Made the same year as Wellman’s great Beau Geste, this lesser-known drama, sadly not on DVD as yet, is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling. There was clearly a demand for such films in 1939, in the early days of the Second World War. Once again, the story ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. However, in this film much of the drama takes place within the four walls of an 1880s London flat, framed by battle sequences at the start and end.
Anybody watching in search of war scenes might be surprised by just how much of the film is made up of Ronald Colman fighting his own private battle behind closed doors. Colman stars as Dick Heldar, an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-painter, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino). I don’t think the film stands up as well as Beau Geste, but it does have powerful performances by both Colman and Ida Lupino, as well as atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, with the pictures flickering in and out of focus as Heldar’s sight fades.
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.