Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies. One of numerous B-movie programmers made quickly and inexpensively by Warner Bros. in their assembly line fashion, Heat Lightning is more ambitious and offbeat than most low-budget melodramas from that studio, introducing multiple plotlines within a brisk 64 minute running time, and boasting a vivid ensemble cast that is highlighted by Aline MacMahon’s star turn. The movie prefigures The Petrified Forest (1936) by two years with a similar setting and plot. Robert Sherwood’s play of The Petrified Forest, first performed on Broadway in 1936, takes place in a diner in a remote part of the Arizona desert where wanted criminal Duke Mantee and his cohorts show up and terrorize the diner employees and customers.
Heat Lighting, also based on a stage play (by Leon Abrams & George Abbott), is set in the Mojave Desert and focuses on two sisters who run a café/gas station/motor court on a desolate stretch of highway. One fateful day their rest stop plays host to several unexpected overnight guests, including two bank robbers on the lam for murder.
The trailer for Heat Lightning, which has all of the subtlety of a circus barker, proclaims: “Fifty miles from the nearest man! Two sisters in the torrid isolation of the desert. One trying to forget her past, the other trying to create one!”
While The Petrified Forest, though equally stagebound, is the more accomplished film, Heat Lightning remains a fascinating Pre-Code oddity with a proto-feminist heroine, risqué dialogue and scenes ripe with sexual innuendo. MacMahon plays Olga, a woman with a past who has started a new life for herself in a remote prairie outpost away from the corrupting influences of the city. Determined to prevent her younger sister Myra (Ann Dvorak) from making the same mistakes she did with men, Olga only further alienates Myra by refusing to let her date.
The dynamic in their relationship changes, however, with the arrival of fleeing criminals George (Preston Foster) and Jeff (Lyle Talbot), who pass themselves off as oilmen on a business trip. George is actually Olga’s former lover Jerry who is now using a pseudonym for his life of crime. It was Olga’s tumultuous relationship with this wanted killer that made her swear off men or harbor any illusions about love and marriage.
Despite her refusal to give into old feelings, Olga feels the stirring of a deep seated desire which is expressed through her slow transformation from a bandana-adorned mechanic in dirty overalls to her appearance in a dress and wearing her hair down. The change in Olga is not lost on Jerry, who decides to manipulate it to his advantage, or Myra, who quickly grasps the connection between her sister and “George” and retaliates by sneaking off with the town wastrel. It all builds to a violent climax which is both inevitable and strangely satisfying.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Heat Lightning veers unevenly between drama and comedy for the duration of its running time but does provide several scene-stealing moments for its supporting cast, all of them familiar faces from the Warner Bros. stock company; Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly as recent divorcees and traveling companions trade tart quips and insults with each other constantly while vying for the attentions of their chauffeur (Frank McHugh); two showgirls and their sugar daddy drop by briefly on their way to Hollywood and, at the start of the movie, Edgar Kennedy as a hen-pecked husband and Jane Darwell as his nagging wife stop for car repairs and provide a good argument against matrimony. In addition, a Mexican family arrives and camps out on the premises, providing a background musical accompaniment to the personal dramas of the motor court guests. According to notes by the American Film Institute, the Legion of Decency added Heat Lightning to their list of banned films at the time. The same source also stated that “…the Hays Office objected to the seductions that occur in the film because they were in violation of the Production Code, particularly the scene in which “George” leaves “Olga’s” room in the morning and buttons his coat.” The Office also objected to a line of dialogue delivered by one of the showgirls to her gold-digging companion, “Say, it’s your turn to sit up front with that old thigh-pincher.” Though Heat Lightning is relatively tame compared to more racy Pre-Code titles like Baby Face (1933) and Safe in Hell (1931), it is still appropriately cynical, tough-minded and suggestive when it needs to be; it would later be remade as Highway West in 1941 starring Brenda Marshall and Arthur Kennedy.
In his autobiography Take One (co-written with Dick Kleiner), Mervyn LeRoy stated that Heat Lightning “was probably the most uncomfortable film I ever made – and the least successful. Fortunately, I have never made what is commonly called a ‘bomb’ but [Heat Lightning] was the closest to being one. That was because it was shot just before I left on my honeymoon trip around the world, so I had to get it done in a hurry. The whole thing was shot in three weeks…we filmed mostly in Needles, California, where the weather was so hot we could barely breathe. Relatively few people saw it – I never have – but it made money. Not much, but something. In those days almost everything made something.”
Typical of the critical reaction to Heat Lightning is this excerpt from the New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall who called it “a drab melodrama with occasional flashes of forced comedy” and went on to write that the movie “does not offer Miss MacMahon the opportunity she deserves, for although she gives a believable performance the role is not well suited to her. Aside from Olga, the part played by Miss MacMahon, the other characters seldom ring true.”
MacMahon would go on to become one of the consummate character actresses of her generation with memorable roles in 1944’s Dragon Seed (she was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie (1955) and Ronald Neame’s I Could Go on Singing (1963). But it is wonderful to see her in an early leading role where she is tough, vulnerable, sexy and sad in ways that were rarely attributes of her one-dimensional character parts.
After years of obscurity, Heat Lightning was released by the Warner Brothers Archive Collection as a no-frills DVD-R in January 2011 and that remains your best option for viewing the film. *This is an expanded and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other websites of interest: