A young Barbara Stanwyck was considered for the starring role as the exiled call-girl in this extremely frank pre production-code drama directed by William A. Wellman from a play by Houston Branch). The role eventually went ot Dorothy Mackaill, an evocative British-born veteran adept at playing less than respectable women. Mackaill is Gilda Karlson, a call-girl fleeing New Orleans the supposed murder of her latest "john," Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde). Old boyfriend Carl Erickson (Donald Cook) arranges for safe passage to Tortuga, a Caribbean Island without extradition laws. After "marrying" the girl in the eyes of God but without the benefit of clergy, Carl leaves on his ship. Having successfully kept an international array of escaped crooks at bay, Gilda suddenly finds herself face-to-face with Van Saal, still very much alive and on Tortuga because an insurance scam went astray. The island's jealous executioner, Bruno (Morgan Wallace), hands the girl a gun "to protect herself." Van Saal attacks her, and this time Gilda manages to kill her tormentor. About to be acquitted of murder by a sympathetic jury, Gilda chooses to "confess" in order to escape a trap set by Bruno. To the strains of Pagan Moon, the wronged girl bravely faces the gallows. Forthrightly told and extremely well acted, Safe in Hell features two prominent African-American performers -- Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse -- portraying completely un-stereotypical characters. Muse, in fact, persuaded director Wellman to drop the screenplay's standard "black" lines in favor of straight dialogue. McKinney, famous for playing the vamp in King Vidor's all-black Hallelujah! (1929), performs When It's Sleepy Time Down South by Clarence Muse.
by Hans J. Wollstein synopsis