HEAT LIGHTNING (director: Mervyn Leroy; screenwriters: Brown Holmes/Warren Duff/from the play by George Abbott and Leon Abrams; cinematographer: Sid Hickox; editor: Howard Bretherton; music: ; cast: Aline MacMahon (Olga), Ann Dvorak (Myra), Preston Foster (George), Lyle Talbot (Jeff), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. ‘Feathers’ Tifton), Frank McHugh (Frank the Chauffeur), Ruth Donnelly (Mrs. ‘Tinkle’ Ashton-Ashley), Theodore Newton (Steve Laird, Myra’s Boyfriend), Willard Robertson (Everett Marshall), James Durkin (The Sheriff); Runtime: 64; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Bischoff; Warner Bros.; 1934)
“The ambitious plot line is as satisfying as drinking Coca-Cola in the desert to quench one’s thirst.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A fair Warner Bros. B-movie crime drama programmer, shot quickly and on a low budget in the studio’s efficient formulaic style. Director Mervyn Leroy (“Mister Roberts”/”The Bad Seed”/”Little Caesar”)keeps it moving crisply at a fast pace and though filmed without imagination the director gets good performances from his talented cast. There’s nothing special about this melodrama, but the dialogue is literate and the ambitious plot line is as satisfying as drinking Coca-Cola in the desert to quench one’s thirst. It’s based on a stage play by George Abbott and Leon Abrams, and is written by Brown Holmes and Warren Duff.
The heartbroken embittered Olga (Aline MacMahon, film debut) and her restless kid sister Myra (Ann Dvorak) left Tulsa and for the last two years operate a combination gas station, diner and small hotel off a desolate back road in California’s Mojave Desert. Olga is the mechanic, wearing a man’s clothes, running away from life after a terrible relationship with an untrustworthy gangster she couldn’t help loving. Olga warns sis, the waitress and gas attendant, that “if you put a man and woman together, it gets complicated.” Olga believes sis’s love interest with the local idler Steve Laird (Theodore Newton) will end up hurting her since he’s a rat, like most men, and tries her best to keep them apart. The love sick Myra refuses Olga’s advice and sneaks out at night to date Steve when she’s preoccupied with an old flame that shows up unexpectedly.
MeanwhileGeorge and Jeff (Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot) are two wanted criminals on the run from a bloody bank heist in Salt Lake City, in which George killed two cashiers. By coincidence they turn up at Olga’s gas station, as they head for the Mexican border. George, known to Olga as Jerry, is the one she once loved but left him when she realized he was a scoundrel. The devious George plans to stay overnight and rob the safe holding the jewels of the two rich bickering lady guests (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly), who are being chauffeur (Frank McHugh) driven from their recent divorce in Reno back to their residences in the east. The spoiled ladies are forced to stay overnight at the rundown hotel because their car broke down in the desert.
The Pre-Code melodrama gets a lift from the comedic efforts of Farrell, Donnelly and McHugh, and from the adult way it handles the doomed romances of the sisters. Of note, the Legion of Decency added Heat Lightning to their list of banned films at the time. The title is derived from the heat lightning strikes in the overbearing hot desert, which are meant to serve as the pic’s metaphor.
REVIEWED ON 9/30/2011 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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