One of the joys of William Wellman's pre-Code output, and one of the pleasure of the pre-Code era per se, is how apparent flaws sometimes just add flavor. The filmmakers of that era were mostly not aiming for perfection anyway, but concentrated on grinding 'em out like sausages, trying to preserve a decent overall quality, injecting some special spicy tang of their own devising whenever possible, but moving onto the next one as soon as they could.
The Star Witness (1931) is bizarre, exciting, funny/unfunny, brutal, and generally off-kilter in a way that makes for engaging viewing. If its qualities were transposed to a modern studio picture, we might find it in some way "unsatisfying," but it can certainly hold up its end of a double bill, as it is doing on Saturday, Feb 25 at the Wellman retrospective at New York's Film Forum.
The movie's worst move, really, is sidelining Walter Huston as a hard-boiled D.A. dead set on putting a mobster in the electric chair. Instead, center stage is taken by vaudeville comic "Chic" Sale as an octogenarian Civil War veteran, a character who has no sane business taking lead role in a gangster picture. Sale, a forty-something playing an eighty-something, is as stereotypical and stagey as you're imagining right now, which I bet is plenty, and he should be disastrous, but due to the magic that is pre-Code (mix one part tabloid opportunism with four parts smut, two parts sentiment, and thirty-seven-parts "let's throw everything in the pot because who knows what'll work?") it's merely peculiar, and by the end you actually like the unforgivable old duffer with his airbrushed cheekbones and skeletal stagger.
Sale is one of a family that includes Warners stalwarts Grant Mitchell and Frances Starr, along with their pretty teen daughter Sally Blane, sullen son Eddie Nugent, and lovable tykes George Ernest and little Dicky Moore: all are witness to a homicide by racketeer Ralph Ince, whose gang set about trying to prevent them from testifying. With the harsh Huston one one side and mob torpedos like the dependably charmless Nat Pendleton on the other, the poor nuclear family looks in danger of being atomized, and our sympathy is very much with them, though the scenario has a finger-wagging way of preaching about civic duty that leaves us in no doubt of what's meant to be right and wrong.
The moralizing is really the movie's weakness, its strength being Wellman's typically robust way with character, story and violence. Poor young George Ernest, a sort of miniature Cagney, gets thrown around something terrible after being kidnapped after sneaking off to a ball game. The cops under Huston's command are a pretty hopeless bunch, but luckily gramps is on the case: the only member of the clan willing to testify, even if it means his grandson gets rubbed out, he takes to the streets with his tin whistle like a 30s pied piper, hoping to locate the missing kid by call-and-response (shades of The Man Who Knew Too Much).
Wellman, who's brief career as actor was cut short by his own deep-seated feeling of humiliation about the whole thing, makes an audio-only cameo as a workman down a manhole.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.