Heat Lightning (1934) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster (64 minutes).
Olga, an ex-gun moll on the lam dons mechanic’s overalls to run a Mohave Desert gas station, shielding her wild kid sister from the abusive men she knows too well. Forget Thelma and Louise, these hard boiled dames (along with gold diggers Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly) are the real deal. This Western noir was banned by the Legion of Decency.
Some of you may know from my repeated telling of the story that my first film related job was writing film introductions for a Cleveland, Ohio UHF station, WUAB, for a movie host named Bob McLane, when I was still in high school. I got paid $5.00 a week to write intros for him after writing to offer to make him look like less of a fool in his late night movie hosting spot. Of course, I didn’t say it quite that way! He did seem grateful that someone was making him appear to be a movie fan before running a series of Warner Brothers films that had been bought by the station. I saw many of my all time favorite films that way. Of course, Pre-Code films, like tonight’s, were still banned from the airwaves. It’s always a shock to see these sexier performances by the WB stock company. I loved Aline MacMahon, I thought she was by far the best of the showgirls in The Gold Diggers of 1933. In fact, I decided that I had to learn how to sew because of Orry Kelly’s wardrobe for her in that film. It was clear I could not find chic 1930s clothing even in downtown Cleveland at The Higbee Company. MacMahon was one of my gateways into classic cinema.
Heat Lightning was based on a play by Leon Abrams and George Abbott. Predating the The Petrified Forest, a gangster play by Robert Sherwood with a similar desert setting, by several years, Mervyn LeRoy embellished the rather bleak story with the signature humor of the studio, using their reliable stable of supporting performers.
LeRoy’s career dated back to the silent era, but he had already made dozens of superb films at WB in the early 1930s, including Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, Five Star Final and Two Seconds, also with Robinson, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and The Gold Diggers of 1933. His career was lengthy, stretching into the late 1960s. He dismissed Heat Lightning in his autobiography with these words,
“There was Heat Lightning, which was probably the most uncomfortable film I ever made—and the least successful. Fortunately, I have never made what is commonly called a ‘bomb’ but Heat Lightning was the closest to being one. That was because it was shot just before I left on my honeymoon trip around the world, so I had to get it done in a hurry. The whole thing was shot in three weeks. It starred Preston Foster and Aline MacMahon, and we filmed mostly in Needles, California, where the weather was so hot we could barely breathe. Relatively few people saw it—I never have—but it made money. Not much, but something. In those days almost everything made something” (LeRoy 129).
Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot
Aline MacMahon was born in 1899 in McKeesport PA, but her family moved to NYC when she was three, her father got a job on the NY stock exchange. An only child, she was much loved and given lessons in singing, dancing, elocution and violin as a child. She went to Barnard College and immediately joined the dramatic society. When she graduated, she began acting on the Broadway stage. In 1924, Richard Boleslavsky of the Moscow Art Theater, was hired to teach “the method” to a select group of actors, of which MacMahon was one. As she got larger and larger parts, she began to be praised by the New York press, Noel Coward saw her in a play said her performance “remained in my mind as something astonishing, moving and beautiful” (FIR 620).
Her breakthrough part was in the Kaufman and Hart play about the dawn of the talkies, Once in a Lifetime. Although she was passed over for the film version, Moss Hart himself cast her in the Los Angeles company. On opening night, just about every director and producer in Hollywood was there. The next day, Mervyn LeRoy offered her a part in the film he was directing, Five Star Final. She signed a contract with WB for four films a year, two in the summer and two in the winter. She liked acting on screen, “It is much more intimate, the tiniest emotions can be caught by the camera, emotions that slip by stage audiences unless they are greatly exaggerated. As far as missing an audience is concerned, screen actors do have an audience: the entire cast and crew. They are intelligent and helpful and every bit as responsive as those who sit out front in the theater, often more so” (FIR 622).
Although she made some excellent films, she felt her roles limited at WB. Perhaps, the studio intended Heat Lightning to be the first of a series of starring films for MacMahon, but decided her strength was as a supporting player. Frustrated, she asked out of her contract, and for once, (after a “friendly fight”) the studio agreed, releasing her in 1935. She said at the time, “I want to play worthwhile properties—I want to do the sort of things as a woman that George Arliss has done as a man. For instance, Florence Nightingale, or Candida, or a story of a woman political leader—parts that are distinctive and definite and clear cut.” In the 1960s, looking back over her early career, she said, “All those Warners pictures were great fun, but the parts were repetitive and it was just too dull to keep doing them all my life” (FIR 624). It’s hard to believe, if she remembered Heat Lightning, she meant this film. I was astonished to discover that her husband, Clarence S. Stein, was a visionary city planner, who designed the community in which my daughter is now living, Sunnyside, Queens, NY.
Could not resist posting this ad, from the back cover of the February, 1933 Modern Screen magazine which contained the glamor photo of Lyle Talbot, below. Lucky Strikes were made in Durham, NC..
You were scheduled to see Ann Dvorak in The Crowd Roars, but missed her in that film due to the US government shutdown which closed the Library of Congress. You did see her earlier this year in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. She was born Annabelle McKim in New York City. Her father was a silent film director and Biograph Studio manager, when D.W. Griffith was making movies on 14th Street. Her mother acted in silent films. She left school at 15 to become a chorus girl at the Pom Pom Club in LA, and then was a chorine in 20 films in 1929-31. She smoldered in Scarface, her first important role, as the sexy kid sister for whom Paul Muni had a more than brotherly concern. She was under personal contract to Howard Hughes at the time, and she had a brief affair with him. Warner Brothers bought out her contract and gave her all the studio’s best roles, in Three on a Match, as an unwed mother in the Strange Love of Molly Louvain and in the superb Broadway mystery Love is a Racket opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
In 1932, when she was just 20 years old, she was newly married to and madly in love with actor Leslie Fenton. He convinced her to ditch her WB contract and go with him on an eight month European honeymoon. Since she didn’t yet have a strong position at the studio, she sabotaged her own career. When she returned, Warners put her on the back burner for her rebelliousness. She never regained her status, ceding it to Bette Davis, who waited until she was in a much stronger position to stage her eventual showdown with the studio. It might take a lifetime for an actress to get as many great parts as Dvorak had in 1932, alone. James Wolcott in his April 2001 Vanity Fair piece about Pre-Code movies celebrates Dvorak, calling her “sensational…vibrating like a struck tuning fork as the high strung thrill seeker in Three on a Match….Nobody embodies the raw appetite and the exposed wiring of women who’ve gone without and now can’t get enough better than Dvorak.”
Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly play a pair of gold diggers, they are always a pleasure to see on the screen. Farrell was born in Enid, in the Oklahoma territory. Her mother promoted her daughter’s career from a young age, at seven she was playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Kansas, and she continued to act professionally until, at 16, she met and married a Navy hero. They formed a dance act, starved, and her husband drank. She had a baby shortly after marriage and split with her husband, leaving her baby with her mother and headed to NYC. “Don’t give up the stage until your name is in lights” her mother advised (Bubbeo 75). She was successful on stage, and got a plum role in the box office smash Little Caesar. She returned to the stage, but I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang got her a Warners contract where her work ethic fit right into the Warners sweatshop mentality, where sometimes she was in four films simultaneously.
Donnelly, the daughter of Trenton New Jersey’s mayor began her Broadway career in 1913, when she was 17. Although she had appeared in films from the beginning of her career, she became a fixture at WB in 1931, where she played bossy wives and knowing showgirls
.Lyle Talbot was a New York actor, whose first film was the Broadway murder tale Love is a Racket, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. His screen test had been a disaster, as he had used a monologue from a play that he didn’t realize ridiculed a WB executive, Darryl F. Zanuck. But, that film’s director, William Wellman, thought he had a lot of nerve and cast him in the first of a series of films for the studio.
Although Heat Lightning was only two years after his debut, it was his 21st film…which gives you a bit of an idea of the Warners assembly line. The film just barely snuck in before the enforcement of the Production Code. Some slight changes had to be made, but the intimations of illicit sex, unpunished murders and searches for the bathroom made it unreleasable after July of 1934.
The caption reads: This is Lyle Talbot, one of the latest heart-throbs. You may see him in “Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing,” “No More Orchids,” and with Fairbanks, Jr. in “The Sucker.” He works for Warners. His real name is Lysle Hollywood–honest. He was born in Pittsburgh and wants to live in London. He likes golf, tennis and handball. He isn’t married. His hobby is collecting first editions. He’s quite a reserved young man but he has a delightful sense of humor. He pals around alternately with Estelle Taylor and Wynne Gibson.
In the early 1930s, working conditions at Warner Brothers were brutal. Before the formation of the Screen Actor’s Guild, hours were long, often 6:00 am to midnight, six days a week, and the pressure to turn out as many films as possible on time and under budget was intense. A perq for an actor was time to go to the bathroom, although actresses’ periods were charted and they were given two days off if needed for cramps. “We helped each other at Warners. We were always on time and there were no star complexes or temperament” said Joan Blondell. Glenda Farrell said, “Warners never made you feel like you were just a member of the cast. They might star you in one movie and give you a bit part in the next…You were still well paid and didn’t get a star complex. We were a very close group” (Kennedy 51).
Warner Brothers was usually too cheap to film off the soundstage, but this one was actually shot on location in the Mohave Desert, which gives it a hot and dusty sense of place. If it had been MGM, they would have built a desert on the sound stage, but Warners was probably too cheap to go to all the trouble, when there was a nearby desert for free. “The Joshua trees and flashes of eponymous heat lightning on the horizon; the diner with its slamming screen door, checkered tablecloths, and bottled soda pop; the Mexican family whom Olga lets camp out on the property singing boleros in the velvety darkness” (Talbot 171).
This brings up another issue with the Production Code, which frowned on minorities depicted in a non-stereotyped way. The Mexican family, to whom Olga speaks with a little Spanish is treated with respect, and the character who calls them “gypsies” and is suspicious of them, is treated with contempt for her racism. There were fewer such scenes after mid-1934.
So, why was this film ignored when it was released, and remembered so poorly by those involved in its creation? Aline MacMahon’s character looks so modern, as she takes on a man’s job, the film’s louche morality, the incredible economy of plot, with character, crime, sex, snappy patter, intense performances, all clocked in at a few minutes over an hour. It’s a completely woman centered film, with the men only existing as background, something you would never see in a studio film today. Because it was banned by the Legion of Decency, and was not included in studio packages of films sold to television, until the recent Pre-Code revival, the writers noting this film in an actor’s resumes would have had no way of seeing it. When researching actors careers from earlier eras, it’s not uncommon to see assessments of films passed from author to author, with none of them apparently having seen the particular film under discussion, (as with Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall). Although it screens occasionally on TCM, luckily, Mike Mashon at the Library of Congress, who loves these Pre-Code films, has made a crisp new 35mm print of this relatively obscure title from one of the original camera negatives, as the Library has all pre-1950 Warner Brothers camera negatives in the collection.
“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… While The Petrified Forest, though equally stage bound, is the more accomplished film, Heat Lightning remains a fascinating Pre-Code oddity with a proto-feminist heroine, risqué dialogue and scenes ripe with sexual innuendo” (Jeff Stafford on tcm.com).
“A sweaty, snarly helping of desert dreams and dead-end desire, Heat Lightning is a startling pre-Code drama. Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak play rugged sisters who run an auto garage-greasy spoon-flophouse trifecta in the middle of the Mojave, the only spot for miles around that serves bickering couples, satisfied divorcées, gangsters on the lam, and a whole car full of Mexican kids. Preceding the somewhat similar Petrified Forest by two years, Heat Lightning finds the New Deal optimism of Warner’s Busby Berkeley musicals thoroughly curdled in the arid blaze. (“Prosperity’s just across the border,” opines hood Preston Foster.) (KW NW Chicago Film Society).
Because the film is only about an hour long, it will be preceded by a Vitaphone short Frank Whitman: That Surprising Fiddler, released in January, 1929. These early talkie shorts often showcased vaudeville acts. Mr. Whitman had no doubt been playing this act all over the country for many years, perhaps for his entire career. In one week, more people would see him perform on screen than ever had on stage. Afterwards, he would be forced to find new material, so these shorts demonstrate both what killed vaudeville, and in themselves, hastened its demise.
Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy. The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One by Mervyn LeRoy as told to Dick Kleiner, The Women of Warner Brothers by Daniel Bubbeo, ”Aline MacMahon” by Jeanne Stein in the December, 1965 Films in Review, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/?isPreview=&id=430527%7C411148&name=Heat-Lightning , http://www.northwestchicagofilmsociety.org/2013/06/25/heat-lightning/ (This link is broken).