Monday, March 4, 2013

Safe In Hell (1931)

WHO: Starring Dorothy Mackaill, a leading lady for First National throughout the mid-to-late 1920s, but who became destined for near-obscurity when her contract failed to be renewed in the process of that studio's envelopment into Warner Brothers. This is the final film she made for First National; the majority of the rest appear to be lost. Oh, and it would be her 110th birthday today.

WHAT: "Fallen woman" Gilda (played by Mackaill) flees New Orleans to escape a manslaughter charge after setting fire to the hotel room of the man who set her on her "fall" in the first place. She ends up on a godforsaken Caribbean isle infested with centipedes and, worse, other criminals trying to avoid extradition. As "the only white woman on the island" she has to fend off their lecherous overtures using methods that just might backfire. Mackaill makes quite an impression in this, the only film of hers I've managed to see, but so do many of the terrific character actors stocking the rest of the cast. Of particular note is Nina Mae McKinney, who you might recognize from King Vidor's 1929 black-cast parable Hallelujah; here she's the proprietress of the hotel where the island lamsters congregate. Making a musical number out of a dinner-serving scene, McKinney turns what could have easily have been just a glorified maid role with a tropical twist into one of the film's most memorable and forceful characters, just with a few extraordinary gestures and line readings.

William Wellman directed five films in 1931 including Night Nurse and The Public Enemy, but for my money this is an even better film than those far more famous ones. (I haven't seen Other Men's Women or The Star Witness yet). For more on Safe In Hell check out Alt Screen's fine round-up.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Roxie. Showtimes are listed as 6:20 and 9:00 but that can't be quite right as the 71-minute co-feature Torch Singer is supposed to start at 8:00. I'm guessing that, rather than running Torch Singer early to get it finished in time for Safe in Hell at 9:00, the latter will in fact have a delayed start time around 9:15 or so.

WHY: It's a highly underrated movie that I don't believe has screened in the Bay Area in many years. And it's one of the most characteristically "pre-code" titles in the Roxie's series devoted to such films, ending this Thursday.

HOW: The bad news: although Torch Singer will screen in a 35mm print from Universal, Safe in Hell is now a Warner title and thus is being shown via DVD. In an extensive conversation with Michael Guillén published at Keyframe, series mastermind Elliot Lavine explains how Warner-controlled films are no longer available for his Roxie programming because that company is trying to force a move to all-digital distribution. 

One could hold out for another venue to try to book Safe In Hell in 35mm; it appears the Pacific Film Archive still has some access to such prints as they're playing (for example) Warner's I Confess this Friday as part of their Alfred Hitchcock series. But is the PFA likely to bring this title any time soon? And how long will even its ability to get 35mm prints from digitally-minded companies last, anyway? (Note that their print of Lifeboat for next Sunday comes not from Fox but imported from England.)  I'd love to see the PFA or someone else reprise the extensive Wellman retrospective that played (almost entirely in 35mm) at New York City's Film Forum a little over a year ago, but I'm not holding my breath for that.

The good news is that a DVD of a pre-code movie can look pretty good on the Roxie screen. This weekend I attended three series screenings, each using different formats. In terms of image and sound quality, the 16mm print of Blood Money left the most to be desired; I've seen much better 16mm projections in that space (though I've seen much worse as well.) Given the rarity of the film, I wasn't about to complain. Of course the 35mm print of Murders in the Rue Morgue was by far the best-looking of the weekend. But the Saturday night DVD projection of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (though made by Paramount, this is now a Warner-owned title, long story short) surprised me in its image quality. It didn't look like film, but it also didn't look like the inferior digital image I'm used to seeing at that venue. I heard there were snafus at the afternoon screening of the same title, however. Here's hoping tonight's presentations of Safe in Hell are as trouble-free as the one I saw the other night; Mackaill's heroine has enough problems to deal with on her own without having to worry about temperamental modern technology.


  1. She retired early to Hawaii, where one of my friends in Honolulu used to run into her bumming around on the beach, or drinking cocktails in a nearby bar!

  2. Addendum: I was just scrolling the IMDB list for the 44 (!) movies they show as playing
    today in the Bay Area, and they offer a nice French poster for Safe In Hell: "La Fille
    De L'Enfer," literally The Girl From Hell, advertised as having dialogue in French. This
    must be a French dubbed version that circulated at some point in Europe, or someplace
    like Quebec. Even though multiple language versions of Hollywood films were being made at
    that time, Safe In Hell is not supposed to be one that was shot in more than English

  3. Brian: You are becoming a better and better writer as time goes along. I just love how you phrase your perceptions, which have become invaluable in my assessment of any film. Thank you especially for the links to the profile piece on Mackaill and the critical overview at Alt-Film and, of course, for the shout-out to my conversation with Elliot. Keep up the remarkable work!

  4. Also, with regard to the 16mm print of Blood Money, I consider the value of that screening to be that Elliot has secured the print from a private collector, which speaks to the importance of private collectors and their willingness to share with a larger audience. The particular collector in this instance made it clear to me that he didn't want his name to be published, as--he implied--most collectors wouldn't for a number of legitimate and paranoid reasons. I found that fascinating.

  5. Michael, your praise for my writing makes me blush redder and redder as time goes along! ;)

    Your interview is one of your most useful for a Frisco Bay cinephile yet; you have just the disposition to elicit candid information about the ever-shifting repertory scene, and Lavine was an ideal choice of subject! I very much appreciate understand the role collector prints play in the creation of a series like this; opening the week with a pair of high-quality features that haven't shown on local screens in many years was imperative for setting the right tone, even if they couldn't be sourced from 35mm. As for the "legitimate and paranoid" reasons for private collectors to remain in shadow, I'm reminded of Kevin Brownlow's remarks when he received an award from the Academy.

    Larry, I was just talking to someone at work about multiple-language versions of early talkies; the only ones I've seen being George Melford's Spanish-language Dracula and the alternate version of The Blue Angel. Are you aware of a master list of all the features that were made/remade in this way?

  6. Brian: There is no definitive, complete work on the multiple language versions that I'm aware of.The monograph, Paramount In Paris (Scarecrow Press, 1998) offers much useful information. There was also a good article way back in January 1978 by Alfonso Pinto (Hollywood's French Language Films) in the magazine Films In Review.The "Catalogue des films francais de long metrage" put out by the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique in 1981 lists the other versions in various languages for 1929-1939 releases made in French, I have noted some additions and
    corrections,The Italian book "Ma L'Amore No" (Sonzogno, 1975) does something similar for the white telephone era.The British Film Catalogue (McGraw Hill,1973) ditto.The volumes of the American Film Institute for 1921-1930 and 1931-1940 similarly For my own purposes since I find the subject fascinating I have compiled from all the tapes/DVDs in my collection, the ones where I have alternate language versions and the missing titles I am seeking, It is a long work in progress but I'd be glad to send it to you.

  7. Thanks for the information, Larry!