Richard Boleslawski is another of the many, many great, yet underappreciated directors that we love here at Obscure Classics. While he directed a few films in his native Russia (in the area which is now Poland) between 1915 and 1921, his career didn’t really take off until he came to America. His first job wasn’t exactly the brightest omen of things to come. He did fill in work for Erich von Stroheim on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, which was something of a disaster that was never finished. Fortunately, his first job was not an indicator for the rest of his career, and while he never made a picture as big as Gone With the Wind or Grand Hotel, he made many excellent studio pictures before his career was tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1937. A few of his films, Beauty for Sale and Fugitive Lovers, get quite a lot of talk on this site, so here are a few of his films that haven’t received quite as much attention.

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)
The Mystery of Mr. X is one of the man mystery/comedies to come out of the 1930s, and while it’s not quite as good as The Thin Man or The Mad Miss Manton, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of these types of films. It’s a little bit different than these other films in that its lead character, played wonderfully by Robert Montgomery, is not a detective, or a doctor/detective, or lawyer/detective. He’s ‘technically’ not a good guy at all, he’s a gentleman thief. He gets caught up in a murder when he’s stealing a diamond at the same time a policeman is being murdered just outside the building. Scotland Yard assumes the murder and theft were committed by the same man, and Montgomery is left to prove himself innocent.

His leading lady is Elizabeth Allan, and the two of them share a really wonderful chemistry that really makes me wish they had made more films together. The screenplay sparkles, and Boleslawski easily mixed the humor with some truly suspenseful scenes.

Men In White (1934)
I’ve talked about this movie a few times on this site. It’s a really incredible pre-code film, which tackles some pretty taboo issues with incredible finesse.

In Men In White, Clark Gable plays a young doctor in love with Myrna Loy, but his constantly busy schedule puts a strain on their relationship, and he ends up having a one night stand with nursing student Elizabeth Allan. She gets pregnant and has a back alley abortion, which is predictably botched and she ends up in the hospital, fighting for her life.

Abortion was perhaps the most taboo subject that could be covered in film in the 1930s, and even during the pre-code era, films had to be delicate about the way it approached the topic. The word “abortion” is never used. It’s hinted at without the word ever being spoken. Boleslawski takes a topic that could be sensationalized and tells a very personal story with it.

The Painted Veil (1934)
Boleslawski’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel The Painted Veil isn’t nearly as good as the almost perfect 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. Naturally, the subject matter had to be handled much more delicately in the 1930s. But for what it is, which is basically a watered down version of Maugham’s story, it’s still a pretty good movie, with a really good performance from Garbo.

Garbo plays a restless woman who marries scientist Herbert Marshall even though she doesn’t really love him. This lack of love, combined with Marshall’s constant working, leads to Garbo having an affair with George Brent. When he husband discovers her infidelity, he takes her with him to inland China to fight the region’s illness, assuming they’ll both probably die. But in these worst of conditions, Garbo grows as a human being, as does her love for her husband.

This movie really only tells half the story of Maugham’s novel, leaving us with the happy ending, rather than going past that to the true, tragic ending of the story. But despite the sunny-ing up of the story, Boleslawski’s film does something that very few films at the time did. It takes a very honest and mature look at adult relationships and marriage.

By Katie Richardson

How could anyone not love George Burns and Gracie Allen? They were adorable, hysterically funny, and they loved each other so much.

I first discovered the pair through their Vaudeville work. I find the whole world that was Vaudeville to be completely fascinating, and George and Gracie are probably my favorite act that I’ve found.

The pair met in 1922 and performed on the Vaudeville circuit together. When their act first started, it was Gracie who was the straight man, but George quickly discovered that it worked better the other way around. The two fell in love while working together and were married in 1926.

By the early 1930s, Vaudeville was starting to die out, and George and Gracie had to find other ways to perform. While most of their work at this time was on the radio, they did make a few films, usually playing supporting roles, but always giving wonderful and bright support.

We’re Not Dressing (Norman Taurog, 1934)
We’re Not Dressing is a wonderfully strange little musical. It’s set on an uninhabited island after a shipwreck, and features Bing Crosby singing, Carole Lombard trying to sing at points, Ethel Merman and Leon Errol being goofy, and Ray Milland as one half of a duo of gold digging princes. Oh, and there’s a bear who sometime wears roller skates. So yeah, George and Gracie are actually the most normal thing in the movie. They play a couple of scientists (I think, I’m not sure we’re ever actually clear on what they do). They get a few really amazing Vaudeville-type bits, like Gracie’s “Moose Trap”. It’s a weird movie, and I kind of love it a lot, but Burns and Allen really make their scenes great.

Six of a Kind (Leo McCarey, 1934)
Despite the fact that this movie was directed by the amazing Leo McCarey, I’m not that crazy about it. I know it might be somewhat blasphemous, but I am not a WC Fields fan. He kind of grates on my nerves, especially in this movie. Though, admittedly, this is one film where he does that the least. It’s an interesting idea, making a movie using three great comedic duos: Burns and Allen, Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland, and Fields and Alison Skipworth. All the couple balance each other out pretty well. Gracie is easily the best thing about this movie, especially when she’s causing all manner of problems for Ruggles (like, oh, making him fall off a cliff).

A Damsel In Distress (George Stevens, 1937)
I’m not too crazy about this movie either. I find the story and pacing to be incredibly messy, and I think the romance between Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine is really flat. Yet again, Burns and Allen are the high point of the movie. The trio of Astaire, Allen, and Burns is actually quite excellent. The movie might have been a lot better if more time was focused on it. And it would have been wonderful to see them in more movies together. They could have been Fred’s partners after he split from Ginger!

By Katie Richardson

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1934

Director: William Seiter

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea, Fay Wray

The Richest Girl in the World is a thinly veiled attempt by Hollywood to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Woolworths heiress, Barbara Hutton. The lead character’s name has a similar ring to it: Dorothy Hunter (Hopkins). The film doesn’t have a particularly fresh plot as The Prince and the Pauper story and several others come to mind involving the exchange of identities. What this picture does have, however, is excellent acting from the three principals. Oh yeah, putting Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea in a Pre-Code film doesn’t hurt much either.

The narrative of this story is basically told through the self-absorbed POV of Miss Hunter. She is obsessed with the prospect of falling in love. But she demands 100% affirmation that a potential suitor would not be wedding her for the sizable fortune she stands to inherit. Dorothy’s best friend and secretary is Sylvia (played by a brunette Fay Wray). They conspire to switch identities with the idea being that any guy who chooses the secretary over an heiress would be pure of heart. Sylvia is very happily engaged so that limits any complications. Along comes Joel McCrea’s bachelor, with his athletic build and breezy charm, and he sweeps the wealthy young woman off her feet. Against the protests of her estate Chief Trustee, she really puts Tony (McCrea) through the wringer with a series of tests involving Sylvia (who he thinks is Dorothy).

Despite Tony’s repeated attempts to romance her (Hopkins) instead, our heroine manages to convince him that Sylvia would accept his marriage proposal and that he would gain a financial windfall. The handsome bachelor is flummoxed by his feelings for Dorothy, but he asks for Sylvia’s hand. She pretends to accept and Dorothy realizes that her fixation has screwed herself out of what could have been a wonderful relationship. Instead, her duplicitous shenanigans have backfired. Later that evening, McCrea’s suitor is sitting on top of a staircase when he sees Sylvia’s real fiancee enter her room in a stealthy manner. Tony is incensed. He jumps to the conclusion that the “heiress” is nothing but a wealthy tramp. The next morning at breakfast he really lets her have it claiming that she is unfit for matrimony. Surprised and thinking fast, Dorothy manages to convince him that the two women had switched rooms and it was really her receiving the late night visit from Phil — played by Reginald Denny.

What leads up to the ending then of this briskly paced film is somewhat strange. I’ve read several complaints about the resolution seeming rushed and illogical. For my part, I’ve come to expect the unexpected from the Pre-Code era and learn to relish it. The picture poses some interesting philosophical questions about love and who is worthy of it. Her elderly guardian suggests that no human male should be expected to successfully pass her tests of pure love and that Dorothy’s charade is psychologically cruel to Tony. A woman as rich as Miss Hunter is a target for gold diggers. While I sympathize, her wealth is an important aspect of her identity and representing yourself as otherwise might make an interesting premise for a film but doing so in real life would sabotage any potential union. I have an enormous crush on Miriam Hopkins so The Richest Girl in the World gets an endorsement from me. One “genius” @ IMDB.com is quoted as follows:

Miss Hopkins was a good actress, but not very attractive. I would put her in the same category of Glen Close today. Fay Wray, her co-star, was far prettier.

One glance at the image above and I am convinced that this amateur critic has had a frontal lobotomy.

By James White

Year: 1934

Director: Wood Van Dyke

Cast: Robert Montgomery, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mickey Rooney

Hide-Out begins as a gangster film and evolves into a romantic comedy, a smooth under the direction of Woody Van Dyke. In the first minutes of the movie, Lucky Wilson (Robert Montgomery), a playboy and racketeer is juggling five women. First, we find Lucky in the apartment of a woman with whom he apparently spent the night yet he is on the phone making a date with another woman. Soon as he hangs up, the maid walks in and he quickly plans a rendezvous with her. After he leaves the apartment, a car waiting to pick him up there is still another woman waiting with open arms in the backseat whom he tells he’s “crazy about.”

They go to a new nightclub and before they are even seated, Lucky is eyeing the female singer on stage. He signals to her of his interest and they make a date while she is in the middle of performing her song. It‘s a cute scene that does not go over very well with his current girl sitting at the table who is watching this whole scene play out.

In between his dates with women, Lucky is selling “protection” to night club owners. Unfortunately, for Lucky, one of the disgruntled club owners has squealed to the cops about the protection racket and the police are now out to arrest Lucky. The police close in that night as they follow him to the apartment of the singer who he made plans to meet after the show. There’s a shootout, and Lucky escapes but not before being shot.

Wounded, Lucky manages to get to a car and flees the city ending up in Connecticut. Bleeding badly he is found slumped over in his car by Henry Miller a local farmer. When he wakes up, he finds himself at the home of the Miller’s, a wholesome family who take care of him while his wounds heal. Never out of New York before, Lucky can’t wait to go back to the city until he meets the Miller’s daughter Pauline (Maureen O’Sullivan). It is at this point, that this “gangster” flick turns into a romantic comedy. We now have a fish out of water story about a city guy in the country and out of his element on the farm.

Life is idyllic for Lucky with the Millers, he learns how to feed the chickens and milk the cows and other farm chores. Lucky pursues Pauline and they fall in love. There’s a very tender romantic scene where they kiss for the first time confessing their love for each other, a high point in the film. He also realizes at that same time that his past life, which the Miller’s know nothing about, will come back to haunt him. It soon does in the face of his nemesis Lt. McCarthy (Edward Arnold). Lucky will have to pay for his past. He tells Pauline all about his former life and she tells him she will wait for him. Love conquers all in this tender entertaining film.

Montgomery and O’Sullivan make a good looking pair and have plenty of chemistry between them. Also in the film is Mickey Rooney as Pauline’s kid-brother, Willie, who I admit I did not find as annoying as I sometime do. Edward Arnold and Elizabeth Patterson are also good in their roles as Lt. MacCarthy and Ma Miller.

1934 was a good year for director Woody Van Dyke. Beside Hide-Out he directed Robert Montgomery in Forsaking All Others with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. That same year Van Dyke directed Manhattan Melodrama with Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy and The Thin Man with Powell, Loy and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Hide-Out is an enjoyable and distinctive film mixing genres, with a fine cast. A nice way to spend 80 minutes.

Year: 1934

Director: Norman Taurog

Cast: Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Burns and Allen

First, let me say I love Carole Lombard. To Be or Not Be, My Man Godfrey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Nothing Sacred…what not to like? When I first heard about the release of the Carole Lombard Collection, a six-film DVD set, I purchased it. The only film I previously seen in the set was Hands Across the Table, therefore, I was looking forward to seeing the rest. Since then, I have watched all except for We’re Not Dressing. Why’s that you ask? Well, in two words, Bing Crosby. I am not a fan and have had a love/hate relationship with his films. Holiday Inn is one of my favorite films to watch around the holiday season and as a Bob Hope fan I love the “Road” pictures yet I generally find Bing’s characters annoying, admittedly, less annoying in these films than in others. To watch We’re Not Dressing I had to look at this as a Carole Lombard film and not a Bing Crosby movie. I know, I know what you’re thinking, it’s the Carole Lombard Collection dummy!

We’re Not Dressing was more a vehicle for Bing Crosby than Carole Lombard who would really come into her own the same year this film was released when Howard Hawks used her in Twentieth Century. The film also stars George Burns and Gracie Allen, Leon Errol and Ethel Merman.

Carol is a wealthy yacht owner named Doris Worthington who is on a cruise to the South Pacific. Along for the ride are two fakes “Princes” Alexander (Ray Milland) and Michael (Jay Henry), both who are after Doris and her money. Doris has trouble choosing between which of these two phonies she wants to marry. Also on board, are sailor and deck hand Steve Jones (Bing Crosby) who has among his duties the responsibility for Doris’ pet bear. Yes, that’s right, a pet bear named Droopy who happens to like hearing Steve sing and he sings a lot! In the first fifteen minutes, Steve/Bing sings three songs. Doris’s Uncle Herbert (Leon Errol) and his man-chasing bride to be Edith (Ethel Merman) are also along the ride. Things take a turn for the worst when a drunken Uncle Herbert loses control of the yacht and it sinks resulting in crew and passengers having to abandon ship. Unknown to her, Steve saves Doris’ life when she is knocked unconscious as she prepares to jump overboard. The survivors end up on an island. Doris has always been served and pampered in her life now has to depend on Steve for survival since he knows how to survive under these more primitive circumstances finding food and building shelters. On the island, they meet George and Grace (Burns and Allen), two botanists living on the island working on their experiments. Of course, love conquers all, and they live happily ever after and Bing sings.

The film is silly for today’s audience and was probably silly for the audience of its day. This is mainly due to too many scenes with the bear. The film is a showcase for Bing, Carole’s role is secondary but she is effective, as always, and a pleasure to watch. The real highlight for me was Burns and Allen who pretty much steal the movie in every scene they are in. Ethel Merman and Leon Errol are also on hand. Crosby fans will love this because he sings quite a bit including two songs directly to the bear.

As I watched the film, it more and more reminded me of an Elvis movie. Then it struck me! The film was directed by Norman Taurog who some thirty years later would direct Elvis in nine films. All he had to do was replace Bing and Carole with Elvis and Ann-Margret and he had We’re Not Dressing…Elvis Style.

By John Greco

Year: 1934

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

Year: 1934

Director: Paul Sloane

Cast: Franchot Tone, Karen Morley, May Robson, Jack LaRue, Nat Pendleton, Gladys George

Benny (Tone) is returning to his mother after spending time in prison. While he was gone, his mother (Robson) took in their neighbor, Bertha (Morley), whose mother had died. Benny promises Bertha and his mother that his days of crime are behind him and he wants to go straight. But his old friends (LaRue and Pendleton) and his old flame (George) want him to come back into their business.

Straight is the Way is a short and sweet B-picture that’s just a good watch. It’s a very basic film, not outstanding in any way, but not terrible in any way either. The characters in the film are Jewish, and it’s interesting to see a movie about the mob with Jewish characters. The film does have an odd structure. There’s not much of a flow to the story, not much of climax, but it does have a certain pace to it and it’s an enjoyable story.

Tone gives a really solid performance. Not one of his best, but he’s charismatic and it’s fun to see him play a character who’s a little morally ambiguous. Sometimes it’s hard to see where his motivations are coming from, until the love story between Benny and Bertha really starts to blossom. The romance is the strongest aspect of the film. Morley and Tone are a really good pair. Morley is the perfect good girl to Gladys George’s bad girl, and Tone’s growing love for her is interesting to watch as he believes he’s not good enough for her.

And I have to mention the supporting performances from Jack LaRue and Nat Pendleton. LaRue was one of the slimiest actors of the 1930s, and he does his usual good job of playing the bad guy here. And Pendleton is so much fun, as always. Charming, kind of adorable, and funny. He always gives a movie a special kick.

Straight Is the Way certainly isn’t a great movie, but for a 1930s B-picture, it’s a fun way to spend an hour, and the unusual structure is somewhat refreshing.

By Katie Richardson

Wow, two big birthdays in a row!

Robert Montgomery is just my absolute favorite ever. An amazing actor, a fantastic director, and very handsome man.

Montgomery had a wonderful talent in front of the camera. He could play almost any kind of character in any kind of movie. Romantic melodrama, screwball comedy, even psychological thriller. Montgomery could do it all and he could do it brilliantly.

Sadly, he’s not as remembered today as he should be. He deserves to be remembered among the greats of the 1930s and the 1940s. Nearly all of his films could be considered obscure classics. I’ve seen 54 of his films, but I don’t want to go overkill here. Instead of just listing my favorites, I’m going to do a nice little service for everyone and talk about the rare films that you can get at http://www.freemoviesondvd.com

The Big House (1930) – Montgomery costars with Wallace Beery and Chester Morris in this prison drama. Those of you who are mostly familiar with Montgomery as the suave playboy are in for a treat here, with Montgomery going against the type he would late establish for himself by playing something of a nervous weasel.

The Gallant Hours (1960) – Montgomery directs this war drama starring James Cagney. It’s a really interesting war film, done without battle scenes.

Fugitive Lovers (1934) – Montgomery stars with my favorite of his leading ladies, Madge Evans, in this really sweet road film about an escaped convict and a showgirl who fall in love when they meet on a bus.

Hide-Out (1934) – Montgomery and Maureen O’Sullivan make a really sweet pairing in this unique, but genuine love story about an injured gangster who finds sanctuary with a family on a farm. He falls in love with the sweet daughter. This movie has one of the absolute most romantic scenes of the 1930s.

June Bride (1948) – Not a great film, but it’s pretty fun and Montgomery and Davis have decent chemistry together.

When Ladies Meet (1934) – Definitely not one of my favorite Montgomery films. Kind of dull and the characters are all pretty unlikeable. But you get to see Bob with two of his best leading ladies, Myrna Loy and Ann Harding.

Haunted Honeymoon (1940) – I really enjoy this movie. Robert Montgomery and the completely lovely Constance Cummings play reluctant crime solvers who get sucked into a murder mystery on their honeymoon. A colorful cast of characters and a good romance between its leads makes this movie really fun.

The Saxon Charm (1948) – I still haven’t gotten my hands on this one yet (soon, oh very soon), but it’s available and I think it looks pretty good.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) – A really brutal noir that doesn’t shy away from violence. Montgomery gives a really good performance, as well as directs.

Inspiration (1931) – This movie doesn’t get enough love. A lot of people say that Montgomery and Garbo just didn’t go well together, I think their restrained, under the surface chemistry was perfect for this movie about repressed love and sexuality.

The Single Standard (1929) – Yeah, I’m cheating on this one. Montgomery is just an extra in this film, but it’s one of my very favorite Garbo movies and everyone should see it.

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) – Another Montgomery movie that I just downright adore. Joan Crawford was one of his best costars. This is a really fun and unique story about jewel thief Crawford falling for Montgomery, the nephew of her mark.

Letty Lynton (1932) – A fantastic pre-code melodrama with Joan Crawford giving one of her best performances

Faithless (1932) – A beautiful Depression era romance. Bob and Tallulah Bankhead are perfect together. Montgomery gives a really wonderful performance, but this movie belongs to Bankhead.

Fast and Loose (1939) – I’m such a sucker for screwball detective movies, especially when they star Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell.

Night Must Fall (1937) – This is probably Montgomery’s best performance. He completely breaks type to play a creepy, tortured, insane murderer.

There you go. freemoviesondvd.com is a wonderful resource. You pay less than $10 for each DVD (and that includes shipping) and these films (and so many others they have) are more than worth it.

Year: 1934

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

Year: 1934

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop

In the 1930’s Universal Studios was known for its lineup of great horror films. Best known, of course, are the Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man series. However, Universal put out a lot of other horror films and one of the most strange and unusual is The Black Cat co-starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was their first film together and probably one of their best. Directed by Edgar Ulmer (Detour, The Strange Woman) the film is loaded with erotic overtones, devil worshipping, and mass murder.

Very loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film takes place in Hungary and starts when a young honeymooning couple, Peter and Joan Alison, (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) meet Doctor Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi) on a train traveling through the countryside. The Doctor, just released from a prisoner of war camp, tells them he is on his way to visit an old friend. After they depart from the train, the three share a cab ride to their next destination. The drive is during a heavy rainstorm and an unfortunate accident kills the driver and injures the wife. Since they are now close to Doctor Werdegast friend’s house he invites the couple to come with him so they can take care of the injured wife. The friend, of course, is Haljmar Poelzig (Karloff), a devil worshipping mass murder.

The house Poelzig lives in is a strange reconverted futuristic fortress that we soon will discover is built upon the mass graves of World War 1 soldiers. It soon comes to light that Dr. Werdergast has not come to see a friend but to seek revenge on Poelzig who betrayed him and managed to escape from the enemy during the war leaving Werdergast to be captured and held as a POW. Werdergast is also looking for his wife and daughter who he believes were kidnapped and being held captive by Haljmar. The young couple, Peter and Joan, have become prisoners of Haljmar who intends to sacrifice Joan in one of his satanic rituals while husband Peter is held captive chained in the dungeon below. The film becomes a battleground between Werdergast, trying to save Joan from being sacrificed and also trying to find his wife and daughter, and Haljmar attempting to proceed with his Black Mass rituals and sacrifice Joan.

This is one of the few films where Lugosi is on the side of good. His gives a performance that is actually quite good. Karloff is Karloff and he is actually billed that way in the credits.

Considering this film was made in 1934 it’s a pretty dark unsettling movie filled with satanic rituals, female victims displayed suspended from the ceiling upside down and the “skinning” of human beings. While it is not as graphic as today’s horror films it is unsettling and must have been even more so to the audience of its day. It is surprising that the studio was able to get away with some of the things included. Granted a lot is insinuated or is off screen or shown in shadows and this may make the film disappointing to some of todays gore oriented audiences.

Ulmer was influenced by the German Expressionist movement. He started out as a set designer and assisted on the set of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. According to IBDB his set designer credits include Metropolis, The Golem, M as well as The Black Cat. Ulmer and cinematographer John Mescall, who also filmed The Bride of Frankenstein, created a film full of strange eeriness and a deep sense of looming danger.

Available on DVD as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection and VHS.

By: John Greco