Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Heat Lightning (1933)
Lady gas station attendants get mixed up with escaped murderers. Starring Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Theodore Newton, and Willard Robertson. Screenplay by Brown Holmes & Warren Duff. From the play by Leon Abrams & George Abbott. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. From Warner Bros.
“Two sisters, Olga and Myra, operate a combination gas station, lunchroom and tourist hotel in the California desert. Olga works as a mechanic and is jaded when it comes to men. Myra, her younger sister, is in love with a man named Steve Laird, whom Olga distrusts, as she believes that Steve will take advantage of Myra sexually. Despite her sister’s warnings, Myra makes plans to meet Steve after dark. George and Jeff, two thieves on the run from a bank heist in Salt Lake City in which George killed two cashiers, stop at the station on their way to the Mexican border. Olga recognizes George as Jerry, the man she loved and walked out on when she was a beautiful cabaret dancer in Tulsa. When the sheriff passes through, George pretends to be an oilman and Olga says that he is an old friend. That evening, Mrs. Tifton and Mrs. Aston-Ashley, rich, divorced women who are laden with jewels, arrive with their chauffeur Frank on their way home from Reno. Hoping to steal the jewels, George and Jeff plan to spend the night.
“When Olga asks him to leave, George tells Olga he no longer wants her because she has let herself go. As heat lightning flashes in the distance, Olga transforms herself into a beautiful woman and says goodbye to George, who kisses her. While Olga is distracted, Myra sneaks out with Steve. The divorcées, meanwhile, have locked their jewels in Olga’s safe to protect them from a friendly Mexican family who they fear are gypsies. At dawn, Steve brings Myra home after having taken advantage of her. Myra then sees George leaving Olga’s room and confesses to Olga that she was right about Steve, and the sisters hold each other. Olga then catches George and Jeff picking her safe and overhears George tell Jeff he slept with Olga so that Jeff could perform the robbery. Olga then shoots George, who is armed, and he apologizes as he dies in her arms. Olga lets Jeff get away, then explains the incident to her friend, Everett Marshall, who promises to take care of everything. Olga then returns to her emotionless life as a mechanic.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
A near essential, this Pre-Code gem features a solid stable of Warner Brothers players stranded at a gas station (with a café and motor court) during a storm filled with, you guessed it, heat lightning. But the heat out in the horizons is nothing compared to the heat between these lusty bodies in their tiny desert oasis, where the sweat is visible and the tension palpable. In fact, the picture, based on a play, was deemed so salacious that it was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency (now considered a badge of honor for a Pre-Code film) for objectionable content surrounding — as usual — sex. And Heat Lightning offers plenty of that: implied, felt, and flat-out-explained (and not all of it is consensual). Also, there’s murder, crime, casual racism, and strong women in rare positions of authority. Yep, it’s definitely a Pre-Code… as if the parade of archetypal crooks, divorcées, and “gypsies” wasn’t enough of a clue. So, although I’m not featuring it here under the banner of our “Essentials” series, rest assured that this picture supplies everything that a Pre-Code must… and in a mighty entertaining package, too.
Beyond the film’s era-specific elements, Heat Lightning’s calling card today — aside, of course, from the capable direction of the famed Mervyn LeRoy (who shot it all in under three weeks) — is the wonderful performances, particularly from the women. At the top is Aline MacMahon, a naturalistic actress in her first top-billed role. She’s the narrative’s protagonist, a strong-willed mechanic (in an otherwise masculine profession) with a “shameful past” involving a wicked man (Preston Foster) who shows up at the station while on the lam. MacMahon is believable and doesn’t overact, even when she shoots her lover dead after realizing his manipulations. Less strong-willed but equally alluring is Ann Dvorak as the sister (it ain’t totally buyable, but they’re both good enough to make us decide not to question it any further). We’ve seen Dvorak a few times before on this blog, like in the memorable Three On A Match (1932), and she’s just as capable as ever — this time playing a young woman eager to experience romance, only to find that her overprotective sister was rightfully cautious, following a tryst with a slime-ball that turns into a suggested rape. The women contrast well off one another, and if their individual work isn’t enough, the simple fact that these two players carry the film is a wonderful statement of how the Pre-Code era showcased and empowered women… in a way that they really weren’t when under the thumb of the enforced Production Code.
Further adding color to the cast — there are many players to single out here, but I’ll just pick a few — are the always comedic Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly as a pair of divorcées, with jewels and diamonds in tow, both interested in a dalliance with their chauffeur, played by Frank McHugh. (Farrell finally snags him, for a brief bedtime encounter, in the end.) With snappy Warners banter and an iconically Pre-Code wink, this trio is an especially notable addition to this theatrical ensemble of generally well-drawn characters… And speaking of characters, I’ll credit the text here as being incredibly efficient (I’d say workmanlike, but it’s better than that — it’s simply, solid, without any muss or fuss), never dragging once during the well-paced 64-minutes. Heck, it’s pretty much everything we want from a Pre-Code film… So, if you have the chance, give Heat Lightning a go. It’s a sizzler!
Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! And tune in Tuesday for more of the best from The John Larroquette Show!