Okay. “Don’t know much about history,” as the old Sam Cooke song goes. I hope to learn something in this Classic Movie History Project Blogathon that’ll teach me about Hollywood throughout the decades. Click on this banner, and get yourself a good dose of knowledge.
This is a woman’s picture. No, not that way. It’s a woman’s picture because I think it explores or at least gives us samples of different types or phases of Womanhood; its different stages of desirability of Woman. According to Robert O. in his intro, this is one of the last of the pre-codes. I warn you, there will be spoilers in this essay…and one confession:
“HEAT LIGHTNING” ( 1934 ) directed by Mervyn LeRoy, stars Aline MacMahon. Also featured in the cast are great 30’s stalwarts Ann Dvorak, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Jane Darwell, Edgar Kennedy, Willard Robertson, Preston Foster and the ubiquitous Lyle Talbot.
DVORAK: She plays MacMahon’s kid sister. She represents young womanhood, 20’s, virginal, new. Unafraid. She wants to explore life. She likes a man in town known to be a bad boy and is impervious to her sister’s admonitions. So here is youth, ready to walk into an open manhole.
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FARRELL: A dame. The prime of Womanhood. She knows the score and her hormones are raging. Hmmm….why even Frank McHugh looks good to her. ( Glenda makes me think of Marcia Gay Harden. Don’t ask me why, but she does ). \/
DONNELLY: /\ The older, more mature woman. A tad past her prime. No longer viably desirable. ( Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with her ). She’s a bit of a pinched snippy spoilsport probably b’cuz there’re no takers. But ya gotta love Donnelly’s sharp tongue. I love Donnelly’s and Farrell’s bickering back ‘n forth. You just know these two gals are the best of friends. Hmmm…or at best, frenemies.
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I liked the two kewpie dolls that come in and banter with Foster ( the blonde – Muriel Evans…the brunette – Jill Dennett ); two girls of the road, hitchhiking their way to Hollywood to seek their fame and fortune. True independence. They can protect themselves from the old geezer who tries to play footsie with them in the car. They only need him for a ride.
A Mexican woman and her husband show up with their busted jalopy later in the film; they have about seven kids. I think she represents Motherhood. ( Seven kids? And how… ) I like how they’re treated by MacMahon and the film. No put-down. They just need a hand, and MacMahon offers it to them.
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BATTLEAXE: ( …And I say that with love )
DARWELL: Older still, and more matronly. Long married, very domineering, she wears the pants and has her husband ( Edgar Kennedy ) totally whipped. At first she doesn’t give the gas station owners their due:
“This is no job for anybody’s sister. You’ll have to get a man to get the cap off that radiator.”
But when she sees the self-sufficiency of MacMahon, she comes around and admits:
“Always goes to show, a woman can do anything she puts her mind to.”
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Aline MacMahon. << Sigh! >> She’s not your conventionally pretty girlie-type but she is striking. She’s self-sufficient. She’s a soldier in the battle of love. She’s actually a fallen warrior. She has retreated from the bright lights and big city to a desert monastery. She’s sequestered in this nunnery of arrid dryness. In the game of love, she has lost. We see before us…a broken woman who is hiding from love. There is the local sheriff ( Willard Robertson ) who is definitely sweet on her. But basically, she protects herself in armor the male gaze can not penetrate: oversized shirt, boots and overalls. Her long hair is pinned and trussed up by a bandana. ( I think she looks fetchingly contemporary this way. ) She’s been burned…doesn’t need men. She doesn’t want to be touched.
Willard Robertson and Aline MacMahon
She knows that other life all too well and doesn’t want her younger sister to suffer the same slings and arrows she did. ( But what kid sister ever listens? ) Of all the gas stations in all the world, her past comes walking into hers in the face of Preston Foster, equipped with his partner-in-crime, Lyle Talbot.
MacMahon surrounds herself with an invisible emotional electric fence. When Foster attempts to usher her into the restaurant by taking her arm, she ever so slightly avoids his touch. Oh brother…did THAT ever speak volumes. She is one tough cookie…to him. We see a glimpse of her resolve against love, against lust, against male attention. She still mistrusts…distrusts. ( Perhaps she can’t trust her self ). She drops her smile. Her delivery is flat:
“Desert town don’t ask any questions. No good telling people things they’re not interested in.”
She looks sweet and diminuitive sitting at the table with Foster looming over her. Watch her put on a good front. When Foster reaches for her hair, she reacts as though touched by a hot poker. Her feelings are on the very surface. Her sternness rolls off his back and he handles her breezily. They have uhhhmmm…“history.”
“Here’s a girl with the most beautiful head of hair in the country and she’s got it covered up with a speckled bandana.”
I love the cold hard stern staunch way she says:
“I’m dressed to work!”
She means business…but we see that she’s just really covering up her feelings for him. Foster’s a thoroughly bad guy in this movie. Dammit he’s such a hateful cad. But girls, you know when he’s got you, right? You know when he’s got your number, right? You know when we’ve given him the ammunition to shoot us in the foot:
“She used to be crazy about me. She used to hold out against me sometimes but I can twist her around if I want to take the trouble. There’s one dame I can do anything I want with.”
He presses her buttons. First he’s insulting and then he baits her. What the.. Foster talks about what a babe she was in the old days at a Tulsa cabaret. She will not let him touch her. She kind of sounds like my dear Agnes Moorehead when she gives Foster what for:
“Now lets understand each other, Jerry. If you’re staying on here becuz you’ve got any ideas in your head, you might just as well be on your way. I’m not anything like that woman you knew back in Oklahoma. Whatever I was before, I’m different now. And I intend to stay different. Everything between you and me is past, forgotten. I left you and that whole rotten life. Came out here and I started fresh and clean. I worked pretty hard for what I’ve got and I’m not going to lose it now, not for you not for anybody. So don’t you think I’m the same woman that used to eat out of your hands because I’m not. I’m a whole lot wiser and just you put that into that head of yours!!”
Ummmm…methinks the lady doth protests too much.
I love the scene in the barn between Foster and MacMahon. Her voice drops when she talks to him. I love the way she says:
“I hated it. I used to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wonder how I could love a man like you. That’s all over…Things have changed alot. I’ve changed a lot.”
But there’s that hateful Preston Foster coming back with:
“You’re right, you’ve changed plenty. You had a lot on the ball then though. You were something to look at. Something to get up and go after. Don’t you worry about me trying to get you back. There ain’t a chance in the world, Sweetheart.”
If you’ve seen this, would you do me a favor and look at that scene again. Look at them standing near that wooden post. I really hated him there, and I really loved MacMahon there. Look at her hand…look at her gloved hand touching the pole when what she wanted badly was to touch him. She does more acting with that left gloved hand… When she walks away she sweet and sad and broken, her longing is palpable. MacMahon is so great because she gives us small moments that say so much.
He hits her in her vanity. And she takes it full force right in the gut. I expected her to sock him in the jaw. But she doesn’t. She gets all dolled up for him ( “…You don’t need to prove anything to him!” I yell – but she doesn’t hear me! ) and makes her entrance. ( WHOA!! ) She walks towards the camera. She doesn’t sashay like Harlow, but I thought I caught a hint of…of…of a swagger? Look at MacMahon: proud of herself, confident of her power…a slight hint of a smile that she’s pleased with herself. Come to think of it, I think she knows she has power over Preston Foster too. I love the p.o.v. shot as the camera dollies towards Foster and Willard Robertson ( who I enjoyed very in this film ). Perhaps I detected a hint of cockiness from Aline too. Or was that my wishful thinking saying: “Come on Eileen!” ( Ooh, that’s a song! ) I mean: “Show him Aline!” Foster plays it cool with a “I-knew-you-had-it-in-you” attitude.
We know what he’s up to so it’s rough to see her riding for a fall; she’s worked so hard to repair her heart. When she goes inside, Foster calls after MacMahon and walks up to her door. Their kiss was like water for her. Poor girl, in the desert…and no denying it, thirsty. How could he take advantage of her. Easy.
(( SPOILER ))
MacMahon discovers Foster’s ruse ( “I didn’t spend all that time with that dame for nuthin’!” ) It was really about the safe and the jewels. She takes matters into her own hands immediately, decisively. And doesn’t she look good doing it? Gun smoke rising up to her face, her hair cascading…she looks beautiful. I’ve never seen her look better.
No no, it’s not ( just ) about her look. It was her strength to take her own power back. She is the caretaker. She is the Protector. She puts on her overall(ed) armor, ties that bandana on her head and goes back inside herself. But you know, I am a c0ck-eyed romantic. I feel hopeful that slowly…surely…the Sheriff will break through Aline’s armor with his kindness and attentiveness.
I really enjoyed this movie. When I said in the beginning of my post this is a woman’s picture, I said that to trick you. I figured if I said this is a feminist drama would you run away screaming and shrieking. ( Get back here! ) There’s not a whole lot of layered plot here, but the movie has a strong message. ‘Sistuhs doin’ it for themselves.’ I have to make a confession here. I am hypotized by Aline MacMahon. Her strength. Her eyes. Her heartache. And remember, you don’t have to hide in the desert to get your power back. Your power is within you all the time.
To check out more posts on this year’s Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, just click here. It’s being sponsored by Flicker Alley ( WooHoo!!! ) I see I have lots to learn…and much summer reading to enjoy.
( H O M E )