Friday, September 13, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE STAR WITNESS (1931)

Three generations of a family gather at a dinner table for a round of domestic comedy. The wastrel son disparages dad's bookkeeping job; the youngest boy craves beans. A doddering grandpa shows up on "furlough" from the National Soldiers' Home; the small ones idolize him while the grown-ups find him and his Civil War stories and his playing on the fife tiresome. Outside, a William Wellman movie breaks out. Two big cars are engaged in a gangland gun battle in the middle of a rainy evening until they spin and skid to a halt. Two desperate men race toward the retreating camera as Maxie Campo (Ralph Ince) guns them down. One of the victims flops in the gutter, Public Enemy-style. Now the cops are on their way, so Maxie and his boys have to get away. They cut through the family's apartment building, through their very apartment, Maxie pausing to deck the old codger when he gets too crotchety.

The cops have little trouble following Maxie's trail, and the Leeds family is happy to tell their story to the crusading district attorney (Walter Huston). They soon regret their glibness. While Maxie gets arrested and faces a capital trial for the shootings, his head goon Big Jack (Nat Pendleton) knows that the d.a. is likely to put the Leeds brood on the stand. He does all he can to dissuade the family. He offers the father (Grant Mitchell) a $1,000 bribe, or a paid vacation for the whole family. When Leeds spurns the bribe, Jack tries the hard sell. Soon he has Leeds by the legs, practically slamming him through the wall of his hideout before dumping the wretched man in a ditch under a bridge. Leeds is lucky to be alive, but in case the family didn't get the message, Big Jack has one of the younger boys kidnapped on his way to a baseball game. Defying a police dragnet, Jack tells the family that the boy will die if any of them testify against Maxie. That shuts everyone up, despite the d.a.'s threat to jail them for contradicting their earlier sworn statements. Everyone clams up, except for the old man. He goes off on a rant about "foreigners" taking over the country and how good Americans need to stand up to them the way he stood up for the Union way back when. When the family reminds him of the boy's peril, he reminds them that everyone's life is in danger while the "foreigners" run loose. Then he goes about tracking down the boy after the police have failed.

While Turner Classic Movies aired Star Witness to spotlight Dickie Moore, who plays the youngest boy, on his 88th birthday, Walter Huston gets top billing in the actual picture yet is overshadowed by the "And" billing for the actor playing the old veteran, Charles "Chic" Sale. Wellman's Star Witness is a recycling of the title, if not a remake of the plot of a Movietone short Sale had made in 1928. Sale had already made a name for himself making old codgers by the ripe age of 46, when he appeared in Wellman's film; perhaps ironically, he was only 51 when he died. While the Star Witness short was advertised as a comedy, Wellman's feature has a split personality. Sale is essentially a comic figure, even while he serves as a mouthpiece for nativist outrage, but Wellman arguably (and perhaps necessarily)overcompensates for the comedic element with a high level of brutality, including not just the beating Pendleton inflicts on Mitchell, but also some rough handling of George Ernst as the kidnapped boy. He emphasizes the contrast with stark crosscutting between Mitchell's ordeal and scenes of the family waiting to serve him dinner at home. Later, he merges the streams and makes the film a thriller as Sale conducts his improbable search. It's like Hitchcock directing Gabby Hayes as Sale stalks the neighborhood where Ernst is thought to be held, playing his fife in the street in the hope that Ernst will hear it wherever he is. The comedy never fully goes away; a passing woman gives Sale a penny as if he were a panhandler. But Wellman gradually ratchets up the suspense level, intercutting Sale's march with scenes of Ernst with his captors, including a friendly gangster and fellow baseball fan who shows the boy the grip for a fancy pitch. You can see what's going to happen, and your anticipation of what the kid will do with the ball when he hears the fife is what we call suspense.

Wellman keeps up the pressure even after the ball goes through the window, since Sale has to convince people of what the ball means, and he isn't exactly the most convincing person at first glance. Some of the police are looking for him ever since he slipped his handler in the courthouse restroom, but others don't know him from any other coot on the lam from the soldiers' home, and they're ready to stuff him in a squad car and take him away while leaving the boy to his fate. Come to think of it, Hitchcock might have taken notes from this film. I had my doubts about it when I realized it would be a vehicle for a vaudevillian coot, but it's a testament to William Wellman's instinctive sense of drama during his intensely industrious stint at Warner Bros. -- to repeat, 17 feature films between 1931 and 1933, including two for other studios and not counting uncredited work on an 18th picture -- that he makes it an entertaining drama that bears his personal stylistic stamp.

Well, jumping cornstalks! Here's the original trailer from


Judy said...

Samuel, it's a while since I saw this, but I remember being impressed by the way the tension builds and, as you say, by the level of violence. I was irritated by Sale's over-the-top humour, so am interested to hear more about his background and the earlier short. A very interesting posting.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Judy. It looks like Wellman worked hard to make this his film rather than Sale's. There's interesting camerawork throughout as the director strives to make even something like Sale crossing a street dramatic, filming him on location from the back of a car or wagon. It's worth watching as a curiosity but the drama may catch you just the same.