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One of numerous B-movie programmers made quickly and inexpensively by Warner Bros. in their assembly line fashion, Heat Lightning (1934) is more ambitious and offbeat than most low-budget melodramas from that studio, introducing multiple plotlines within a brisk 64 minute running time, and boasting a vivid ensemble cast that is highlighted by versatile supporting actress Aline MacMahon in her first top billed film role. The movie also prefigures The Petrified Forest (1936) by two years with a similar setting and plot. Robert Sherwood's play of The Petrified Forest, first performed on Broadway in 1936, takes place in a diner in a remote part of the Arizona desert where wanted criminal Duke Mantee and his cohorts show up and terrorize the diner employees and customers. Heat Lighting, also based on a stage play, is set in the Mojave Desert and focuses on two sisters who run a caf/gas station/motor court on a desolate stretch of highway. One fateful day their rest stop plays host to several unexpected overnight guests, including two bank robbers on the lam for murder.
While The Petrified Forest, though equally stagebound, is the more accomplished film, Heat Lightning remains a fascinating Pre-Code oddity with a proto-feminist heroine, risqu dialogue and scenes ripe with sexual innuendo. MacMahon plays Olga, a woman with a past who has started a new life for herself in a remote prairie outpost away from the corrupting influences of the city. Determined to prevent her younger sister Myra (Ann Dvorak) from making the same mistakes she did with men, Olga only further alienates Myra by refusing to let her date. The dynamic in their relationship changes, however, with the arrival of fleeing criminals George (Preston Foster) and Jeff (Lyle Talbot), who pass themselves off as oilmen on a business trip. George is actually Olga's former lover Jerry who is now using a pseudonym for his life of crime. It was Olga's tumultuous relationship with this wanted killer that made her swear off men or harbor any illusions about love and marriage. Yet, despite her refusal to give into old feelings, Olga feels the stirring of a deep seated desire which is expressed through her slow transformation from a bandana-adorned mechanic in dirty overalls to her appearance in a dress wearing her hair down. The change in Olga is not lost on Jerry, who decides to manipulate it to his advantage, or Myra, who quickly grasps the connection between her sister and "George" and retaliates by sneaking off with the town wastrel. It all builds to a violent climax which is both inevitable and strangely satisfying.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Heat Lightning veers unevenly between drama and comedy for the duration of its running time but does provide several scene-stealing moments for its supporting cast, all of them familiar faces from the Warner Bros. stock company; Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly as recent divorcees and traveling companions trade tart quips and insults with each other constantly while vying for the attentions of their chauffeur (Frank McHugh); two showgirls and their sugar daddy drop by briefly on their way to Hollywood and, at the start of the movie, Edgar Kennedy as a hen-pecked husband and Jane Darwell as his nagging wife stop for car repairs and provide a good argument against matrimony. In addition, a Mexican family arrives and camps out on the premises, providing a background musical accompaniment to the personal dramas of the motor court guests.
According to notes by the American Film Institute, the Legion of Decency added Heat Lightning to their list of banned films at the time. The same source also stated that "...the Hays Office objected to the seductions that occur in the film because they were in violation of the Production Code, particularly the scene in which "George" leaves "Olga's" room in the morning and buttons his coat." The Office also objected to a line of dialogue delivered by one of the showgirls to her gold-digging companion, "Say, it's your turn to sit up front with that old thigh-pincher." Though Heat Lightning is relatively tame compared to more racy Pre-Code titles like Baby Face (1933) and Safe in Hell (1931), it is still appropriately cynical, tough-minded and suggestive when it needs to be; it would later be remade as Highway West in 1941 starring Brenda Marshall and Arthur Kennedy.
Typical of the critical reaction to Heat Lightning is this excerpt from the New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall who called it "a drab melodrama with occasional flashes of forced comedy" and went on to write that the movie "does not offer Miss MacMahon the opportunity she deserves, for although she gives a believable performance the role is not well suited to her. Aside from Olga, the part played by Miss MacMahon, the other characters seldom ring true." Fans of Ms. MacMahon and Pre-Code cinema, however, will probably overlook the obvious flaws and theatrical staging of Heat Lightning and enjoy many aspects of the movie that were not apparent to most critics of its era.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff (uncredited)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Brown Holmes, Warren Duff (screenplay); Leon Abrams, George Abbott (play)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Film Editing: Howard Bretherton
Cast: Aline MacMahon (Olga), Ann Dvorak (Myra), Preston Foster (George), Lyle Talbot (Jeff), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. 'Feathers' Tifton), Frank McHugh (Frank the Chauffeur), Ruth Donnelly (Mrs. 'Tinkle' Ashton-Ashley), Theodore Newton (Steve Laird, Myra's Boyfriend), Willard Robertson (Everett Marshall), Harry C. Bradley ('Popsy', a Businessman).
by Jeff Stafford