The unremitting sleaziness of William Wellman’s 1931 “Safe in Hell” has earned the film a place in the pre-code pantheon, as well as a recent release as part of the Warner Archive Collection.
Playing a New Orleans prostitute who takes it on the lam after braining her ex-lover with a bottle of bootleg hooch, Dorothy Mackaill provides a memorably hard-bitten presence, but the role turns out to be something of an anomaly for the British-born actress, who had achieved minor stardom in the 1920s in a series of light, working-girl comedies made for First National. Mackaill worked with some of the leading comedy directors of the period, including Alfred Santell (“Subway Sadie,” 1926) and William A. Seiter (“Waterfront,” 1928), but the vast majority of her silent work is lost, making an accurate appraisal of her career an impossibility. Although she made an easy transition to sound, she was one of several First National stars whose contracts were not renewed when the studio was taken over by Warner Brothers, and by 1934 her career was effectively over.
Nevertheless, encouraged by the WAC release of a Mackaill double bill, “The Office Wife” (Lloyd Bacon, 1930) and “Party Husband” (Clarence G. Badger, 1931), as well as by the coincidental appearance of Thornton Freeland’s 1932 “Love Affair” as part of a TCM/Sony Humprhey Bogart collection, I press ahead in this week’s New York Times column with an attempt at an appreciation. If anyone has seen other Mackaill performances, or would care to recommend other overlooked performers of the period, please share.