Star Witness, The (1931) - full review!
Directed by William A. Wellman, and written by Lucien Hubbard (Smart Money (1931)) who earned the last of his Academy recognition with an Oscar nomination for his original story, this slightly above average crime drama features a career performance by Charles ‘Chic’ Sale, who plays a feisty old Civil War veteran grandpa to perfection. The story's about a family who witnesses a gang murder right outside their window; they come face-to-face with the killer (played by Ralph Ince), who threatens them not to testify about what they'd seen. The gangster's mob then takes steps to insure the family's silence, frustrating the ambitious district attorney (Walter Huston) until Grandpa saves the day. Filmed during prohibition, when gang violence ruled the day, the film's dialogue is preachy at times, but in a good way; though the specific circumstances are dated, its message is as timely as ever.
Grant Mitchell plays George Leeds, Frances Starr plays his wife Abbie. They're the parents of two grown children, jobless Jackie (Edward J. Nugent) and Sue (Sally Blane) who works at the same business as her accountant father, and two preteen boys, baseball playing pitcher Donny (George Ernest), who dotes on five year old ‘cutie’ Ned (Dickie Moore). Abbie's father, Grandpa Summerill (Sale), served in the Civil War and is still full of spit & vinegar despite his age, though he drinks "bitters" to soothe the pain of his injured leg; he lives in the old soldiers’ home but has come for a visit, arriving just in time for dinner. Their meal is interrupted by the sound of shooting in the streets; the family (save Sue, who had gone to the cellar for some jam) rushes to the window and witnesses a man in a yellow raincoat gunning down two men. The police arrive shortly thereafter, so the killer and his counterparts escape through the Leeds's home, stopping to threaten the family to forget about what they'd seen. The man in the yellow raincoat, who's later identified as Maxey Campo (Ince), even strikes Grandpa, who had stood up to him, before he and the other thugs ran through the kitchen out the back way.
District Attorney Whitlock (Huston) is thrilled to have the Leeds family validate his suspicions that the man (in the yellow raincoat) who did the shooting was Campo; he'd shown them pictures of the culprit for their positive identification. Whitlock had been fighting a losing battle against Campo, his gang and others; the men Campo killed included a witness to another crime and his police officer escort. However, he's able to arrest Campo, holding him for a pending grand jury indictment. But another mobster named Big Jack (Nat Pendleton) abducts George and threatens him not to testify about what he'd seen Campo do; George is beaten and left for dead in a stream. Fortunately, he'd found and the Leeds household is put under house arrest by Whitlock and his deputy (Russell Hopton) for their own protection. George and the rest of his family is not so sure about testifying, now, with the exception of Grandpa, who insists that it's his duty, that he'd fought to keep the country together and wants a better world for his grandchildren than the kind that could be run by gangsters.
Donny, who's determined to pitch in the big game against their rival team despite the house arrest, sneaks past an inept deputy (Tom Dugan, uncredited) to get out, but then finds himself a prisoner of Big Jack, who makes a threatening call to the family that is only partially traced. The police use the information they have to comb the multi-block area for Donny. Now the Leeds family is sure they won't testify, again except for Grandpa (who's willing to be the prosecution's "star witness"), who escapes house arrest himself to try to find his missing grandson. Though the story's end is fairly improbable, and you can probably guess what happens, its fast pace and timeless message make this sub-70 minute film worth the investment. Mike Donlin (uncredited) plays a former ballplayer thug that Donny, upon hearing his grandfather's piccolo, uses in order to affect his own rescue.