Monday, October 7, 2019

Aline Pumps Gas

Sisters Myra (Ann Dvorak) and Olga (Aline MacMahon) run a gas station/diner/motel deep in the desert of the American Southwest. Isolated from the rest of the world (except for the customers who are always heading somewhere else), Olga is protective of her younger sister.  She forbids her from socializing with men, especially Steve Laird (Theodore Newton), much to Myrna's fury. Olga's life is disrupted by the arrival of George (Preston Foster), a man who was once Olga's lover. Our film this week is Heat Lightning (1934).

Aline MacMahon is always remarkable, and this film is no exception. When we meet Olga, her face is closed. She interacts with strangers on a business level only. She is not unfriendly, but distant and cautious. With the arrival of George (who Olga - and only Olga - calls Jerry), Ms. MacMahon changes her whole demeanor. The suspicion begins to slowly melt into affection, and finally into the hope for a resumption of their earlier relationship. Some of this is accomplished with costuming, as Olga literally lets down her lush hair (George had commented on the beauty of her thick, long hair), but most accomplished with Ms. MacMahon's eyes and posture. This was the first picture in which she received star billing, and she makes the most of it.

Ann Dvorak's part is relatively small, but the last scenes in which she appears are very strong and truly heartbreaking. Myra's early rebellion and the results that revolt make it appear that the sisters will end up very much alike. The emptiness in Ms. Dvorak's face tell us the future of Myra far better than words could.
We're not used to seeing Lyle Talbot (Jeff) play a weakling, but he does here. By the end, he develops a small amount of backbone, but primarily he is under the thumb of the domineering - and nasty - George. We previously discussed his impressive film career when we viewed A Lost Lady, but this was a new side to a decidedly versatile, and underrated, actor.

Frank McHugh (Frank) is also playing a somewhat different part from his usual sidekick roles. He's a chauffeur to Mrs. Feathers Tifton (Glenda Farrell) and Mrs. Tinkle Ashton-Ashley (Ruth Donnelly), two new divorcees, on their way home (with LOTS of expensive jewelry) from Reno. Surprisingly, Mr. McHugh is also the current object of both their affections! Mr. McHugh is amusing and effective with relatively little screen time. But seeing him as an object of lust does take some getting used to.

As is often the case, Glenda Farrell doesn't get enough to do, though her interplay with Ruth Donnelly is especially fun. They are a good combination; in the end, Ms. Donnelly gets the better lines and the stronger part. 
The script is intriguing, in that the backstory is supplied in tiny spoonfuls - you get just enough to understand Olga, and no more. It's script writing by insinuation, and is effective. You keep watching the movie to find out more, as you are given just a tad more information about Olga's life in the city. While several of the characters seem extraneous  - the girls who arrive with "Popsy" (Harry C. Bradley), for example - it's evident by the end of the story that each of these visitors is telling us more about Olga and her decision to live in the desert. 

As you can see, it's an amazing group of character actors - Jane Darwell also appears in the opening scene as Gladys, wife to henpecked husband Herbert (Edgar Kennedy), a couple motoring through the desert with a really unreliable jalopy. It's another humorous interlude, but fascinating as well - Olga is a skilled mechanic, better than most men - even in the precode era, it's not usual to see a woman who is skilled at a trade. 
The story was based on the play, Heat Lightning which was on Broadway for a month in 1933. and starred Jean Dixon as Olga. In 1941, there was remake (of course, drastically altered. The remake was, after all, well within the code) as Highway West (1941) (AFI catalog).  Reviewer Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was not enthusiastic about the film in his review, but did like Ms. MacMahon, saying "she gives a believable performance the rôle is not well suited to her". We disagree; there is not a part written which Ms. MacMahon cannot in some way make suit herself.

Released in March of 1934 (just 4 months before the Code began to be strongly enforced), the picture has not been widely circulated since then, as it was on the Legion of Decency's Banned List (TCM article). We think that it's a shame it - and its star - are not better known, and really recommend a viewing. Here's a trailer to get you started:

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