Scen.: Lucien Hubbard. F.: James Van Trees. M.: Harold McLernon. Scgf.: John Hughes. Int.: Charles ‘Chic’ Sale (nonno Summerill), Walter Huston (procuratore Whitlock), Frances Starr (Ma Leeds), Grant Mitchell (Pa Leeds), Dickie Moore (Ned Leeds), Sally Blane (Sue Leeds), Edward J. Nugent (Jackie Leeds), George Ernest (Donny Leeds). Prod.: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. 35mm.
In many ways Wellman’s screwy 1931 kooky comedy-cum-family melodramacum-gangster picture-cum-government PSA (the movie’s release date was moved forward in response to an actual gang shooting in Harlem) acts as a companion piece to his much better known Wild Boys of the Road which he would make two years later. Both films dabble in a certain nostalgia for family life and youth, with graffiti-covered cars filled with young lovers, large chocolate cakes, and a perennial father figure played by Grant Mitchell. Plot-wise the films may differ greatly in where they proceed to take their characters, one to the terror of the open road and one to the terror of home imprisonment, but the bad guys – the government who doesn’t look out for its citizens and the violent criminals who make things even harder for the honest folks – are the same. And like Wild Boys, The Star Witness, even amidst a more complicated than normal plot for Wellman, rides the back of its smallest star, the then unknown Dickie Moore. In one of his first substantial roles he simply needs to awkwardly crawl through a pile of toys, ask (over and over again) for more beans or burst into tears during a quiet family moment, to illustrate who the real ‘star witness’ is – the innocent child who watches the adults muck everything up in the name of doing what (they think) is right. The greatest of these muckers is of course the actual star of the film, Charles ‘Chic’ Sale. His drunken Civil War grandfather, who would risk his grandson’s life if it meant being a better American, also serves as a messy summation of Wellman’s own political views, “my politics are kind of eccentric”. Sale, as it turns out, wasn’t just a rascal on screen, and he and Wellman clashed as Wellman would recall: “Chic Sale, as the old Grandpa in The Star Witness, tough to handle, late on set, complaining about everybody. I was so understanding and polite and patient and suddenly realized that he wasn’t an old man, he was just acting it. He was my age. No one was ever debearded as quick as he was. I told him if he didn’t behave himself, I would put a little age on him in a very unusual way, and it wouldn’t be with makeup. He behaved himself”.