Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell
I’ve watched this film twice in the last month. The first time I saw it I was not too impressed. I felt the film never seemed to lift itself off the ground that it was lifeless in the first half and only slightly improves in the second half. After a second viewing of the film I have to say that while this is not classic in the sense of The Petrified Forest, which it is sometimes compared too at least in setting, Heat Lightening is an entertaining film with a stand out performance by Aline MacMahon, an almost forgotten actress today.
This 1934 Warner Brothers “B” movie involves two sisters, Myra (Ann Dorvak) and Olga (Alice MacMahon) who run a gas station/restaurant/rest stop in the California desert. This is where the entire film takes place and where the similarities to The Petrified Forest come from. But the films are entirely different. The Petrified Forest, made two years later, in 1936, had loftier goals commenting on capitalism, class distinction, and race. Heat Lightening just tells a good story.
The movie opens with director Mervyn LeRoy panning his camera right, across the desert and coming upon the rest stop run by the two sisters. This opening panning shot reminded me of D.W. Griffith who frequently used the pan shot to open and close many of his films such as The Girl and Her Trust. The films start on a comical bent with the first customers to arrive, Herbert (the great Edgar Kennedy famous for his slow burn in many Laurel & Hardy films) and his domineering wife Gladys (Jane Darwell). Their car is over heated and Herbert is seen pushing the car into the station. Olga, the older and overall wearing mechanic of the two sisters, takes care of the car while the couple cool off with a couple of sodas. They soon take off and are never seen again. Other than some dated comical relief and the need to pad a film that barely runs a little over an hour they serve no purpose and could have easily been cut from the film.
The two sisters have been running the rest stop for a couple of years now and while Olga is happy with this quiet reclusive life where nothing much happens, Myra, younger, is restless and wants to go places and experience life. Like tonight she is looking to go out with Steve a local lothario who Olga, being the more experienced and over protective sister, disapproves of. “You put a man and a woman together and it gets complicated.” Olga tells her younger naïve sister.
Another car pulls in this time with two small time crooks, George (Preston Foster) and Jeff (Lyle Talbot). They’re on the run after recently robbing a bank where George shot and killed two of the banks employees. George soon recognizes Olga as an old girlfriend from some years ago back in Oklahoma. Suspicious of what he’s doing here she tells him she’s through with her previous life and is now making an honest living, something he would not know anything about.
Outside more customers arrive. This time its two rich women (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly) driven by their Chauffeur (Frank McHugh). Their car has an over heated gasket that Olga can fix pretty quickly but the Chauffeur pleads to her to stall so they will have to spend the night. He’s too tired to keep going and the women are driving him crazy.
George, hearing these two women have just come from Reno and are loaded with jewelry, decides that he and Jeff should stick around, despite the fact that the police are after them. He’s got a plan that will relieve the two ladies of some of that jewelry. He tries to reconnect with Olga but she keeps him at arms length insisting her days of dance halls, gambling and guys like him are over. But Olga still has a soft spot for George and George knows it.
As the night heats up and the lightening strikes increase, the evening ushers in some spicy pre-code scenes that heat it up even more. Myra sneaks out to be with her bad boy Steve. Olga gets out of her overalls and into a dress to prove she still an attractive woman and sneaks into a room with George. Even the Chauffeur and the younger of the two rich women (Glenda Farrell) spend some cozy time together.
Late that night Myra’s date drops her off and as she sneaks back into her room she sees Olga coming out of another room suspecting she’s been with her former lover. Olga follows Myra to her room where they confront each other but it ends with Olga consoling Myra who confesses to being used and dumped by her cad of a date. Leaving Myra’s room Olga finds George and Jeff trying to break into the safe where the rich women’s jewelry is being kept for safety. While I won’t reveal the ending here, I will say that it should have been more dramatic and as a result is a bit of a let down. In the end though the two sisters and their rest stop are soon settled back into their quiet life in the desert where nothing much happens.
The star performance here is by Aline MacMahon who is excellent as Olga and it is worth watching just for her. Ann Dorvak is beautiful but has a smaller role and is not asked to do much as the young sister which is disappointing. Overall, the entire cast is good. I especially liked Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly and Frank McHugh as the two rich dames and their chauffeur. Heat Lightening is entertaining and at approximately 65 minutes moves at a nice pace.
By John Greco