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How to Secede in Show Business Without Really Trying
THE HEAT'S ON (Columbia, 1943), directed by Gregory Ratoff, gives some indication as to how the use of a major star heading the cast might promote theatrical attendance, but the final result turns out to be a demotion of its reputation. The star in question is Mae West returning to the big screen after a three year hiatus following her western comedy classic of MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (Universal, 1940) opposite W.C. Fields. Appropriately titled, especially for a Mae West movie, THE HEAT'S ON should be categorized as a Mae West movie not to be a Mae West movie. A throwback to her motion picture debut of NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (Paramount, 1932), where West's character arrives late into the story, allowing the leading actors, as headed by George Raft, to be showcased to best advantage in his first starring role, but at least with West's limitations reciting her own one-liners made the movie watchable. For this production, she surprisingly has very little to do, practically taking the back seat to other performers, and in spite of some of her traditional witty one-liners, usually the best part of her movies, there isn't enough of her or her sayings to produce any highlights. In one scene, West says "If I stay with this show, I'll ruin my reputation." A pity she didn't take her own advice. Eight movies and 11 years later, Mae West continued to receive star billing above the title, but this time has her name shared along with Victor Moore and William Gaxton. Now at age 50, and appearing physically younger than in her previous films, especially now sporting a Betty Grable-type headdress, but never exposing her legs wearing those long styled dresses, there's very little of her to recommend. Had this Columbia musical starred studio contract players as Ann Miller or Evelyn Keyes, then THE HEAT'S ON would have been just another one of those hundreds of slightly entertaining hodgepodge musicals churned out during the World War II era, but with Mae West's name on the marquee, the final result is quite disappointing.
Story: Believing that her forthcoming musical, "Indiscretions" is destined to flop, its leading actress, Fay Lawrence (Mae West), decides to leave producer Tony Ferris (William Gaxton), to star in a revue, "Tropicana," for rival producer Forrest Stanton (Alan Dinehart). Following the opening minutes which sets the pattern to the story, the duration revolves mostly around Tony trying to get Fay back while Fay sits inside the theater with Stantion to watch numerous talented celebrities auditioning in musical acts planned for the show. In between acts, the story shifts over to Hubert Bainbridge (Victor Moore), a middle-aged man attempting to get his niece, Janie (Mary Roche) to be headlined in Tony's show. In spite of his moral-minded sister (Almira Sessions) wanting to close the show, Janie really prefers her soldier boyfriend, Andy Walker (Lloyd Bridges), than a show business career anyway, thus leaving Tony with no headliner.
On the musical program, songs include: "I'm a Stranger in Town" (sung by Mae West); Specialty number conducted by Xavier Cugat with Lina Romay vocalizing in Spanish; "There Goes That Guitar, There Goes My Heart," "Antonio" (both sung by Romay); "The White Keys and the Black Keys" (sung and performed by Hazel Scott on piano); "Thinking About the Wabash" (sung by Mary Roche and male singer); "The Cailssons Go Rolling Along" (a military number sung by Hazel Scott/ performed by black soldiers); "They Looked So Pretty on the Envelope" (sung by Victor Moore); "Hello, Mi Amigo" (finale with Mae West and chorus). So many songs, none for the hit parade.
Out of circulation on the television markets in nearly 40 years, and distributed on video cassette for a limited time during the early 1990s, THE HEAT'S ON was resurrected again, thanks to Turner Classic Movies cable channel, where it premiered the evening of April 25, 2005. In spite of many negative reviews, then and now, it's good having it resurrected again mainly because Mae West had taken part in it. After viewing THE HEAT'S ON, it's quite understandable why West preferred to ignore it as part of her filmography. But the failure should not be blamed entirely on West. According to Bob Osborne's opening and closing statements, West had no say in the matter, having committed herself into doing this without reading the script, simply as a favor to director Gregory Ratoff (who played her Russian attorney in one of her best comedies, I'M NO ANGEL back in 1933). The only thing going for THE HEAT'S ON is the humorous scene involving West as she entertains Victor Moore in her boudoir by dancing the rumba, and at the same time, he trying to keep his toupee from clipping off. There are some instances near the start of the story where West is expected to make a nifty comeback in between conversations with Gaxton, but with some of the wittier lines going to Gaxton, there appears to be either abrupt fade-outs or cuts to the next scene to prevent West from saying anything worth hearing. Some West quips have made it to the finished product, others haven't. A pity.
With this almost marking the end to Mae West's movie career, this would not be her finish, not by a long shot. She continued to perform on stage and night clubs throughout the years, returning to the big screen with MYRA BRECKENRIDGE (1970) and SEXTETTE (1978), none recapturing the magic she fulfilled during the Depression era 1930s, the sort of movies West fans prefer to remember her best. (**1/2)
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