Tuesday, February 23, 2016

OVP: The Star Witness (1931)

Film: The Star Witness (1931)
Stars: Walter Huston, Frances Starr, Grant Mitchell, Dickie Moore, Chic Sale
Director: William A. Wellman
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Story)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

There are occasionally films that I see for the Oscar Viewing Project, particularly the films from the early 1930's, where I have to just sort of marvel at how far the Oscars have come.  The early 1930's, after all, were host to some truly great pictures.  Movies ranging from City Lights to King Kong to M were all made during this time period, and yet most of the movies that were cited by AMPAS in his single-digit ceremonies are pretty forgettable genre and drama pictures.  It's not like, years later, Oscar has gotten a lot better at identifying the best and the brightest of movies, but the films that are selected have, in my opinion, got a little more sophisticated in their taste.

(Spoilers Ahead) This is my way of saying that The Star Witness feels a bit flat and juvenile, even if I found myself looking at it like one looks at their kid brother in a middle school play, just proud that he can remember his lines.  That may sound condescending, but it's probably the best I can muster for the film.  The movie is about a gangster Maxey Campo (Ralph Ince) who commits a double-homicide outside the home of a sweet, multi-generational family.  He comes into the house, threatens them, and then leaves, but everyone in the family gets a solid look at him before they go.  As a result, District Attorney Whitlock (Huston) enters the picture, at first convincing them to testify but then the mob starts to deal the family bodily harm, beating Pa (Mitchell) and kidnapping their son (Edward J. Nugent).  The film ends with Grandpa Summerill (Sale) saving the day and being the only one brave enough to testify.

The film plays everyone for being an archetype, from the all-talk Jackie played by Nugent to the Civil War-spouting Grandpa to the world's most adorable child (Dickie Moore, of course).  The movie feels ridiculous even by the 1930's standpoint as I anticipate Walter Huston's hardline DA would have tried slightly less bullying tactics to try and get the family to continue to testify in the wake of bodily harm and kidnapping of a child.  There's never any doubt, of course, in how the movie will end and who will save the little boy, and the film has a solid dose of anti-Italian racism coming from Grandpa (multiple times he refers to foreigners as murderers) that made me leer.

All-in-all, there's not a lot to lend to the movie, and it seems unthinkable that a film this sophomoric came out the same year as something as masterful as M, one of the truly great screenplays of the era (or any era, really).  It's also weird, looking at the Motion Picture Story category of the time, how many of these films managed to randomly be gangster pictures, perhaps anticipating a lifelong affair that Oscar would have with the genre?  Either way, it's a boring if at least easily dismissed picture that's never odious enough to be a one-star endeavor.

Those are my thoughts-anyone out there already have seen The Star Witness (it's pretty eclectic so I'm guessing this is a no)?  If so, I'd love to have a conversation?  If not, at least pipe in with some of your favorite films from the early 1930's!

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