A BLONDE LESS TRAGIC: DOROTHY MACKAILL

Has anyone ever lit up a smoke as coolly as Dorothy Mackaill?  It seems a lost art (and maybe just as well).  From “Safe in Hell,” First National, 1931, dir. William A. Wellman, cinematography by Sid Hickox.

 Reflection in a dark mirror.  New Orleans hooker Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) prepares for even darker times to come. From “Safe in Hell,” First National, 1931, dir. William A. Wellman, dp. Sid Hickox.

[Additional articles featuring Dorothy Mackaill on 11East14thSt.com are:  Dorothy Mackaill, Star Evolution: Part One 1920-1924; Two (or 3) Hot Blondes; and Pre-Code Prime.]

Dorothy Mackaill reached movies the way many actresses did — via musical theater.  Legend has it that the English-born Mackaill ran from home at age eleven to London to pursue a career in musical theater and at some point, though not likely at age eleven, actually got work on stage.  By early 1920, at age 17 (if her 1903 birth year is correct), she appeared in her first feature film in England, “The Face at the Window,” starring C. Aubrey Smith, who would later make a career out of playing noble Brits in American films.

She reached Broadway in mid 1920, and was hired as a chorus girl, a member of the “ensemble,” in “The Century Revue,” a long-running (June 1920 to January 1921) musical variety show produced and staged by the Schuberts, Lee and J. J. (for whom the Schubert Theater would be named).   While on Broadway, she found an acting job with a New York film production company for a part in the “Torchy” comedy serial starring Johnny Hines.

The following season, she was hired for a second-tier Florenz Ziegfeld production, the “Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic,” a between-Follies seasonal production (the Follies was held in Summer, the theatrical “off-season,”  the “Frolic” usually in late winter-early spring at the end of the regular theater season).  It may have been “second-tier” Ziegfeld, but that was still more prestigious than other Broadway musical “revues” (essentially a variety show with emphasis on the dancing of the “chorines”).  Not a bad gig for a 17-going on 18-year-old dancer-actress.

It was while making those short comedies and working for Ziegfeld that — as so often happened with those Ziegfeld girls who stood out from the pack — she got “noticed” by someone in the film industry,  and hired by Associated First National films and got her first film role in the Marshall Neilan production, “Bits of Life,” starring among others Lon Chaney, Noah Beery and, in support, the young Anna May Wong.

To a teenage dancer in New York in February who made comedy shorts on Long Island, the idea of making movies in Southern California must have sounded heavenly.  Back on earth, at her age, with her limited experience, she could have hardly asked for a better start to a career in Hollywood.  Neilan is a semi-legendary director who at the time was most closely associated with his work with Mary Pickford; Chaney, though still several years away from his peak artistic and popular success, was already a star, and Anna May Wong, an American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, had already begun to turn heads in the industry (a year later she would star in the first all-color feature film, “Toll of the Sea”), the first Asian film actress to make a significant (and lasting) impression on American audiences.

[The Mackaill biographical sketch continues after the sets of images from “Safe in Hell,” below:]

Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill), a New Orleans prostitute, gets a call from her “madam,” Angie, asking her to take care of a man who’s lonesome — his wife is out-of-town and he wants someone to go places with him and “show him a good time.”  Gilda, on auto-pilot, tells Angie, “Ok, I’ll go right into my dance,” a sarcasm based on a popular slang catch-phrase of the day.  “Safe in Hell,” First National, 1931, directed by William A. Wellman.

Gilda arrives at the apartment and from a back room a voice tells her, “Park yourself, hon, I’ll be right with ya.”  She senses something oddly familiar about the place and especially the voice.

Above, Gilda makes herself at home.

As she begins to play a ragtime tune, “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” on his piano, her “lonesome” client appears.  “Well, well, if it ain’t little Gilda!”  and Gilda is equally surprised . . .

. . . he is her ex-boyfriend and/or pimp (the script hedges on this), Piet (pronounced “Pete”) van Saal who, the last time she saw him, had raped Gilda and forced her to spend the night with him — and Piet’s wife left him when she found Gilda in his room!   WHEW!   Pimps have wives?  Naturally, given that she’s his former employee/intimate acquaintance, Piet feels he’s entitled to “reminisce” with her (for free) about the good old times.  Gilda begs to differ, and slaps his errant hand away from her cheek.

Piet can’t understand why she has sunk so low as to become a full-time (as opposed to whatever she was with him) prostitute.  She blames him for her turning to the only way she could make a living on her own. 

Gilda has seen and heard enough and starts to leave . . “Aw, come on. How ’bout a drink?”  “You don’t think I’d drink with you, you son of a . . .”  “Why not?  Say, what are ya so sore about?”

And when Gilda tries to explain, Piet loses patience — “Come on. We ain’t gonna stand around here chewin’ the rag all night are we?”  And he forces himself — as he obviously has in the past — on Gilda.

“You heard me!  Cut that out!”

“You’re the ONE man I’m drawing the . . (SLAPPPP!!!) . . LINE at!” Gilda smacks his face. Hard.

Piet, not used to having a woman slap HIM around, charges her, and she flings the bottle of “10 dollars a quart” hooch at him . . .

. . . which meets its intended target — head on.

Gilda is momentarily stunned by the act . . . and then she is horrified . . .

. . . by the flames ignited by the broken bottle of liquor. Gilda flees.

Gilda runs for her life as she passes the apartment’s doorman. From below she sees the apartment is engulfed in flames.

The next morning, Gilda is awakened by a call from Angie to tell her of the fire that destroyed the apartment building and killed Piet. She informs Gilda that the police had already questioned her about Gilda, who had been seen fleeing by the doorman, but that Angie covered for her. Gilda thanks her, then starts to make plans to leave town. Fast.

The work of cinematographer Sid Hickox on “Safe in Hell” is often spectacular, in particular the images below from the next sequence in the film as Gilda gets dressed to leave town.  Much of this next sequence is a shot of her reflection in the mirror, not groundbreaking by any means, but just so unusual for a an early sound film (which are usually so fixated on sounds and sound effects.  The beautifully expressive cinematography not often seen in American films of this period goes a long way toward making this 78 minute film melodrama more interesting and rewarding than most.  It is likely that by 1930-31 Hollywood some Hollywood filmmakers had pretty well absorbed the European influences of directors such as Murnau, Lang, Sjostrom, the cinematographers Struss, Freund, Mate, and many more, who had worked in Hollywood from the mid-20s up to the time of this film.  And with minimal captions, here are some of those images:

Just as she finishes dressing, Gilda hears someone at the door . . .

. . . she steels herself, thinking it is the Police. But the door is open and . . .

. . . it is not a policeman, but rather, a sailor . . .

. . . who is her old flame, Carl Ericson (Donald Woods), a man she came close to marrying.

While money may have been a problem for the two of them before, Carl explains that with his “extra stripes” he now earns enough to support them both.  That’s before Gilda tells him what she’s been doing to make ends meet since he last saw her; but he’s still man enough to help her escape the police who are hot on her trail . .  escape to a “safe haven.”  “Safe in Hell,” First National, 1931, dir. William A. Wellman.

Dorothy Mackaill’s career was on the upswing six years before “Safe in Hell,” in 1925 when she starred in another film about finding and losing love with a sailor.  She co-starred with Richard Barthelmess — a popular and critical favorite since at least 1919 when he appeared as “the Chinaman” opposite Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms.”  Barthelmess, an actor virtually unknown to modern audiences, was a major star in 1925 and Mackaill was rapidly climbing toward similar heights.  The film was “Shore Leave,” and Barthelmess played a sailor who meets and, naturally, falls for a girl on the shore, Connie Martin (Dorothy Mackaill).  Connie is so far removed from Gilda of “Safe in Hell” that it is sometimes hard to believe we are watching the same actress.  Maybe Mackaill had a rough six years between “Shore” and “Hell,” or maybe she was simply an actress with great range, or a combination of those elements, but it is worth a quick look at images from that earlier film, a pleasant if somewhat unbelievable (Dorothy Mackaill as a neglected spinster) tale.

In many of these shots, Mackaill resembles no one more than the granddaughter of her contemporaries, John Barrymore and Dolores Costello — Drew Barrymore.  Or maybe Drew’s skinny older sister.

“Shore Leave” was directed by John S. Robertson who was a prolific director in almost every genre beginning as both actor and director in the mid 1910’s with Vitagraph, the early 20s with Paramount and First National, before signing with MGM in the early months of that organization, until the early 30s when he freelanced with Universal and Columbia, then RKO where he worked until the late 30’s.  His career as director resembles that of Clarence  Brown, a contemporary and fellow MGM employee.   Like Brown, Robertson never fit the mold of “auteur” and he did much of his best work with top female stars of the period: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Nita Naldi, Corinne Griffith, Bessie Love, Marguerite Clarke, Agnes Ayres, Billie Burke, and with male stars John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert and William Powell.  He was by 1925 well acquainted with Barthelmess, with whom he had made already half a dozen films, and with Mackaill who had worked for him two years earlier in 1923, in “Twenty-One,” opposite Barthelmess.

Cinematographer Roy Overbaugh produces some fine work in these atmospheric closeups of Mackaill in “Shore Leave,” whose unruly hair seems to require, as it had in “Hell,” occasional brushing out-of-the-way, which is turned into an attractive signature feature of Mackaill’s characters in both films.

It is tempting to portray the career of Dorothy Mackaill as being a star whose ascent was first stunted by sound, and having survived this transition with a series of interesting, frank, risqué talkie melodramas, was dealt a death-blow by the industry-wide enforcement of a Production Code that banned such films on moral grounds, effectively ending her film acting career.  It is tempting to portray her career with the broad brush of “tragedy.”  But I don’t see it in the available facts.

The facts are that none of her late silent or early sound films were big moneymakers, and in 1931 at the end of her seven-year contract with First National, she was released.  She spent the next six years (a lifetime in Hollywood) freelancing in which she made only eight films (after having made 54 in the prior ten years), each bringing smaller roles and/or smaller productions.   After “Safe in Hell,” (her final First National release), she made only two more films outside of poverty row:  “No Man of Her Own” with Paramount in which she was support for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (their only on-screen pairing), and “The Chief,” with MGM.  One co-starring role was with Humphrey Bogart, long before he was a star, or even a successful character player in film, at Columbia in 1932, “Love Affair.”

At some point she may simply have lost interest in her waning career and combined with increasing family obligations (usually described as having to care for her mother), it may have been enough to end her film career.  Not the great wall of sound, not the censorial Production Code.  She had three unsuccessful marriages, barely the minimum for a Hollywood star of any period.  I’ve yet to read of any chemically induced dissipation or mental breakdowns, none of the stuff of great tragedy in the world of the arts and entertainment.  It may not have been a career ending with a bang or a whimper, but simply the closing of one chapter and the opening of another — just life.