7 July 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Folksy hokum, famous play
"Lightnin'" was originally a comedy play by Winchell Smith and Frank Bacon. It opened on Broadway in 1918, with co-author Bacon in the starring role as Lightnin' Bill Jones. The comedy was a smash hit and was, for several decades, one of Broadway's longest-running plays ... a long run that was interrupted only by the actors' strike to support the creation of Actors Equity, during which Frank Bacon and his castmates drove up Broadway with picket signs reading "Lightnin' has struck!". A 1925 silent-film version of "Lightnin'", directed by John Ford, was nothin' much.
The 1930 sound-film version of "Lightnin'", by the immensely under-rated director Henry King, stars Will Rogers as Bill Jones, a shiftless slowpoke who is sardonically nicknamed "Lightnin'". His wife Mary owns and operates an hotel which straddles the California-Nevada state line, and which exploits that quirk to drum up business ... mostly among divorcees who can check into this hotel to establish Nevada residency without leaving California. Mary Jones (Louise Dresser) works hard to keep the hotel making a bare profit, but her husband Lightnin' offers nothing except his folksy opinions. (Will Rogers improvised much of his dialogue in this movie, as he did throughout his talking-film career.) Their daughter Milly is played by Helen Cohan, real-life daughter of George M. Cohan. Miss Cohan is pretty, but no actress.
Joel McCrea, always an under-rated actor, plays handsome young John Marvin, who has been framed for embezzlement, and now must elude the law by hiding in the Jones hotel and taking advantage of its geographic quirk. When a California sheriff shows up at the California side of the hotel with a California arrest warrant, Marvin simply walks across to the Nevada side of the hotel (thereby crossing the state line) and vice versa.
Eventually, Mrs Jones sues her shiftless husband Lightnin' for divorce, which leads to a climactic courtroom scene in which Will Rogers gets to spout folksy aphorisms. (He claims that China has the best solution for divorce, because in China they drown all the girl babies. No comment.) "Lightnin'" has some interest as a film record of a stage play that was popular in its time, but that play is now unworthy of revival. Lightnin' doesn't strike twice. Will Rogers has always been over-rated; I enjoy his performances, but Rogers supposedly embodies or symbolises the American people in some way that I just don't see at all.
I can't see any great reason to recommend this film to anybody except die-hard Will Rogers' fans