Credit: Warner Bros.

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Safe in Hell: Nina Mae McKinney and the Pre-Code Poetics of Sex, Race and Power

Ruairí McCann

Safe in Hell (1931) is not a movie that is raised too often as a major title of the pre-Code era, and yet when discussing those six years and their frequently frank and complex depictions of the problems of gender, sex, race, money and power, it is indispensable. Directed by William A. Wellman, it stars Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda, a prostitute who finds herself on the run when, in self-defense, she kills a past tormenter back for more. Gilda tells her wet blanket boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook), a sailor who just returned from the high seas. He is judgmental but committed, and so he helps her out by whisking her away to an unnamed Caribbean country where there is no law of extradition, in order to wait until things blow over. She finds herself alone, cooped up in a sweat-soaked old hotel—a pungently prurient and artificial hothouse of the sort usually associated with Sternberg. Here, not only does she have to indeterminably wait but raise her guard again, her chief company being a motley crew of safe haven seeking scoundrels who all have their sights set on her as the only white woman on the island.

When we are first greeted by these chittering hyenas, one of them jeers that now Gilda is around they will have to stop saying words that end in “it, itch and ore”. It is a telling moment, not only of the film’s seedy sense of humour and atmosphere, but that its power relations will largely be sketched out and fought through false smiles and gritted teeth, with euphemisms, feigned politesse, and hamming with a covert purpose. 

The men are both players and spectators, with a line of chairs set out in the main room facing the balcony where Gilda’s room resides. One by one, they attempt to seduce Gilda, though time and time again they fail. Wellman delineates this macho pecking order through the staging of movement in and around these chairs. Out of this legwork, it is clear that the dick on top is Mister Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the local police chief and hangmen, and so endowed with enough license and licentiousness to make Gilda’s life hell, whether she refuses him or not. He is the only one with total freedom of moment, coming and going as he pleases. When he is around the bottom feeders leap out of his way in order to give him a seat, while those on the next rung, manoeuvre verbally with considerable caution, veiling their provocations and insults.

Gilda has to play this same game of horny man’s bluff, both more assertively and carefully, in order to survive. It is a real showcase of Mackaill’s talents, for in the process she essentially plays two women. In her room, Gilda can act more loosely because she is relatively safe, with just the ocean view out of her window for company. This becomes an almost perverse recurring image, a rare breather from the movie’s bunker-like setting yet It’s sheer openness and passivity is a constant reminder of her purgatory. 

When the door to her room opens, all evidence of any vulnerability is tamped down. She becomes a sardonic stone-face, a performed version of what people assume her to be as a ‘fallen woman’. Her carefully metered out delivery sharply contrasts with the overexcitable waffle of two of her most persistent suitors, the self-described ‘General’ Gomez (Victor Varconi), whose tendency to squeak she mocks, and Egan (John Wray), a safe cracker with a jolly demeanour that masks an explosive temper. With his slow drawl, fitting to his overstuffed lizard’s comportment, Mister Bruno is her only real match.

The politics of accent and self-presentation extends to and past the colour line, with the positions occupied and the respective lilts of the movie’s three black characters, all played by African-American actors. They include Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the hotel manager, Leonine, with whom Gilda forms a makeshift bond in solidarity as Louisiana women and the guests’ most frequent objects of harassment. 

The black characters sit at the bottom and the brunt of this unstable but still hierarchical social sphere, occupying servant roles to masters who are consistently daubed in colonial white. Their little acts of rebellion, more often than not, jab under the cover of playfulness or obsequiousness. There’s bite to Leonine’s sporadic sprechgesang and to the posh intonations and elegant clumsiness of her porter, the urbane Napoleon (Clarence Muse). Even the stock, quiet menace of Mister Bruno’s mute right-hand man Bobo (Noble Johnson), is unexpectedly complicated by an act of charity near the film’s finish.

According to actor and writer William Wellman Jr., this subversive use of language can be directly attributed to his father. The Safe in Hell script, credited to Maude Fulton and Jerry Jackson, came to Wellman after it had already gone into production with Michael Curtiz as director. This shoot aborted after a few days because the executives at Warner Bros. were unhappy with the dailies, and so the project landed on Wellman’s lap. Giving the script his own revision, he added a lot more humour, expanded certain roles and altered McKinney and Muse’s dialogue, removing the filter of racial stereotyping and bestowing more individualized and relatively realistic vocabularies and cadences. 

McKinney was a rarity, for a brief time a black woman star in the studio system. Her part was significantly beefed-up by Wellman, including the addition of a musical number, “Sleepy Time Down South”, (co-penned by Muse and later made famous by Louis Armstrong). McKinney’s presence in the film is supporting but indelible, as a wry ring-side agitator and conscience. Her character’s subversive qualities, and her own career’s initial course, together construe a significant example of the pre-code era being a period in popular culture with more wriggle room than the larger societal structures that surrounded it, or many of the industry aesthetics that would follow. 

Born in 1912, McKinney’s screen career began after being spotted as a Broadway chorus girl by director King Vidor. He subsequently hired her to be the female lead on his first sound film, the all-black cast operetta, Hallelujah! (1929). The movie is distinctive for Vidor’s incredible expressionistic direction and its progressivism, the latter inextricable from the use of stereotyping and certain received assumptions about the milieu it depicts. Its estimation of backwoods black life is that of a prelapsarian rural idyll, infiltrated and then scuppered by a Dionysian urban society, as embodied by McKinney’s temptress, Chick. And yet, through her gusto and Vidor’s attachment to the unabashedly industrious and emotional, McKinney’s performance breaches the constraints of easy caricature.

Safe in Hell was only her second major role and arguably her final significant part to play within the Hollywood system. For despite a star contract at MGM, a first for a black woman, McKinney began to land unflattering supporting roles and bit parts of the sort that would be standard gruel for actors of colour working within mainstream movies. She found more stable, if not better, work in British television in the mid-to-late 30s, before returning state-side by the end of the decade, where she became a star in ‘Race Pictures’. An underground industry of Black-produced and starring movies for theatres serving Black audiences. She would return to Hollywood in the 40s, but never again would she be the star. The pre-Code era then represented a golden period in her mainstream career, and a time where it was possible for a young, working-class black woman from rural South Carolina to bask in the limelight.

Gilda too, reaches the limits of autonomy through performance. Her gambit of keeping body and soul together by aping and beating the men at their own game reaches its zenith midway, when she seemingly gives in to their pestering and joins them for a drink. They all get to puffing up their chests through telling their own tall tales of past misdeeds, but she manages to counter them with her own story, and by being a tough emcee. The moment when she commands these hard-bitten rogues to rush at her beck and call for a cigarette, she temporarily takes Mister Bruno’s spot as the alpha and Wellman’s stylized, yet clear and direct film sense reaches its own height. Yet however sclerotic, the wielders of power soon move to correct this insubordination. 

A movie like Safe in Hell, which deals with the tribulations of a sex worker and with misogyny, racism, and sexual assault in a heightened, yet open fashion would be close to inconceivable in Hollywood just three short years later. The strict implementation of the production code would usher in a reign of outside pressure but self-imposed censorship that would not end until thirty some years later. 

It is not as if classical Hollywood henceforth was a desert which, sometimes, can seem to be the implication when vaulting pre-code movies and their virtues, or rather the virtue of their lack of virtue. Rather, Safe in Hell is just one wonderful instance of what is possible when certain passageways are not sealed shut. This could be contrastingly compared to the state of Hollywood filmmaking the last decade and change, as it is a form which has become almost completely hermetically sealed off from artistic infiltration, and the influence of the hoi polloi down whose throats its ‘content’ is rammed. 

The intended audience of every major studio movie has become as wide as possible, in terms of not just age but nationality and creed. There are exceptions but this has generally translated to making sure the movies themselves have less bang for your buck. Sex is still likely to ruffle feathers so out it goes, and in its place, a new puritanism. It is one of various factors which has made Hollywood a dream factory that is drifting further away from the actual experiences and desires that fuel fantasy. 

Safe in Hell was born to a very different time in American cinema. One where society’s ills, and the day in and day out reality of being a human being, was not just relegated to suppressed subtext or completely lasered out, but were often the bread and butter of a rich, popular art.