director William A. Wellman
“She’s the only white woman on the island.”
Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a prostitute in New Orleans, accidentally kills an old lover who played her dirty. And now she needs to get out quick!’ Enter her seafaring beau, back from long months all over the globe.
“I’ve made my living the only way I could.”
Initially taken aback by this, Gilda’s fiancee still loves her and secrets her away to a small island nation in the Caribbean with no extradition policies. She’ll have to hide out, “Safe in Hell” while he ships out again.
William A. Wellman’s Safe in Hell bears it’s origins as a play, but it’s also primo pre-code storytelling and characterization: those on the outsides of “polite society” who would not find their lives depicted after the Hays Code kicked in, plus frankness about sex, and in some cases, a very humanitarian outlook.
I’d just watched Wellman’s Frisco Jenny of the following year, which held some very similar aspects. The lead Gilda is a strong woman, acting in self-reliance, doing what she has to in order to live. True, both Jenny and Gilda end up taking noble stances that ultimately lead them to the gallows, though this tragic ending further empowers their noble motivations rather than acting as pure punishment.
Another great bit of repartee:
“May I ask you senior what are your intentions for the chicken? Honorable I hope?”
Safe in Hell also has a pretty nice jazzy score, and a all too brief singing performance by Nina Mae McKinney (“The Black Garbo”).
director William A. Wellman
Frisco Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, among the remnants of the Barbary Coast. She’s a young girl in love (and “in the family way”) when the 1906 earthquake hits and devastates the city and more specifically, Jenny herself. Poverty and begging alongside the slum preachers isn’t feeding her baby, so Jenny turns to the oldest profession and her own self-reliance.
William A. Wellman’s Frisco Jenny is pre-code Hollywood telling stories that would soon be deemed to salacious or racy to be frankly depicted in the years to follow. Jenny creates an empire, initially through managing other prostitutes, but then other madams as well. Her sly and not altogether on the level attorney Steve Dutton gets her out of many a jam, but also sets her up to lose her child into a wealthy foster family, setting the stage for later tragedy.
The character of Jenny is self-reliant and self-made, despite the limitations available to her and her reality of her times. The film’s empathy lies with her. And it’s interesting to see how empty the promises of the preacher, and later the grandstanding and self-righteous district attorney, typical emblems of societal correctness, echo hollowly.
(1931) dir. William A. Wellman
I’ve been digging on the “pre-code” era of Hollywood of late, so I queued up Night Nurse, a Barbara Stanwyck film about a girl who ends up training as a nurse, and finds herself in over her head with a couple who are trying to starve two little girls to death for their trust fund. The movie has a mixed vibe. At first its snappy patter and situational humor make it seem like a comedy, but the film does move over into the crime and violence direction in the last part. It has a lot of fun stuff in it.
Mostly, I enjoyed the dialogue, the humorous expressions and language of the day. And the film does show some seamy stuff, such as the drunken good-for-nothing mother, the bootlegger boyfriend, Clark Gable as the heavy punching Stanwyck in the mouth, and the suffering of child abuse. It’s got a lot of that stuff that is pretty racy for the time.
There seems to be quite a lot of opportunity for Stanwyck to change clothes and spend some scenes mostly in her undergarments (That’s the gratuitious nudity of the day). And she’s great, either in the snappy back-and-forth or in the more dramatic telling off of Gable for his crime of murder.
By far the most unusual thing is the ending, in which comeuppance comes in the form of a body bag, and the good guys basically murder the bad guy, smiling about it as they ride off “into the sunset” as it were. It is the odd thing about the pre-code period, this mixture of racy topics and seamy stories with tacked-on morality often in contrast to the darker stuff. There was actually a decent documentary on the disc as well about the period, giving more context to the “why” this period was the way it was and what all brought it to an end.
Still, a pretty fun flick.
(1931) dir. William A. Wellman
After watching Little Caesar (1931) and White Heat (1949), I knew it was time for me to watch The Public Enemy. Being the other Warner Brothers gangster film from 1931 that pretty much ignited a genre and set archetypes that are still implemented by the likes of Martin Scorsese today, these pre-code flicks showed the American dream and underbelly as interconnected and perversely twisted. The Public Enemy is also the film that made James Cagney a star, and he is excellent as the tough-talking Irish-American hoodlum, raised in the city (Chicago) and primed for crime.
It’s also interesting as a pairing with the later Cagney film, White Heat, as that film in some ways extends the character into middle age, or a similar, further-hardened gangster. Because in The Public Enemy, we see Cagney’s Tom Powers from his early mischief as a boy and his growth and mentoring into the world of gangsters, perfectly primed for the onset of Prohibition, as the gangs glommed onto a prime underworld market that allowed them to develop, grow powerful and become more dangerous, with more to lose.
The film is directed by William A. Wellman, a solid Hollywood director, whos Beggars of Life (1928) I saw last year at the Silent Film Festival. And Wellman moves well into the sound era, a strong director of action and movement. It’s taut and solid, with some highly iconic moments, most notably when Cagney shoves a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face, a simple but palpable action of disgust and cruelty.
It’s good stuff. I am queueing up more pre-code films, as well as more silent era films. My latest deep delve into cinema. Oh yeah, and some more James Cagney!
(1928) dir. William A. Wellman
viewed: 07/14/07 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
Screened at the Castro Theatre as part of San Francisco’s annual Silent Film Festival, director William A. Wellman’s 1928 feature about two a homeless hobo couple on the road, trying to make it to Canada and facing many of the hardships of the period is a striking and very appealing film. The film’s biggest selling points are the starring role of Louise Brooks in what is considered the best of her American films and the very effective location shooting that adds to the verity and realism of the film.
I am one of the many who believe Brooks to be among the most beautiful women to have ever graced the Silver Screen, yet I have actually seen very few of her films. Wellman is one of those directors, as well, who may not reside in the ultimate pantheon of American film, but certainly was a strong and effective filmmaker, who I also have less familiarity with than perhaps I should.
I did really admire this film and really appreciated the experience of seeing on the big screen, but am strangely at a loss for more to say on this film as a whole. So I’ll leave it at that.