Pre-Code Profile: HEAT LIGHTNING (1933)

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.

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.

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!