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All the major studios made pictures with salacious adult content in the Pre-code years, during the Great Depression, but Warner Bros. and its subsidiary First National most accurately expressed the fantasies of Americans living below the comfort line. Whether one calls their stance a social conscience or rabble-rousing, Warners definitely supported Roosevelt's progressive ideas. That's in strong contrast to the anti-labor sentiments over at MGM, which in its mainstream movies pretty much advanced the idea that the unwashed masses were poor because God made them that way. The dream palace was most noted for glamorous fantasies about swells in satin gowns and tuxedos; in an MGM Pre-code about a starving dame mixed up with low-life crooks (Midnight Mary), everybody still looks ready for a Manhattan nightclub.
MGM's Louis B. Mayer probably considered Warners' 1934 potboiler Heat Lightning an irredeemably sordid eyesore that sensationalizes lower-class immorality. Based on a Broadway play co-written by future creative dynamo George Abbott, Heat Lightning is trashy in a way that reveals much about real American daydreams. Although the movie ends in robbery and death, it really isn't a crime film.
Strip The Petrified Forest of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Maxwell Anderson's poetic pretentions, and that's Heat Lightning. At a tiny gas station and rest camp (a forerunner to the concept of the motel) in the middle of the Mojave Desert, sisters Olga and Myra (Aline McMahon & Ann Dvorak) argue about the future. A refugee from a failed romance, Olga professes little use for men and is making a good living as a mechanic. Myra frets that her older sister is holding her back -- desperate for excitement, she makes a secret date with a workingman from Baker, 26 miles away. A steady string of customers drifts in to fill up with gas and eat at Myra's lunch counter, including some "cuties" on the way to Hollywood and a bossy woman and her henpecked husband (Jane Darwell & Edgar Kennedy). A pair of rather randy divorcees breezes through in a big car. "Feathers" Tifton (Glenda Farrell) and the older "Tinkle" Ashton-Ashley (Ruth Donnelly) vie to see which will be the first to seduce Frank, their chauffeur (Frank McHugh). The car needs repair, so the trio spends the night in Olga's cabins. A Mexican family camps nearby; the father (Chris-Pin Martin) serenades throughout the evening on his guitar.
As if that were not excitement enough, slick city dudes (and wanted criminals) George and Jeff (Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot) stop in to escape the sweltering heat. They're on the run to Mexico. George just happens to be the man from Olga's past, the one that made her opt for a celibate life in the desert. George immediately begins working on Olga's resistance. Myra uses the distraction to slip away with her hot date -- and stays out all night. Unfortunately, George is only leading Olga on as a feint, so that Jeff can raid her safe for extra traveling money.
The knowing, adult characters found in Heat Lightning would very soon be banished from American screens. A pair of laughing divorcees touring with their chauffeur/lover already seems more like a setup for a stag movie, while the hitchhiking girls that pass through appear to also have only one thing on their minds. For comedy relief -- and a comment on middle-class marriage -- we get Jane Darwell making her poor husband miserable.
It would be misguided to read alternative sex into the film's other relationships. The worrywart, passive Jeff indeed defers to the dominant George, but I don't believe they should be read as homosexuals. Olga's a more interesting case, as she has plenty of masculine qualities. A woman fixing cars and talking tough in the 1930s sounds like a lesbian stereotype, except that Olga is actually just a straight trying to suppress her romantic tendencies. There's no doubting this when she reacts to George's interest and appears in a dress with her hair down. The real consequence of Olga's change of attitude is that it empowers Myra to throw caution to the winds and (probably) go all the way with the Steve (Theodore Newton), the dull worker from town.
Heat Lightning's on-screen action is fairly tame compared to the rampant sex in a film like Baby Face or the parade of near-nudes that fills Murder at the Vanities. But the Production Code bluenoses surely disapproved of the film's basic attitude. Frank the chauffeur is well aware that his duties extend to occasional stud service, and he makes plenty of remarks about his situation. Those visitors to the oasis that aren't amoral, are totally clueless. Myra can't help but broadcast her sense of desperation, her need to get out into the world and live a little. She must have been an identification figure for a million American girls mired in economically deprived circumstances, living in two rooms or waiting tables in run-down cafes.
We're told that the original play had to be softened for the screen, but we don't know to what extent. Usually stuck playing the "odd duck" among other Gold Diggers in Warners comedies, Aline McMahon is fascinating as the conflicted Olga, a woman both tender and practical. Playing the inexperienced good girl, Ann Dvorak isn't quite as interesting, if only because her love scenes are not depicted. Dvorak returns from her hot date in a fine state of confusion and guilt, but we're not quite sure what she has or hasn't learned from the experience. The supporting cast is delightful. Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly are amusing as they compete for Frank McHugh's attention. The overbearing Jane Darwell's maltreatment of her husband is borderline hilarious. Lyle Talbot plays another one of his "loser" characters, a good example being his spineless playboy in Three on a Match. Preston Foster's low-grade hood George is a colorful portrait of a self-obsessed heel that has allowed himself to slip into a life of crime. George is just the kind of cad that could convert a trusting girl like Olga into a (quote) "man-hater".
1934 is the year that the Production Code found its teeth, which resulted in un-filmed scripts being abandoned, finished films partially re-shot and older pictures re-cut to remove material offensive to the morals of America. If an idea wasn't suitable for an eight year-old child, it didn't get past the censors. Heat Lightning appears to be one of the last Pre-codes to slip through before the ax fell. It's possible that we see no actual on-screen hanky panky in the guest cabins, and learn no details about Myra's fateful date because the studios knew that their license to be naughty was about to expire.
The production is quite good, with an excellent indoor-outdoor location filmed on the high desert of California. The night scenes may have been filmed on location as well, or perhaps the entire motor camp area was reproduced on a Warners sound stage. We can feel the heat in Sid Hickox's B&W cinematography, which makes us imagine how miserable the desert must have been to travel back then, when the roads were narrow and the non- air conditioned cars prone to breakdowns. The five-hour trip to Las Vegas must have taken at least twelve.
Listed as remastered, the Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Heat Lightning looks nearly brand new, with razor sharp B&W cinematography and strong audio. The transfer film element shows no signs of editorial snipping (no "funny" edits, no sudden jumps in the sound track) that makes me think that the print is just as it was premiered in 1934. Like many Pre-code films, Heat Lightning may have been considered too risqué to "fix" with a few cuts, and was simply withdrawn from reissue schedules.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heat Lightning rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.