Just when I was starting to think that every William Wellman pre-Code was a masterpiece, I came across one that I don’t like quite so much. For me the uneasy blend of comedy and melodrama in The Star Witness, starring Walter Huston, doesn’t quite work, although I still found it interesting to watch. I think it’s a pity it wasn’t included as an extra feature on the DVD of The Public Enemy, since they are so closely linked and even both feature shootings amid Wellman’s favourite cinematic weather, torrential rain! It looks from the article on this film at the TCM website as if this is being shown on TCM in the US at 9am on April 6 – it gives this date and time at the top of the article, anyway.
For me the big problem with The Star Witness is that the actor playing the loveable, curmudgeonly grandfather, Charles “Chic” Sale, seems rather hammy and over the top. This isn’t surprising, since he started out as a vaudeville/comedy star and was much-loved – I’m sure he was giving his fans what they wanted, and also that Wellman included him deliberately to give some light relief to an often grim story – but I must say I find him hard to watch. Sale was only in his 40s when the film was made, but plays an American Civil War veteran, presumably in his late 80s.
Released just four months after The Public Enemy, according to the imdb (though I’m not sure which was made first, and Wellman had managed to squeeze another release, Night Nurse, in between!), this 68-minute film looks at gangsters from another angle. It gives no sympathy to the criminals, but instead shows their impact on the lives of ordinary people. The story was “ripped from the headlines”, as Warner Brothers tended to do – TCM’s article on the film tells how the company capitalised on similarities with a real incident in Harlem, where several children were shot in gang crossfire but witnesses were too frightened to give evidence. The movie had a charity premiere in the area with funds going to the families of the injured children.
The story centres on a family, led by Pa and Ma Leeds (Grant Mitchell and Frances Starr), who just happen to witness a shooting amid the rain. One of the gangsters, “Maxey” Compo (Ralph Ince), charges into their home to elude the cops, and they all get a close-up view of him. District attorney Whitlock (Huston) persuades the family to give evidence at an indictment – but fails to provide them with proper protection. Unfortunately, Compo’s henchmen are determined to stop them testifying. First they treat Pa Leeds to a beating and put him in hospital, and then they kidnap one of the family’s two small boys, Donny (George Ernest). The other small boy is Ned, played by Dickie Moore, who appeared in many 1930s Warner films. Their older sister is played by Sally Blane, sister of Loretta Young, who starred in several Wellman films.
The scene where a gangster picks up Grant Mitchell and swings him against a wall, repeatedly bashing his head against it until the plaster begins to come away, is truly chilling and must be one of the most violent scenes I’ve seen in any pre-Code movie. However, most of the violence is suggested rather than seen.
As well as rainstorms, the film also features another favourite Wellman subject, meal times – and the tensions between the family are repeatedly seen as they argue over the table,while the little boys ask time and again for “more beans, please”.
All in all, I found this an interesting minor work and am glad to have seen it, but must admit it is my least favourite Wellman film I’ve seen so far, which is why I haven’t written as much as usual! I was quite surprised to see that it had an Oscar nomination, for best original story, by Lucien Hubbard.