Monday, April 5, 2010

Walter Huston's birthday upcoming

Tomorrow, April 6, marks the birth anniversary of Walter Huston. TCM is marking the day with a morning and afternoon of his films. Normally, I'd mention somebody's birthday on the actual day, but there's a movie coming up fairly early in the morning that I'd like to recommend: The Star Witness, at 9:00 AM.

Huston gets top billing as a district attorney, but the movie isn't really about him. Instead, it's about Grant Mitchell and his family. They're your typical middle class family living in a typical big city in early 1930s America. It's the Prohibition era, which means that the big cities are full of gangsters (at least, they are in Hollywood's view). The gangsters and Grant Mitchell's family come together, although not of his own free choosing, when they witness a gangland shooting. The family is understandably frightened, and doesn't want to say anything to the police about what they saw, lest the gangsters harm them.

Huston isn't having any of it, though. As the DA, it's his job to get convictions, the constitution be damned. He'll subpoena the family if need be, charge them with perjury if they don't tell the court what he wants to hear, and not give a damn if the gangsters bump them off for spilling the beaans. The gangsters, of course, mean business. To prove it, they kidnap Mitchell's youngest kid (played by a five-year-old Dickie Moore). What's a family to do? Well, they're in a bit of luck in the form of Grandpa (Chic Sale), a veteran of the Civil War. He's now living in the veterans' home, and is old enough that he doesn't care if his life is ended by the gangsters. Besides, he doesn't want his grandkids to have to grow up in a world run by the gangsters. So he might just be willing to testify....

The Star Witness is one of the earlier films directed by William Wellman. It's a zippy little movie, packing quite a bit into its roughly 70-minute running time. And I do mean quite a bit. Yes, it's a pre-Code, but it's still surprising just how violent the gangsters are allowed to be here. That having been said, it's not perfect by any means: the "typical" family is, if anything, stereotypical, and it has the feel of a bunch of character actors reaching above their normal place in Hollywood to make something entertaining if not quite so enduring. The Star Witness, like a lot of Wellman's early talkies, was made at Warner Bros., which had a taste for the social commentary movie. And while this one is clearly trying to make social commentary, it's not quite as biting as, say, Little Caesar or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, or even Wellman's own Wild Boys of the Road. But I might be a bit to harsh here; it should be stressed that The Star Witness is quite the entertaining movie.

It doesn't seem to have been released to DVD, though, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showings, which are all too rare: the last time this showed up was when TCM honored Wellman with a month of his movies back in December 2007.

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