At the risk of sounding slightly spoil-sportish, allow me to suggest good rule for the cinematic archeologist is not to always expect too much. Lord knows there are plenty of ostensibly lost gems scattered throughout the various histories and archives of histories of cinema, and I'm pretty well convinced that strictly as far as I'm concerned, there's more to be gleaned from a bad or indifferent movie made fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty years ago than there is from something like, say I Am Number Four. That's not because bad movies of the past are "better" than bad movies of the present—I mean, that's an arguable point, but it's not one that I'm prepared to get into here—but because the commonplaces and clichés and bad-faith moves of past cinema are such that they provide and interesting contrast to, or signpost for, the codes of the present.
But I'm not talking about bad movies here anyway. I'm talking about the possible expectation that maybe EVERY pre-code Vitaphone production unearthed and displayed on TCM or by the Warner Archive is gonna represent some kind of underappreciated classic. I'm also talking about directorial reputation. One measure of the influence and impact of Andrew Sarris' 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 is the way that, four decades and change after its initial publication, there's almost a whole subgenre of criticism devoted to arguing with its categorizations and assessments. (See Kent Jones' great celebratory essay on Sarris, "Hail The Conquering Hero," collected in his exceptional Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, which has this great passage: "'I can't get those fucking categories out of my head,' a friend once complained, like the woman who hears the ticking time bomb in the opening shot of Touch of Evil.) The Tom Milne monograph on Mamoulian I discussed in a below post, is very nearly a book-length attempted refutation of not just Sarris' "Less Than Meets The Eye" categorization but each of the arguments behind it. Similarly, individual essays and near-countless film blogs come to the defense of such other "Less" victims as Wilder (Sarris himself eventually copped that he had underrated Billy), Huston, Milestone, Reed, and even that most seemingly unlikely candidate for rehabilitation, Fred Zinneman Zinnemann, perpetrator of A Man For All Seasons and, gak, The Nun's Story. (UPDATE: In my juggling of reference books for this piece I got so caught up that I neglected to mention that the thoroughly estimable D. Cairns actually did a pretty persuasive job on Zinneman Zinnemann at his superb blog Shadowplay, with a series of entries beginning here.)
And then there's Wellman, and here, I think, expanded access to his output really has done the most in making a convincing case that he deserves a kick upstairs, if not to the "Pantheon," then at the very least to... "The Far Side Of Paradise?" Maybe, given the current state of micro/macro threading cinephilia, "Expressive Esoterica." To be fair, Sarris did give his famed italics to two of the six films that made up TCM Archives revelatory all-Wellman, six film Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Three, and those two, the searing Heroes For Sale and the almost documentary-direct Wild Boys of the Road, both from 1933, are pretty clearly the best of the lot. But one look at the opening of 1931's Other Men's Women, with its plain but vivid location shooting creating an immediately engrossing sense of place, is enough to convince one that Sarris seriously underrated it. Or is that really the case? Is the opening of Other Men's Women really so special and so particular to what Wellman did that it's entirely apt to attribute the effectiveness of this quality to his direction, or has it more to do with the relative novelty of what we, as 21st century film watchers, are seeing?
Such are the questions that dog the latter-day auteurist, I suppose. As far as Sarris is concerned, a substantial part of his anti-Wellman argument hinges on his dislike of one of Wellman's most-praised films, the ostensible humanist classic The Ox-Bow Incident, from 1943. Clearly Sarris can't stand this picture in the same way I can't stand High Noon (don't get me started). The film, he says, "looks grotesque today with its painted backdrops treated like the natural vistas of a Ford Western." A Wellman defender might be inspired to call on a famous exchange from Rio Bravo, wherein the question "Is that all you've got?" is answered with a pragmatic, resigned, "It's what I got." Still, on the parallel subject tip, in which Sarris says Hawks' Scarface > Wellman's The Public Enemy, McCarey's The Awful Truth > Wellman's Nothing Sacred, and Ford's They Were Expendable > Wellman's The Story Of G.I. Joe, I'd have to say he's dead on with the first two and not quite playing fair with the last example.
But I think there's maybe some kind of consensus that Wellman's blunt, meat-and-potatoes brand of cinematic expression found perhaps its fullest flower in the down and dirty space between 1927 and 1934, and this brings us—finally, I know—to Safe In Hell, a 1931 programmer recently preserved on DVD by the aforementioned Warner Archive. And, no, it is not a lost classic or anything of the sort, but it is a brisk eye-opener, as see the below view of lead actress Dorothy Mackall.
Awwww yeah, whazzup girlfriend, etc. And her character, Gilda (really!) is taking a call from her madame, or female pimp, or what have you, instructing her to hie to a hotel where a "lonely" guy is waiting for her. It's almost always bracing to see no-nonsese depictions of the oldest profession in "old" movies, and those among us of an age to remember when film education made the use of the word "damn" in Gone With The Wind stand for some kind of anti-censorship breakthrough, and when "hell" itself was a mild sweat word, might even be impressed by this film's title. The excitement continues when Gilda gets to the hotel and discovers that the lonely guy is, in point of fact, the very man who ruined her. There's an indignant tussle, and not only does Gilda leave the premises under the impression that she's killed the bum, but the whole damn hotel is going up in flames as she lams it. Fortunately, she's got an earnest sailor sort-of boyfriend who, after getting a little huffy about the fact that she's been, you know, having sex for money, accepts her guilty-with-an-explanation plea and smuggles her out of New Orleans, depositing her on a mysterious Caribbean island where she'll keep until they find a legit way out of this mess. Problem being, the immediate attraction of this location—that it's a great place for reprobates to go and disappear without hassle from the law—is also its greatest liability, particular in light of the fact that comely Gilda attains the not really devoutly-to-be-wished status of "only white woman on the island" (yup, those are the exact words) immediately upon stepping off the boat. The screen capture at top gives a pretty good flavor of what the white men on the island are like. (That's the ineffable Gustav von Seyffertitz at left as Larson, a former ship's captain whose criminal escapade proves especially charming in the telling.) Adding to Gilda's problem is the apparently sacred vow she took to now-once-again-absent sailor boy, to remain pure while he sails off doing his thing. Mosquito netting's not gonna be very effective in keeping any of these droolers at bay. The sole moments of respite come via the friendly natives of the island, hotel keeper Leonie, played by the charismatic Nina Mae McKinney among them.
Not only does she serve up a delicious dinner complete with sparkling wine, she does so while singing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." The song, later popularized by Louis Armstrong, debuted in this picture. (The Wikipedia entry on the film notes "[u]nusually for the time, the characters portrayed by the main African-American actors in the films, Nina Mae McKinney and Noble Johnson are among the most reputable in the film. Even though their parts were written in dialect in the film's script, they spoke normally in the film itself.William Wellman's biographer, Frank T. Thompson, speculated that either McKinney and Johnson, who were popular favorites at the time, had enough clout with the studio to avoid using 'Negro dialect', or else that Wellman 'just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche.'") (Some careful readers may, by the way, recall McKinney as a key figure in a salacious anecdote related by Louise Brooks in her book Lulu in Hollywood, which I won't spoil here, by way of encouraging those of you who haven't read it to go out and do so.)
In any event, tension not only mounts but breaks when a VERY unexpected new fugitive arrives on the island and not only directly makes trouble for Gilda, but stirs up the already nearly-aboil resentments of all the other guys who she's not sleeping with. Soon it's almost literally, erm, do-or-die time for Gilda, and this point yields up, for me at least, the most startling sequence of the film, in which the specific object of disgusting hangman Mr. Bruno's lust is highlighted in an iris-in that also provides a disquieting example of the Kuleshov effect.
It's a perdition-steeped shot sequence to warm the cockles of a sadism-savvy surrealist's heart, and it pole-vaults Safe in Hell briefly into a realm that transcends its tawdry moralism, which is in fact about to rear its head most definitively directly after this bit. Whether Wellman meant for this particular juxtaposition to jar so resonantly...well, would to aver so be special pleading, or is it really just anybody's guess. Maybe it's a "Subject For Future Research."