I watched Safe In Hell (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill.

The phone rings for Gilda Carlson.

It’s Angie, her friend who helps her find a special kind of client for a special kind of work. “…a friend of mine is lonesome, see. His wife is out of town and he wants somebody to go places with him, sort of show him a good time.” Gilda replies that she’s almost there already.

Does Angie have a picture of Gilda on her wall?

So Gilda goes to Claybridge Apartments.

BELLHOP: Go on in, sister.

Inside she finds that the voice that sounded familiar belongs to Piet Van Saal, the lecherous old scumbag who wrecked her life when she was respectably working.

After the leery old creep pushes just a bit too far she throws a bottle at him. Off camera we hear a big thud and a body falling and then he’s flat out.

Gilda runs out, not realising that an oil lamp was overturned and started a fire. Early the next day, Angie is on the phone to warn that the cops are already out for her as Claybridge Apartments burned down and the bellhop gave her description as the last one in to see Van Saal.

Gilda is ready to go on the run when her old fiancee Carl Fredrickson turns up, back from sea. He went away a year ago as she was starting work with Van Saal. He’s got wonderful gifts for her, including an elaborate ship-in-a-bottle. She can’t understand how it got in there. All his gifts are great, but she can’t carry on with him.

She tells him the truth of what happened with Van Saal.

GILDA: When I was working for them, one night he broke into my room and… stayed there. He threatened me if I told his wife. She found out what he was doing and kicked me out. She followed me to every place I got work and told them and they bounced me, so I… I made my living the only way I could. I’ve been making it that same way almost a year.

CARL: Why you dirty little –

Carl wants to storm out, but then the sirens are approaching, so instead they grab what they can and get on the run together.

Being a sailor, Carl can fix a job on a freighter out to the one Caribbean island that has no extradition treaties with anywhere else. His duties include being the one who has to search for fugitive stowaways, which is ideal for hiding Gilda in the hold.

They reach the island and Carl checks Gilda in at the only hotel available. Since this island is known as a refuge for men wanted for crimes elsewhere, the other guests are not very appealing.

The hotel is run by Leonie at the desk, with Newcastle the porter. They have to put up with the attitudes and occasional violence of the guests, who make clear that they are very impressed by the arrival of Gilda as “the only white woman on the island”. They were played by Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse, and provide a performance of “It’s Sleepy Time Down South”.

Before he leaves her, Carl takes Gilda to the only place of worship on the island – there is no resident minister of any kind, but an officer at sea is empowered to perform some civil proceedings. And so he marries her in sight of the Cross.

As he leaves her at the harbour, he gives her his New Testament.

CARL: All you’ve gotta do is believe.

But it’s hard for Gilda to keep her composure surrounded by the dregs and deadbeats at the hotel, along with the largely insanitary conditions. They are a collection of national stereotypes, including a joke Latin American officer who is proud to have led 3 military coups against his country’s Presidents. Nastiest of all is the chief jailer and executioner of the island, hovering around and also hoping to get some action.

But the great surprise is when Van Saal turns up. He didn’t die in the fire at Claybridge Apartments but instead his wife cashed out the life insurance and so he pinched it and ran out. Now he’s here, but Gilda also realises there is now no need for her not to go home as she never caused any death.

But nothing ever goes right for this girl and she ends up facing what passes for a court of justice hear, presided over by some vestige of colonialism.

But even though the crooked lawyer could get her acquitted of the current charge, the executioner has another trumped-up one ready to force her to stay in one of his prison-camps. It’s not worth winning this round and so she throws everything in to losing.

Just then Carl picks the moment to turn up again. He got her letter about Van Saal but she never received any of his messages, because nasty men stole them first. So she doesn’t know he’s now got a chance of a job on land at New Orleans. They can have a happy life together back there, once she gets the next ship back!

CARL: Didn’t I tell ya whenever something happens it’s always for the best, as long as you believe in Him? Was I right?

GILDA: I’m just now beginning to think so.

CARL: Oh you are, huh? Why just now?

GILDA: It just this minute struck me that you’d never be happy away from the sea.

CARL: I don’t get you, hon. You kiddin’?

GILDA: Sure, you big baby [laughs]

She hides the truth from the big baby of a man, but he sees she’s crying.

GILDA: I’m good now, Carl, just like we was when we was kids. I’ll never be bad again. Never again, Carl…. Give me a big kiss – it’s gotta last a long, long time.

She stands proud as the guards lead her away in to the sunset, and the jailer is confounded by her attitude.

Carl would never be happy on land, as he loves to be on the ship in the bottle, with no clue how the trick was done, and he can’t see the glass walls around him. A model of a boat decorates the dining table in the hotel, reminding all the sinners who ended up in that purgatory that they can’t travel any further on right now. Held in a place with a church but no ministry except the self-administered hope of believing in the best, which may not be the best but at least is a choice of the Good.

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