A Marathon Send Off for Noir City Hollywood 17: Part 2
June 3, 2015
Welcome to part 2 of Noir Hollywood 17's Proto Noir wrap-up! The first two films that screened, The Ninth Guest (1934) and Let Us Live (1939), were posted last week here. Below are the two movies that rounded out the quadruplet: pre-codes Heat Lightning (1934) and Safe in Hell (1931). And yes, they both live up to their scorching titles.
This image, which was one of the original posters for Heat Lightning, was also used for the Warner Archive DVD cover.
Heat Lightning (1934)
In a tiny desert town, Olga (Aline MacMahon) and her younger sister Myra (Ann Dvorvak) run a gas station, auto body and a small restaurant. Olga's no-nonsense (badass) demeanor clashes with her sister's romantic ideals and boredom with their dreary life in such a sleepy town.
Over the next day, action comes in the form of George (Preston Foster), a secret boyfriend of Olga's from years ago, and his buddy Jeff (Lyle Talbot), both fresh from a bank robbery and on the run from the authorities. Comic relief is provided by rich recent Reno divorcees Mrs. Tifton (Glenda Farrell) and Mrs. Ashton-Ashley (Ruth Donnelly), who constantly try to one-up each other and bicker non-stop over money, men, and their poor driver Frank (Frank McHugh).
Even visitors Mrs. Tifton (Glenda Farrell) and Mrs. Ashton-Ashley (Ruth Donnelly) find this tiny desert town boring.
When George catches wind of the divorcee's jewels, he sets out to steal them so he and Jeff can take off, smooth talking/seducing Olga while he's at it as he tries to find ways to access her safe. While Olga is dealing with the possible rekindling of an old flame, Myra sneaks out to a 'local' dance with a guy her sister disapproves of, and for good reason. Everything comes to a head in the wee hours of the morning, when Olga is forced to take drastic action that results in tragedy.
Ann Dvorak biographer Christina Rice split intro duties with Alan K. Rode and shared some background info on the actress, who was poised to be a big star in the early 30s. It seems that potential took a nose dive real quick after Warners bought out her contract, and she promptly left the country with her husband...for a year. Usually that's not a smart move to make. Astonishingly, Warners did not punish her as severely as one may think, but they didn't give her many good roles (or roles at all, though she was still getting paid) from thereon out.
Don't they look like real sisters?! Olga (Aline MacMahon) and Myra (Ann Dvorak) holding down the fort.
As I previously mentioned, of the four movies screening that evening, this was one of two I had seen before (the other was Safe in Hell). After watching it again, I can definitely say Heat Lightning was my favorite of the night. It's by far one of the most unique pre-codes I've ever seen, filled with a distinctive cast of characters who brought to life an offbeat, smoldering script that is extremely well executed on the screen.
I particularly loved the brilliant Aline MacMahon as the tough, fearless Olga - a woman mechanic, say what? - and how she outwardly showed strength around her customers and Myra but inwardly grappled with her femininity and a certain vulnerability that came with George and the rehashing of her past.
Olga not looking amused by her ex, George (Preston Foster).
The supporting cast turned in stellar performances as well, starting with Ann Dvorak, who accurately captured the essence of youth quietly bursting from the seams (naturally with some lessons to learn still). The dynamic between MacMahon and Dvorak, not to mention the physical resemblance, felt incredibly realistic. Bad boys Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot, the latter in more of an 'innocent' role than I feel like I usually see from him, gave this film a suspenseful noir touch, while comedy trio Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly, and Frank McHugh provided plenty of pre-code naughtiness (ahem, Farrell and McHugh. Looking at you two).
The explosive ending is distinctly pre-code (hint: there are no consequences for certain deadly actions) while also harboring some pretty intense film noir tendencies. I mean, Olga's no femme fatale, but her actions and lack of remorse mirror the best of them!
What I believe is a Swedish poster for Safe in Hell, also an image used for the Warner Archive DVD.
Safe in Hell (1931)
Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) turns to prostitution after her boss Piet (Ralf Harolde) rapes her and basically fires her. Great guy, right? Piet later calls on her professional services, and upon finding out it's him, Gilda knocks him out and accidently sets fire to the place. Piet is killed and Gilda rushes home to clear out as the cops are hot on her trail. Conveniently, her formerly-at-sea sailor lover Carl (Donald Cook) arrives around the same time. Though he's upset with her career choice during his absence, he forgives her and helps her escape.
This is how we meet Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), comfortably answering a call for her job.
Carl arranges for Gilda to hop a boat to the only island in the world with no extradition law. The catch? The island's own laws are very strict. Staying in a rundown hotel with a group of men with varying levels of danger but an equal amount of desire for her, Gilda vows to honor her commitment to Carl and keep to herself (they tried to get married on the island but the minister died. Go figure). However, Gilda soon begins to feel like a prisoner and finally caves into the promise of action, or at least admiration, from the men downstairs.
As time goes by, it turns out Piet faked his death, is on the lam, and checks into the same island hotel where Gild resides. Off the hook for his murder, Gilda ecstatically makes plans to return to New Orleans with Carl. Unfortunately, a corrupt sheriff, Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), has his eyes on Gilda and illegally plants a gun on her which she uses when Piet makes an ill-fated advance. Carl returns to take her home, but he's just a smidge too late, because now Gilda is a bona fide criminal and must face her punishment. Will she make it off the island alive?
And these would be the men downstairs, fighting for a chance to light Gilda's cigarette.
Muller called Safe in Hell a “masterpiece of sleaze,” which I think is pretty spot-on. To be honest, I hadn’t watched the film in some time, and though somehow I remember it as being dirtier than it is, I still have no idea how it was given the green light in 1931. (To be clear, though, it still comes across as extremely wretched). The movie partly reminds me of 1932's Kongo, which I recently watched, in that both are sordid tales with a horde of deplorable, slimy male characters; furthermore, both stories take place in insanely hot climates and feature several men who reek of such a nasty stench that you can almost see the filth emanate off the screen.
I could write much more about Safe in Hell, and perhaps I will sometime in the future, but for now, I'll highlight the most outrageous pre-code points. Besides the extremely overt implications of Gilda's career and earlier rape, the men, aka criminals, in the hotel must have been the seediest characters the writers could have dreamt up. I mean, while Gilda's holing herself up trying to maintain her promise to Carl, the men's morning ritual consists of lining up in chairs, panting like dogs, and waiting for her to come downstairs for their sordid thrill of the day. Though they seem like they'd instantly attack her (and one or two do), when she eventually lowers her walls for companionship, surprisingly most of the men become her friend. Yes, you read that right. Their quick transition from shady oglers to trusted allies is one of the only plot points in this film that irritates me!
However, there's still the extremely slimy Mr. Bruno to contend with, a man whose pants can never seem to stay up, which makes him that much worse. His disgusting backhanded scheme to get Gilda to be with him – illegally giving her his gun and then pinning the cops on her - is deplorable, and even Gilda knows it. Though it looks like only the possession charge will hold (as opposed to that small charge of murder), that equates to serving time in Bruno's personal prison camp, which sounds so horrible to Gilda that she'd rather go to the gallows. Her final blow to Bruno - telling him that the only time he'll have his hands on her is when he puts the noose around her neck - is pretty damning. I mean, if your main character prefers what amounts to suicide to a prison/sex camp, that’s pretty pre-code. Horribly and utterly pre-code.
I wouldn't want to be in that jail if I were Gilda, either.