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Film / Safe in Hell

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It's hard out there for working girls...
Safe in Hell (1931) is a William A. Wellman pre-code film starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook.

After murdering her rapist, Gilda Carlson (Mackaill) runs to a southern tropical island with the aid of her sailor boyfriend, Carl (Cook). The tiny island is the refuge of many criminals avoiding penalty from the law. The men, however, are starved for white women (this is the racist '30s), and when Gilda comes, they are smitten just because of her double x chromosomes.

Gilda has vowed to remain faithful to Carl as he sails around the world, and the men aren’t much to tempt her anyways. But hiding in her room all day eventually makes her stir crazy. To make matters worse, the local police chief, Bruno (Morgan Wallace), sets his eyes on her, willing to do anything to make her his.

The film includes Nina Mae McKinney, as Leonie, the hotel manager. She was a black silent film star, dubbed the “Black Garbo” who would eventually leave Hollywood for Europe for better roles.


This film shows the following tropes:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Gilda acts cold towards all the men's advances, but she still craves company. It turns out that the five men living in her hotel aren’t so bad just sadly lonely.
  • All Men Are Perverts: The men definitely want to be with Gilda in more ways than one, but the most dangerous man, and the most perverted, is Bruno.
  • Blackmail: Bruno gives Gilda a gun with the intention of using it against her. Gun possession is illegal on the island and punishable by death. During her trial for the “second” murder of Piet, he tells her (as it’s obvious she’s going to get off the charge) that she must become his sex slave or he’ll bring her in for her gun possession. Instead of trying to save her neck, Gilda confesses to the murder of Piet, preferring the noose than becoming Bruno’s slave.
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  • Artistic Title: The opening title of the film opens with "Safe in Hell" in flames.
  • Break the Cutie: Bruno’s intention with Gilda. He wants her to be his sex slave for this trope’s purpose.
  • Big Damn Kiss: The first one is a kiss between Gilda and Carl before their long separation. The second kiss is between Gilda and Carl for their eternal separation.
  • Cigar Chomper: Bruno. His cigar generally shows his mood: up is good and down is bad.
  • Crapsack World: The tropical island is hot, disgusting, and wildly different from the USA.
  • Defiled Forever: Gilda was raped by Piet. Because of this, she becomes a prostitute. Averted with Carl, as he still marries her even with her hooker past.
  • The Dog Bites Back: When Piet returns from the dead, he tries to rape Gilda again. She, now in possession of Bruno’s gun, kills him without a second's hesitation. And he stays dead.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Rather than become Bruno’s sex slave and become unfaithful to Carl, Gilda decides to go to the gallows with her head held high.
  • She's Got Legs: The first shot of the film has Gilda answering the phone with her legs up resting on her desk.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Gilda for obvious reasons. She tries her best to keep her virtue while on the island.
  • Love Martyr: Gilda would rather die and stay faithful to Carl than become a prostitute or sex slave.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Like the above She's Got Legs shot, we see Gilda in her underwear a lot.
  • Must Have Nicotine: Although Gilda is stowed away on a ship that holds oil (!), she still smokes away because she's so bored.
  • Never Found the Body: Gilda believes that the champagne bottle she threw at Piet was enough to kill him and everyone says that he was killed in the fire. But a body was never found. And it turns out, he didn't die!
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: As Gilda walks off to the gallows, the sun is setting in the distance.
  • Sex Slave: This is what Gilda wants to avoid at all costs especially at the hands of brutal Bruno.
  • Title Drop: Bruno announces that the island is a great place to hide and admits that everyone there is “safe in hell.”


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