Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell
I’m a fan of so many things in Heat Lightning. Ann Dvorak, Mervyn LeRoy, Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon. It’s a really interesting B-picture from the late pre-code era. Going in, it’s not really clear what this movie is about. Olga (MacMahon) and her little sister Myra (Dvorak) run a service station in the middle of nowhere. Olga loves it, Myra doesn’t. So where exactly is this going? Will it be a romance about Myra meeting a passer through and finding her way out? Will it be a love story about Olga falling in love with a passer through and realizing life isn’t so great away from the real world? Hell, maybe it will be a murder mystery set in the middle of nowhere. Well… actually… that last one might not be too far off.
Customers start arriving to stay for the night to provide and interesting ensemble cast to add a little bulk to the story. Preston Foster is a criminal on the run who knows Olga from long ago. The wonderful Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly are two wealthy gold digger wives being transported by their chauffeur Frank McHugh, who seems to be trying to resist being seduce by the ladies.
There’s obviously a story somewhere here. Foster wants to stick around to try to steal the rich wives’ jewels. Myra wants to sneak out to go to a dance with her boyfriend. Olga tries to resist her romantic feelings for Foster, who’s considering using her for his heist. There’s a lot going on plot wise. None of it really fully develops, even in the end when one big thing happens.
That doesn’t mean the movie’s not good though. Despite the wobbly plot, Heat Lightning has the gift of a good ensemble of interesting characters. The sister relationship between Olga and Myra is really interesting to watch. It’s as though we’re simply dropped into the middle of it for awhile to observe. Olga’s relationship with Foster is pretty interesting to watch as well. We never know for certain the extent of Foster’s feeling for Olga, and we’re never told for sure. That’s left up to the viewer to decide. Probably the most fun part of the film is the relationship between Farrell, Donnelly, and McHugh. The three of them together are really funny, and give this film a lot of much needed levity.
MacMahon was a really fantastic actress, and she gets the chance to shine here. Her performance is without a doubt the best part of the movie. It’s a quiet, understate performance and it’s perfect. Dvorak is good with what she has, but she’s completely underused (and probably misused) in this film. Dvorak could really rev it up. When given the chance, she was a live wire, one of the most amazing things about pre-code, but she’s just not used properly here.
Heat Lightning is a strange little movie, but if you go into it looking more for the characters than the plot, you’ll get a solid experience.
By Katie Richardson