retrospective that led to a line of VHS releases, followed by laserdisc and, finally, DVD. And while most of the best of these films have already been resurrected and released – I’m talking about Night Nurse, Baby Face, Heroes For Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, Murder at the Vanities, Three on a Match, not to mention Scarface and Bride of Frankenstein (this attitude is not limited to any one genre) to name just a few – there are still films to discovered and savored, in some cases for just a scene, in other for a full length appreciation.

All of which is introduction to a wealth of pre-code titles recently made available via manufacture-on-demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive. It’s a mixed collection, by which I mean there are some real discoveries here along with some misfires, and Safe in Hell (1931), a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a brutally by William Wellman, and its star Dorothy Mackaill are the most exciting of said discoveries.

The forgotten Mackaill is a kind scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and in this film she is perfect as the all-but-in-name prostitute who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge and lands in a jungle slum that the dregs of the western world have taken refuge in. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman makes it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the almost spiritual with equal commitment.

Keep Reading