Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Pre-code Cinema

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.

Mackaill, who retired in the early thirties after her silent film success bottomed out in sound era, is also a standout in The Office Wife (1930), an hour-long programmer directed by Lloyd Bacon. She plays the golddigging secretary of Lewis Stone and Joan Blondell (in one of her very first screen appearances) is her tart-tongued sister and roommate. Mackaill’s moxie and brass looks forward to Barbara Stanwyck as she takes over Stone’s life and affections without being flirtatious or forward, and Blondell plays entire scene while taking a bubble bath, one of those delicious conventions of pre-code naughtiness. And yet for all the scheming and extra-marital affairs, the film also offers a very frank and mature discussion of a failing marriage and a civil break-up: no jealousy or vindictiveness, just two people who have fallen out of love. The Party Husband (1931) puts Mackaill on the other side, as the wife in a “modern marriage” who discovers that independent lives leads to wandering affections.

And speaking of Joan Blondell, this sexy spark plug of the Warner Bros. pre-code romantic comedies is celebrated in the double-feature disc “I’ve Got Your Number / Havana Widows.” She’s a telephone operator romanced by Pat O’Brien (the most unlikely ladies man of the thirties) in Number (1934), and she double-teams with Glenda Farrell to pose a vacationing widow and hook a rich husband in Havana Widows (1934), both directed by Ray Enright.

Loretta Young dominates the balance of the films in this collection, and reminds us that before she was Hollywood’s good girl, she could have just as much fun as the bad girls. In Loose Ankles (1930), made when she was only 17, she’s quite the forthright socialite who doesn’t have any experience as a wicked girl but is eager to take lessons, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is the would-be gigolo who is just the guy to help her become a scandal. It’s pure lark, but fun, and it opens with a defining pre-code image: a woman’s bare leg from the knee down, a man’s hand caresses the skin and removes the shoe, and then… well, no reason to spoil the gag, but it’s right out of the Lubitsch playbook and a prime example of how these films managed to have it both ways.

She plays two roles in Road to Paradise (1930), a “princess and the pauper” set in depression-era America, with Young as both a socialite and her identical double from the other side of the tracks, drafted to help rob the joint and forced to improvise the role of rich girl when she’s discovered. While the film suffers from early-talkie sluggishness and arch dialogue, a bizarre psychic twist and a ridiculous climactic happy ending make the film, if nothing else, unpredictable. The Right of Way (1930) and The Truth About Youth (1930), however, are almost insufferably slow and stiff, a pair of lumbering, stagebound productions that feel much longer than their under-70-minute running times. (I didn’t review Week-End Marriage [1932], which promotes Young from happy housewife to family breadwinner when husband Norman Foster loses his job.)

Myrna Loy snare David Manners in 'The Truth About Youth'

There’s one more sassy sparkle doing her bit to bring these films to life. Before Myrna Loy became the sexy sophisticate of later-thirties screwball comedies and sophisticated romantic baubles, she was a saucy and sassy supporting player whose sly smiles and bedroom eyes turned every male head in the room. The Truth About Youth briefly flickers to life when Loy comes on slinky nightclub singer “The Firefly,” seducing Young’s betrothed, and she steals the show in The Naughty Flirt (1931), another tale of high-society bad behavior, this one starring Alice White as a brazen socialite who sets her sights on a young lawyer’s in papa’s firm and Loy as a party girl working with a gigolo to grab her fortune.

It goes without saying that these films are filled with scenes of women undressing (behind screens, or with the camera simply dropping to a close-up of their feet, where underclothes suddenly drop to the ankles), lounging in negligees or bubble baths, and the camera teases the audience with suggestion of flesh, but Loy ups the ante in The Truth About Youth when she slips behind a dressing screen after her performance and her smitten caller (David Manners) follows her right up the screen and, with the smile a boy given alone with a cookie jar, gets a good long look at her private performance until she turns around and chases him away, almost playfully. Sex is a game in these films, as long as everyone is playing by the same rules, and that simple freedom can give even the least of the films a spark of modernity and sophistication even as they play it for saucy comedy.

Available exclusively from the Warner Archive website:
Safe in Hell
I’ve Got Your Number / Havana Widows
The Office Wife / Party Husband
The Right of Way / The Truth About Youth
Loose Ankles / The Naughty Flirt
Road to Paradise / Week-End Marriage