By Ed Garea
Heat Lightning (WB, 1934) – Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Lyle Talbot, Preston Foster, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Jane Darwell, Edgar Kennedy, James Durkin, & Theodore Newton. B&W, 64 minutes.
Heat lightning is a common natural phenomenon usually seen during warm and humid nights in July and August. In actuality, it is a distant thunderstorm, and while the lightning can be seen, the clap of thunder has died out before it reaches the viewer. The term itself comes from an old wives’ tale that a hot, sultry summer night can generate lightning without a thunderstorm.
“Heat lightning,” then, is a perfect term for the title to this movie, itself adapted from the 1933 Broadway play of the same name by Leon Abrams and George Abbott. It implies the spontaneous generation of sparks without an accompanying storm and accurately describes both the plot and motivation of its lead characters.
This rather unusual B programmer prefigures the more famous The Petrified Forest in its similar setting and plot by almost two years. Released right before the Code crackdown, this would have been an unusual movie no matter when it was made. Olga (MacMahon) and Myra (Dvorak) run a combination gas station/café/motel in the California desert. Olga has sworn off men and handles the mechanical side of the business. Repressing her femininity, she dresses in a pair of baggy bib overalls. But she is most definitely a woman with a past who has gotten away from the corrupting atmosphere of the city to make a fresh start. She’s taken younger sister Myra with her, determined not to let Myra make the same mistakes with men that she did. Myra, on the other hand, is nursing a serious case of Cabin Fever, especially as Myra won’t let her see boyfriend Steve Laird (Newton). In fact, Olga won’t let Myra date at all, which is increasing the tension between them.
However, everything between the sisters changes with the arrival of George Schaffer (Foster) and his friend, Jeff (Talbot), two criminals on the lam. Olga takes one look at George and recognizes him as Jerry, a man she was intimately involved with when she was a cabaret girl in Tulsa. Their relationship ended abruptly when Jerry took a hike and neglected to invite her along. This was traumatic enough to cause Olga to flee to the desert and bury forever any further notions of love and marriage.
With the arrival of the duo, Myra begins to notice a slow, but profound, change in her sister. The constricting bandana worn around her head and the dirty overalls give way to a dress and a change in hairstyle. When the sheriff (Durkin) passes through, he informs Olga about two men that held up a Salt Lake City bank, killed two cashiers, and were last seen heading this way towards the Mexican border. George and Jeff, though, claim to be oilmen and Olga vouches for them. Myra takes advantage of Olga’s compromised position and makes plans to hook up with Steve after dark.
Enter two recent rich divorcees, Mrs. Tifton (Farrell), called “Feathers,” and Mrs. Aston-Ashley (Donnelly), called “Tinkle.” Renting a room for night, the ladies store their jewelry in Olga’s safe. With a small fortune in jewelry locked in the hotel safe, George and Jeff begin making plans for its liberation. Quickly surmising that Olga’s still head-over-heels with George, the plan is for George to distract Olga while Jeff picks the safe.
Steve brings Myra home from their date at dawn, after doing what Olga had feared – taken advantage of Myra. Myra sees George leaving Olga’s room and enters to tell her sister what Steve had done to her last night. They hear a noise downstairs and go to investigate. Olga overhears George tell Jeff while the two are in the process of breaking into the motel safe that he slept with Olga just to set up the theft. With that, Olga fetches her revolver and shoots George before he can shoot her. Before he dies, though, he apologizes to her. Knowing George forced Jeff into the theft at gunpoint, she lets Jeff get away, albeit without the jewels. Things go back to normal the next day, with Olga returning to her mechanic’s garb and Myra sadder but wiser.
Although Heat Lightning is a highly enjoyable film and moves at a quick pace, director LeRoy tries to walk a fine line between comedy and drama and ultimately lets the viewer down. There are several scene-stealing bits by the supporting cast, most of whom are familiar faces from the Warner Bros. stock company. At the star of the movie, Kennedy as a hen-pecked husband and Darwell as his nagging spouse stop for repairs, providing a good argument against marriage with their constant bickering. Divorcees and traveling companions Farrell and Donnelly trade deliciously tart quips and insults while competing for the attention of their chauffeur (McHugh). Two showgirls and their sugar daddy, bound for Hollywood, also stop by for some repartee, and a Mexican family arrives and camps out on the hotel premises, providing a musical accompaniment to the later actions of the cast. It is their arrival that spurs the divorcees to stow their jewelry in the hotel safe, fearing the Mexicans are gypsies out to steal.
The movie falls on the shoulders of MacMahon and she does not let LeRoy, or the audience, down. She brings believability to a character that would have been considered out of place in those times, although it’s never made clear, given her background as a cabaret girl, where she got the wherewithal to become a mechanic. Perhaps she took a course at Engine Tech.
Nevertheless, the plot and characters revolve around her. If she gives anything other than a standout performance, the movie will sink. When we catch sight of her at the beginning of the movie, she does everything possible to hide her femininity, wearing baggy overalls, a bandana, and little, if any, makeup. When she puts on the dog to make nice with Foster’s character, the change is astounding. Dvorak, on the real live wires of Pre-Code cinema, is essentially wasted in a thankless role that gives her little to do but react to her sister’s authoritarian manner. The screenplay by Brown Holmes and Warren Duff (from the play by Leon Abrams and George Abbott) is uninspired, cramming too many characters into a film with a running time of only 66 minutes. LeRoy’s direction is passable, but flat in tone. One mistake he made with respect to the plot was George’s apology to Olga as he lay dying. It makes no sense and only serves to open up more worms than are indicated in the plot.
The critics were less than kind in general, with Mordant Hall of the New York Times calling it “a drab melodrama with occasional flashes of forced comedy.” According to Hall, the film “does not offer Miss MacMahon the opportunity she deserves, for although she gives a believable performance, the role is not well suited to her.” However, despite his noting, “The other characters seldom ring true,” he does state that, “Ann Dvorak does well enough as Olga’s sister, Myra,” and “Preston Foster gives a glib portrayal as Schaeffer.” Ultimate blame, however, is placed with LeRoy: “Mervyn LeRoy, the director of ‘Heat Lightning,’ was not in an imaginative mood when he handled his scenes.”
The Hays Office objected to George leaving Olga’s bedroom in the morning and buttoning his coat. It also objected to a line by one of the showgirls that the other would have to ride up front with “the old thigh pincher.” But as with other objections by the Office during this time, Warners quickly placed them in their circular file. The Legion of Decency banned the film, and when the Code was enforced later that year, the movie was shelved and not shown until it popped up on television in the ‘60s.
Trivia: This was Aline MacMahon’s first starring role in a film. The film was remade in a fashion as Highway West (1941), starring Brenda Marshall and Arthur Kennedy.