Veteran William Wellman directed this pre-Code thriller that puts an average New York family at odds with a pack of ruthless gangsters. It’s a 1931 tale of drive-by shootings, witness intimidation and child kidnapping — just one year later, movies about child kidnappings were banned, after the tragedy of the Lindbergh baby. Walter Huston is the rather ruthless District Attorney, and the ex-vaudeville funny man Chic Sale plays an old codger that shows his family what Good Americanism really means — the show could serve as a surly critique of what passes for law and order and good citizenship now.
The Star Witness
The Warner Archive Collection
1931 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 68 min. / Street Date March 12, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 19.99
Starring: Walter Huston, Charles ‘Chic’ Sale, Frances Starr, Grant Mitchell, Sally Blane, Edward J. Nugent, Dickie Moore, Nat Pendleton, George Ernest, Russell Hopton, Allan Lane.
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editor: Harold McLernon
Written by Lucien Hubbard, Bud Barsky
Directed by William A. Wellman
1931 proved that director William Wellman would be a champion of sound pictures — his Other Men’s Women showed an ease of directing in odd locations, and introduced him to James Cagney, who he’d propel to stardom in his next film, The Public Enemy. Perhaps anticipating the law ‘n’ order backlash against movies that glorified gangsters, Wellman’s late-summer attraction that year became The Star Witness, an unabashedly flag-waving response to lawlessness. Just the next year, screens would be sporting pictures like Beast of the City, which reveled in the spectacle of seeing slimy crooks with foreign-immigrant names, shot down like dogs. Beast starred Walter Huston as an ethical police chief who decides to wield his power like an Old Testament angel. Huston toplines The Star Witness as a District Attorney who wants convictions so badly, he’s willing to accept some collateral damage in civilian witnesses sacrificed to gang retribution.
The real star of The Star Witness is Charles ‘Chic’ Sale, a vaudeville veteran who cornered the market in old-age hick comedy. In full makeup and a fake beard, Chic passed for eighty when he was twenty-five. He was only 46 when playing the cantankerous Civil-War veteran in this film. The joke was that some of the actors playing his children were no younger than he was. He died so young, he never reached the actual age of the characters he played on film.
The (rather naïve) Leeds family lives modestly but comfortably in Manhattan. Ma (Frances Starr) is a devoted housewife and good cook; the complacent Pa (Grant Mitchell) is proud of his job, daughter Sue (Sally Blane) works at the same place and has a boyfriend, and teenager Jackie (Edward J. Nugent) is unemployed and lazy. The two little boys Donny and Dickie (George Ernest & Dickie Moore) love their Gramps Summerill (Chic Sale), a frequent visitor from the old soldiers’ home. The whole family witnesses the gang shooting of a States’ witness and a cop on the street in front of their house. Since they got a good look at the perpetrator, gang boss Maxey Campo (Ralph Ince), the barnstorming D.A. Whitlock (Walter Huston) presses them to help him get a conviction with their testimony. All cooperate until Campo’s mob, led by the brutal Big Jack (Nat Pendleton) beats up Pa. The family reluctantly goes into witness protection, which fails when little Donny is kidnapped. The only family member willing to talk on the stand is Gramps, who talks himself blue in the face trying to instill some patriotic pride in his terrorized kin.
It’s not a complicated story, and veteran director William Wellman doesn’t apply his more artistic touches — no intimate dialogue scenes, no mysterious angles with parts of people’s faces occluded. But Wellman’s direct style wins out. He’s excellent with his actors, especially the two cute boys, whose dialogue may be a bit stilted but whose performances seem natural and unforced. The kids even stick their comments into serious discussions at the dinner table — “May I have some more beans, please?” Little Dickie Moore (Blonde Venus, Out of the Past) was only five or six years old, but this was his seventeenth movie.
Even Walter Huston seems aware that the film really belongs to the guaranteed scene stealer Chic Sale (see top picture, above). Sale comes on like Farmer Alfalfa, all spit and vinegar. Gramps took a mini-ball (look it up) at Bull Run and walks with a gammy leg, but his hearing and eyesight are as sharp as his tendency to give out with high blood pressure lectures whenever he gets his dander up. Gramps also plays the fife, which his grandchildren love. The rest of the family more or less indulges him as a liability.
Wellman’s knack for perfect camera angles comes to the fore with the violence in the street, a machine-gun killing in the rain. He frames household shots through doorways and arches, and often films from knee-height, making the house seem homey and the family more lower middle-class. He gives the kids special emphasis, perhaps because the basic premise is a bit thick — the Leeds family somehow doesn’t worry about retribution when they decide to help out the D.A.. Actor Grant Mitchell was good at playing a self-interested dumbbell. He’s initially a total sap, accepting that a stranger on the street is a DA detective, and admitting that he’s testifying. After being beaten to a pulp, Pa is then stubbornly opposed to saying anything.
Walter Huston’s D.A. Whitfield is a zealot who fails to protect the Leeds family. He cozens them into a compromising situation without hinting at the danger or even telling Pa to keep his stupid yap shut. When things go wrong he dismisses the family’s objections and keeps pounding at the idea that ‘the greater good’ means they may have to sacrifice themselves. His cops are incompetent. One is asleep at his post when little Donny is kidnapped. Whitfield worries that Gramp’s testimony may be useless if the defense finds out he’s a heavy drinker, and when Gramps finds out how to save the day, they don’t listen to him at first.
Chic Sale saves the picture too. Although a phony octogenarian, the actor’s excited dotard act is a winner. We hardly notice the face-thinning greasepaint on his cheeks. A moment when he talks with a sewer worker off-screen in a manhole plays as if it were suggested by a vaudeville routine. (The voice ‘in the hole’ might be that of director Wellman.) His outraged speeches about Valley Forge and the Flag surely scored with Depression-era audiences, along with his contempt for no-respect young folks that always ask ‘what’s in it for me?’
Although we can guess the story’s reasonably happy outcome, William Wellman packs it quite a bit of pre-Code ultra-violence. At Campo’s secret hideout, Big Jack gives Pa a brutal pummeling, repeatedly swinging the middle-aged man into a wall by his heels. Actor Grant Mitchell is substituted by a rather small stuntman, but the action is still fairly graphic. A little later, Big Jack treats little George Ernest almost as roughly, with no stunt man is involved. When Donny is tossed into a closet, the angle suggests that little George Ernest did the tumble himself. But no, at least twice more we see Nat Pendleton pick up the little kid by his belt, and toss him across the room. What a little trouper — Somebody get W.C. Fields on the phone, we’ve found his next co-star.
The script gets in a nice, funny surprise in the final showdown, When old Private Summerill charges the remaining gangsters on a stairwell, gun in hand. The happy finale sees Gramps a big hero once again, and the D.A. get his unearned conviction. It’s almost as simplistic as a Popeye cartoon, and just as satisfying.
… but if you ask me, the message is STILL to never cooperate with the cops when gangsters are involved.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of The Star Witness is a better-than good transfer of this old gem, besting what I saw on TCM several years ago. The source material does show signs of its age — with a fair amount of white dirt speckles. The clear audio helps in hearing all of the dialogue lines. The one extra is an original trailer which appears to be made from alternate takes. The studio uses several bits with the two child actors, pushing the movie as a heartwarming family picture with a crime angle, not the other way around.
William Wellman continued from this show into thirteen more entertaining, socially daring and sometimes racy pre-Code features, averaging more than six a year. His next show Safe in Hell is particularly sordid and humorless, dealing with overt prostitution, sex slavery, and rank injustice.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Star Witness
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson