Apr 2, 2019

On DVD: Walter Huston and a Lively Cast in The Star Witness (1931)

As Warner Archive celebrates its tenth year, I have been looking back on the hundreds of films I’ve reviewed from the label over the years. I treasure so many of these releases, from the pre-codes to big budget Technicolor musicals. However, my favorites have been the underseen gems that have come to me out of nowhere. So many interesting discoveries have come to me from the Archive and The Star Witness (1931) is one of them.

After making Academy Award history with the first best picture win Wings (1927), and before A Star is Born (1937), Beau Geste (1939), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), director William Wellman had an exhilarating run in the pre-code era. He helped set the template for crime films with The Public Enemy (1931) and continued to explore the dark side of society with sensational flicks like Night Nurse (1931) and Heroes for Sale (1933).

Knowing all this, The Star Witness certainly pales in comparison, but it is still a fascinating flick, and unusual in the way it combines the sweetness of family life with the horror of a crime syndicate. There’s a lot of drama, humor, schmaltz and excitement packed into this barely hour-plus pre-code. It starts out tender, turns brutal and then roars to a heroic finish.

The Star Witness opens on the Leeds family cozily eating dinner: Ma (Frances Starr) and Pa (Grant Mitchell), their children Sue, Jackie Ned and Donny, and crusty, but energetic Grandpa Summerill (Charles “Chic” Sale) who is visiting from the Veteran’s home. They hear gunshots on the street and instead of hitting the floor, the whole family, including tiny Ned, runs to the window to check out the action. Here they watch a mob hit and realize in horror that the men are going to make an escape through their apartment. Unwillingly, they become witnesses who have been seen by the criminals, thus endangering their lives.

What follows is a uniquely blended drama of warm family time and horrific mob menace. There is one scene in particular where the father (Mitchell) is subject to a startling beating that hits the guts in an intensely visceral way. Often in a movie like this you are only left to imagine what tortures a criminal could inflict upon a menaced innocent, here you witness it and feel its horrific impact.

Walter Huston is perfectly cast as the straight shooting, but fearsomely ambitious district attorney. Though not completely insensitive to the suffering of the family, he dismisses their fear in his determination to convict the gangsters. With the exception of pre-Our Gang Dickie Moore, there are few other star names or remarkable performances in the nevertheless solid cast, though the family patriarch Grant Mitchell has some heart-wrenching moments.

The stand-out by far is Charles ‘Chic’ Sales, a 46-year-old man playing the sweet and salty Grandpa Summerhill, an elderly Civil War veteran. Though not well remembered today, at the time Sales had made quite a name for himself as a comic actor on the stage and screen.

I would not be surprised if Sale’s performance was the baseline for many an old prospector-style character. He waddles around talking about things that get his “dander up” and mutters that he knows it’s going to rain because his knee is bad. Viewed today, years after this kind of character has become a caricature of a caricature, it’s an especially amusing performance. The topper is that he’s still got fighting spirit and proficiency with firearms, which comes in handy when things get tough. Sadly, this charismatic performer would die of pneumonia at age 51 in 1936.

This is an entertaining flick, bizarrely balanced between sweetness and suspense, but always well-paced and lively.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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