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Cult Movie Picks - May 2014
Remind Me

The Heat's On

The Heat's On (1943) features the final film appearance by the legendary Mae West before a 27-year-long absence from the screen. In the movie she plays a longtime Broadway star who is threatening to walk off a production that everyone is sure will be a flop. Her producer begs her to stay on, explaining that he will go bankrupt without her participation. The scenario as it appears in the film actually mirrors quite accurately the behind-the-scenes machinations that went into the production of The Heat's On.

Russian-born Gregory Ratoff was a very active actor-director-producer, and not only an old friend of West's, but a relative by marriage. Ratoff came to West in 1943 and pitched a concept for a musical comedy he wanted to make for Columbia Pictures called Tropicana, frankly saying that he needed her promised participation to get the project off the ground. Mae West had not appeared in a film since My Little Chickadee in 1940. She had found that experience unpleasant because she had to share the lead role with W. C. Fields. The public adored the pairing, though, and made the film a box-office hit. West was not thinking about her movie career by 1943, however. She was busily planning a return to Broadway in a serio-comic play she was writing about Catherine the Great, to be called Catherine Was Great. A film at this time would no doubt have been a distraction, but West decided to help out her friend and relative.

Ratoff proceeded to shoot several of the elaborate musical numbers for the film, THEN he showed West the script. She was appalled. The original script by Boris Ingster and Lou Breslow depicted a character totally unlike the Diamond Lil persona that West had carefully crafted for herself over her past nine pictures. As written, Broadway diva Fay Lawrence was a selfish has-been who plots to keep a young ingénue from showing her up in a production. West wanted out of the movie altogether, but once again Ratoff persuaded her to stay on. West would later imply in her autobiography that Ratoff feared not only bankruptcy, but also mobster-connected financial backers! Ratoff allowed West to completely rewrite her part, even though it caused the existing script to be thrown out of balance. Such a concession should not have seemed unusual, though, since up to this point West had written either her own dialogue or the entire script for every film she'd made. According to Jill Watts in Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, "Her revisions significantly altered the plotline, forcing Ratoff to revise the film as he was shooting it. One of the screenwriters brought in to patch up the script remembered filming as chaotic. Scenes and dialogue were rewritten only hours before shooting..."

So in the dialogue of the finished film, one can see a bit of in-joke frustration as West's character complains of being stuck in Indiscretions, the bad show her producer friend is financing:

Fay: I want to talk about "Indiscretions," and I don't mean my own. ...You didn't listen when I warned you about this show. Can't you see the way it's going is no use? Why, if I stay with the show I'd lose my reputation.
Ferris: Well, I've been working on some new promotion angles...Fay, I can make another "Show Boat" out of this. Why, the idea's cooking now.
Fay: I bet it'll be half-baked. Well, I'm giving you my two-week notice... I have a tradition of success to live up to.

Later in the plot, Fay's threat to leave a show hanging is taken as a serious threat by the producer:

Ferris: What do you want to do, ruin me? Put me in bankruptcy? Send me to jail? ...Drive me to a madhouse?
Fay: No, I'll call you a taxi.

The Heat's On is indeed a jumble; the Fay Lawrence scenario is reduced in screen time because of a major co-plot: producer Ferris hatches a publicity scheme involving the temporary head of a do-gooder censorship organization called The Bainbridge Foundation. This co-plot is engaging, however - Hubert Bainbridge is played by the great character comedian Victor Moore, and it is one of the meatiest roles of his career. The musical numbers in The Heat's On are either clumsily integrated into the plot or not integrated at all, yet as stand-alone scenes they are quite good. Of note are two piano numbers by Caribbean jazz and boogie-woogie great Hazel Scott. Also in the cast is a young Lloyd Bridges, as the serviceman boyfriend of Bainbridge's niece.

West wrote in her 1959 autobiography Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, "After this dismal experience I made up my mind that I would never do another picture unless everything, but everything, was to my satisfaction, and so stipulated in black and white, without an accent." Mae West did not appear in another motion picture until Myra Breckinridge in 1970. Of course, that was another film that West did not have control over, and at the time of release was considered one of the great disasters in movie history. The Heat's On was far from a disaster, but it was still considered a flop when it opened in November 1943, generating almost universally negative reviews. Most critics made note of the fact that it was not really a Mae West movie (she appears for approximately twenty-five of the film's eighty minutes). After panning the film in general, Time said "Cinemactress West is not on the screen half enough. But she is still one of the most entertaining and original personalities in pictures. She can still make something unmailable out of a twitch of a feather or a polysyllable."

There was more irony in store for Mae West when soon after the release of The Heat's On she clashed with a Broadway producer in real life. Her play, Catherine Was Great, reached the stage with the backing of Michael Todd, the extravagant Broadway impresario. Sadly, the two strong personalities had differing approaches to the material and fought throughout the run.

Producer: Milton Carter, Gregory Ratoff
Director: Gregory Ratoff
Screenplay: Lou Breslow, Fitzroy Davis, George S. George, Boris Ingster, Fred Schiller
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editing: Otto Meyer
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Walter Holscher
Music: John Leipold, Henry Myers, Jule Styne, John Blackburn, Edward Eliscu
Cast: Mae West (Fay Lawrence), Victor Moore (Hubert Bainbridge), William Gaxton (Tony Ferris), Alan Dinehart (Forrest Stanton), Lloyd Bridges (Andy Walker).

by John M. Miller



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