by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I got out by 9 a.m. to catch a movie on Turner Classic Movies: Star Witness, a 1931 Warners programmer which I wanted to see because it’s one of my “doubles” movies: it co-stars Walter Huston and rural character actor Charles “Chic” Sale, both of whom also played Abraham Lincoln (Huston in D. W. Griffith’s 1930 film and Sale in the MGM two-reeler The Perfect Tribute). For the first 10 minutes or so it is a pretty banal family movie, what with the hard-working father, hausfrau mother, ne’er-do-well son, daughter who can’t stop necking with the son-in-law to be (not shown), two insufferable little boys and campy old grandfather (the Sale role) who can’t stop reminiscing about his days in Lincoln’s army in the Civil War. Then all of a sudden a gang war erupts outside the street of the house where all these people live, and we’re suddenly reminded that this is supposed to be a crime film.
It turns out that a vicious gangster in a yellow raincoat just shot a police officer and a former gangster who was about to turn state’s evidence, then fled through the home of Our Family and gave them all a good look at him before leaving through the back door and getting himself arrested. From then on it’s a clash of conscience between upright D.A. Huston and the family as to whether they’ll testify in court or whether the gangsters will successfully intimidate them into silence — which they do first by abducting the father and beating him up, then kidnapping the son and holding him until the preliminary hearing is over. While the ending was pretty far-fetched (Old Granddad wanders the streets where the kid is being held and the kid throws a baseball out the window to let his grandfather know where he is), in the main it was a good programmer in the Warners house style, well directed by William A. Wellman (the same year he made The Public Enemy) from an Academy Award-nominated script by Lucien Hubbard (who later moved to MGM and became a producer, handling what at any other studio would have been called the “B”-picture unit). — 3/26/98
I picked the film that immediately followed The Ruling Voice on TCM’s recent birthday tribute to Walter Huston: The Star Witness (virtually none of the documentation on this film includes the definite article in its title, but the opening credit does), in which Huston was back on the right side of the law as crusading prosecutor Whitlock (if the character has a first name I don’t remember hearing it and the American Film Institute Catalog doesn’t list it, nor does imdb.com) who’s anxious to convict at least one gangster of murder and get him executed. He gets his chance when Maxey Campo (Ralph Ince) guns down a police officer and an informant just when the officer is escorting the informant to Whitlock’s office to turn state’s evidence against Campo. Campo and his gang members escape through the home of the Leeds family, a typically repulsive slice of Warners urbia containing father George “Pa” Leeds (Grant Mitchell, Warners’ go-to guy in the early 1930’s for pathetic middle-class family weaklings), his wife Abby (Frances Starr), their ne’er-do-well son Jackie (Edward J. Nugent), their adult daughter Sue (Sally Blane, real-life sister of The Ruling Voice co-star Loretta Young) and two pre-pubescent kids of the usual mix of treacly sweetness and rambunctious obnoxiousness: Donny (George Ernest) and Ned (Dickie Moore).
Aside from Sue, who’s in the cellar getting a jar of preserves when the killings happen, all the Leedses get a good view of Campo doing the killing — and they all, including Sue, get an even better look at him when he and his henchmen escape through the house and go out the back way, where, tipped off by the Leedses, the police capture and arrest them. At first the Leedses are ready and eager to testify against Campo, but things abruptly change when the Campo gang first kidnap George at his workplace, take him back to their hideout (at the “Ideal Paper Box Company”!), offer him a bribe and then, when he refuses, beat him up; and then when Donny slips out of the police cordon around the Leedses’ home to play in his school’s baseball game and the gang kidnaps him on the eve of Campo’s trial, thus intimidating the Leedses into silence. The only person willing to testify against Campo is Abby’s father, Civil War veteran Private Summerill — played by well-known (at the time) rustic comedian Charles “Chic” Sale, who gets a special “and” credit in the opening roll — who was staying with the Leedses for two days after getting a furlough from the old soldiers’ home where he normally lives, and who also witnessed both the murders and Campo’s flight through the Leeds home — and who insists that just as he fought as a young man to keep the Union together, it’s now his duty to fight against the gangsters by testifying against them no matter what the risk to other members of the family.
Whitlock isn’t all that confident about Summerill as a witness because he drinks — he says he just takes an occasional hit of bitters to treat his game leg — and he’s even less confident when Summerill disappears on the day he’s supposed to testify because he’s got a lead on where Donny is being held. In the end Summerill traces Donny — he plays his fife as he’s walking past the Ideal Paper Box Company and Donny hears the sound, recognizes it and signals back by throwing his baseball, into which he’s etched his initials, through a window of the factory, thereby showing Summerill where he’s being held and attracting the police — who at first, showing the usual cluelessness of movie police, want to arrest Summerill for busking (he wasn’t, but after hearing his fife solo a woman pitched a penny into his open hat), and it’s only when the smarter set of cops Whitlock assigned to guard the Leedses show up that it’s all sorted out. Whitlock’s men have a shoot-out with Campo’s gang and it looks for a bit as if Summerill (who’s boldly charged into the line of fire as if reliving his days as a war hero) has been wounded or even killed, but he’s alive, he testifies and, with Donny safe, sound and out of the clutches of the gang, the other Leedses do too and Whitlock gets his conviction and death sentence.
The Star Witness is one of the quirkiest “doubles” movies ever made because it features two actors who also played Abraham Lincoln — Huston in the 1930 D. W. Griffith-directed biopic and Sale in The Perfect Ttibute, a 1935 MGM two-reel short about the Gettysburg Address — and it’s one of the few Warners movies of the period that had just one writer: Lucien Hubbard, who contributed both story and dialogue and won an Academy Award nomination for it. Between them, Hubbard and director William A. Wellman effectively dramatize the grim irony of the fate of the Leedses, particularly the way in which they’re being essentially kept under house arrest so the Campo gang can’t eliminate them before the trial. Add some surprisingly proto-noir setups by cinematographer James Van Trees and one has yet another film that slips into normal movie grooves but also deploys the clichés sufficiently inventively that through much of the film one’s in real uncertainty as to how it’s going to turn out — and the effective finale, with the key witness strolling the streets while the district attorney is virtually apoplectic about having the person he needs to break his case wide open for retribution and elimination by the baddies — was repeated almost exactly 20 years later in The Enforcer, Humphrey Bogart’s last film for Warners, in which he played the crusading D.A. out to put Murder, Incorporated out of business.
Though Chic Sale’s brand of comedy gets a bit wearing after a while and his “rustic” act badly dates this film, The Star Witness is pretty good overall, Hubbard’s script expertly meshing domestic comedy with gangster melodrama and making us feel for the fates of the innocent people caught up in a crime war and forced to suffer because they wanted to do their civic duty and help put a bad guy away. Interestingly, Warners put this film in production after a real-life incident in Harlem that was considerably more brutal than the one in the movie — a drive-by shooting in which several children were shot and police were unable to get witnesses to talk — and the film opened at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, where Warners made the first two performances a benefit for the families of five children who had been killed by gangsters in New York. — 5/3/10