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

Films In This Collection

  • Night Nurse
  • Three on a Match
  • The Divorcee
  • A Free Soul
  • Female

Special Features

  • Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood
  • Audio Commentaries on Night Nurse and The Divorcee
  • Theatrical trailers for Night Nurse, Three on a Match, and Night Nurse

Warner Bros. is doing classic film fans a great favor by releasing these rather rare pre-code gems on DVD for the first time. In 2006 they release the first volume, which featured the films Red Headed Woman, Baby Face, and Waterloo Bridge. While that volume was certainly a treat, and featured three excellent films (especially the beautiful Waterloo Bridge, which needs to be seen by everyone), special features were sparse and it didn’t feel like a very complete collection.

The second volume, however, is a real treat for any pre-code fan. Not only does it contain five of the absolute most essential film from the era, it also has commentaries and an in-depth documentary that really helps to create the entire pre-code experience for this set.

Vol. 2 features two Norma Shearer films, The Divorcee and A Free Soul. Shearer was considered the queen of the pre-code era, and these two films are the most important of her early 1930s career. The Divorcee is considered an extremely important and racy film, but there seems to be no escape from the values of the time, and in the end the themes of female empowerment are undercut by the double standard the film tries so hard to fight against. A Free Soul, however, is a fascinating and sensual film with Norma Shearer as a good girl gone bad and Clark Gable as a sexually charge gangster. Shearer and Gable were always a good pair, and they sizzle together in this wonderful pre-code which won Lionel Barrymore an Oscar.

Three on a Match may be the most important film of the era, simply as a non-stop example of all the rules filmmakers could break in the early 1930s. Before release, several minutes were cut from the film, so that it just became scene after scene of pre-code debauchery. Drug use, child abuse, sex outside of marriage, violence. While Three on a Match isn’t a particularly good film – it’s very dreary and plodding – it’s essential to watch as a great example of pre-code. And Ann Dvorak gives an absolutely phenomenal performance, possibly her very best.

Night Nurse is another film that seems to be just a huge collection of pre-code moments, though it’s certainly a better film than Three on a Match. It’s a film about a plot to starve children to death, and along the way feature violence against women, leading ladies in various states of undress, a consistently drunken mother, and a charming and completely likable bootlegger as the leading man. But unlike Three on a Match, its story is interesting and its very well paced. Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell make a very fun team.

Female is probably my favorite film on the set. Ruth Chatterton, a very underappreciated actress from the era, gives an excellent and extremely sexual performance as a CEO who likes to make her employees her boy toys. Chatterton was an older woman – she was 40 years old when this movie was released – and she used that wonderful fact to separate herself from her contemporaries. Her grace and maturity are unmatched. She’s sexy and she’s smart. Watching her seduce her latest man is some of the most fun a pre-code film has to offer. No man could resist the lovely Ruth Chatterton. She was in charge, in the board room and in the bedroom.

The special features on the set really help in giving the viewer an even deeper understanding of the films and politics of the pre-code era. The documentary Thou Shalt Not is fascinating, and features some great clips and pieces of some of the best movies of the era. The commentaries on Night Nurse and The Divorcee are both in depth and enthusiastic, done by people who are both knowledgeable of the era and who clearly love the films.

Forbidden Hollywood vol. 2 is simply one of the very best DVD sets to come out in a very long time. If you’re a classic film fan, it’s a must have.

By Katie Richardson

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