Saturday, December 24, 2022

Stubs - Star in the Night

Star in the Night (1945) Starring: J. Carrol Naish, Donald Woods, Rosina Galli, Dick Erdman, Lynn Baggett, Johnny Miles, Tony Caruso Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Saul Elkins. Produced by Gordon Hollingshead Run Time: 22 minutes. Black and White. USA Christmas, Drama, Short.

There’s an old saying or a song lyric that goes “from small things big things one day come” and that could be used to describe the directorial career of Don Siegel, best known for such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Dirty Harry (1971).

In 1932, at the age of 20, after meeting producer Hal Wallis, Siegel got a job as a film librarian. Siegel described this job as a lost loafer’s paradise, easy and responsibility-free, to the point that he and his supervisor could just drink and dick around on the clock.

But success still came his way. He rose to head of the Montage Department, where he directed thousands of montages, including the opening montage for Casablanca (1942). But his directorial debut wouldn’t come until 1945 and the short Star in the Night, a retelling of the birth of Christ.

The film opens on the desert floor in the Southwest and three Cowboys (Johnny Miles, Dick Erdman, Cactus Mack) are riding at night. In their arms are an assortment of odd things. Apparently, at their last stop, there had been a pretty girl working in a shop and they had bought whatever they could to impress her. Now, they don’t know what came over them and they're stuck with things like a string of lights, a stuffed animal, and a bassinet. One of them even muses that they should give these things to someone.

In the sky, one of the cowboys notices a flickering star, which he tries to point out to the other two. However, as soon as they look, it goes out. But they look again and eventually, the star seems to stay on and they decide to ride to see what it is.

The Star Motor Court, where the bulk of the story takes place.

The star, as it turns out, happens to be a used star-shaped lot from an old movie theater that Nick Catapoli (J. Carrol Naish), the Italian immigrant proprietor at the Star Motor Lodge, has bought to bring in customers. But the first person it attracts is a Hitchhiker (Donald Woods) who hopes Nick might give him a cup of coffee and a place to stay for the night out of the goodwill of the Christmas season, to which Nick replies, “What-a ya talk, goodwill. Is no such thing… I hate-a Christmas.”

Nick Catapoli (J. Carrol Naish) has a new light that attracts
the attention of a Hitchhiker (Donald Woods).

Nick has his own problems, like a customer, Mr. Dilson (Irving Bacon) complaining to him and his wife, Rosa (Rosina Galli), about the cleaning service they use that badly ironed and slightly tore one of his expensive $5 shirts; another customer, Miss Roberts (Virginia Sale), who complains about the noise coming from another cabin occupied by carolers; and new customers, a husband and wife (Dick Elliott and Claire Du Brey) who want more blankets even before checking into their room. Rosa shows that she’s better at trying to placate them than Nick is or wants to be.

When a young Mexican-American couple, Jose (Tony Caruso) and Maria (Lynn Baggett) Santos, arrive at the motor court, there are no rooms available. It is obvious that Maria is not well and they need a place to stay. Rosa, over Nick’s objection, offers to set them up in the barn and makes a bed for Maria in the hay.

Rosa sends Jose back to get blankets and learns that Maria is pregnant, even though it seems Jose doesn’t know. She manages to get all the women to help her with the delivery and the Hitchhiker, who is still there, is told to get the fire in the potbelly stove going so they can boil water. When Mr. Dilson learns they need more bandages, he offers up his expensive shirts, saying "These will make the best bandages in the world!" And the couple who needed extra blankets gladly give them up.

When Nick gives Jose a cup of coffee, he also gives one to the Hitchhiker, something he had refused to do earlier.

Everyone has a drink to celebrate Jose's good fortune before going out to see the newborn.

Soon after the birth, the three Cowboys arrive, having followed the star to see where it led. They are still laden down with the presents they’d bought and one of them suggests that they give the gifts to the baby and everyone goes out to the barn to see the newborn.

Away in the manger, Maria gives birth to her baby.

Nick offers to make the Hitchhiker something to eat but he turns down the offer, saying he needs to get going. Before he leaves, Nick gives him his warm coat, telling the Hitchhiker he was going to get rid of it anyway.

If you need to be hit over the head to get the connection,
Nick looks out a calendar with an image of the nativity.

After the Hitchhiker leaves, Nick starts to turn out the lights and plans to go to the barn. The last thing he looks at is a calendar for December with an image of the Bethlehem manger scene, as if to drive home the comparison to this story and the birth of Christ.

It’s easy to look at this as a bit of holiday hokum from Warner Brothers, as it blends the nativity with a bit of A Christmas Carol thrown in for good measure. However, it was released on October 13, 1945, several weeks prior to the traditional Christmas season. Even, nowadays, Hallmark waits for Halloween before going 24/7 Christmas for the rest of the year.

This turned out to be part of an Academy one-two punch for Siegel, who won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) and would also win the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary Film for his other short that year, Hitler Lives. After that, Siegel was given the chance to direct a feature, The Verdict (1946), and he would continue directing until Jinxed! (1982).

Star in the Night features mostly character actors, including the lead, J. Carrol Naish, who would appear in more than 200 films during his career with most coming in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He would occasionally have a role that would earn him acclaim and he was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Sahara (1943) and A Medal for Benny (1945). Here, Naish gets to play the Inn Keeper from the nativity and gets to throw in some of the bah-humbug associated with Scrooge from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol novella.

Donald Woods is an actor who had an up and down career. While he occasionally played major roles in bigger feature films like A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and Anthony Adverse (1936), he spent most of his career in B-movies, like playing Perry Mason in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937) and the romantic lead in the popular Mexican Spitfire series opposite Lupe Velez. The character of The Hitchhiker seems to be something out of A Christmas Carol as if he represents all of the poor that people with means, like Nick, don't want to help until, like Scrooge, they are moved by the spirit of Christmas.

Star in the Night was one of the few in which Rosina Galli actually receives screen credit. Her Rosa is a whirlwind character tending to customer complaints, delivering babies, and trying to make her husband a better person in the process. An Italian, Galli would also be the Italian dubbing voice for such actresses like Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler, and Myrna Loy. Star in the Night would be one of her last Hollywood films and she returned to Italy in the 1950s.

There are a couple of familiar faces in the background including Dick Elliott and Dick Erdman, both known as character actors. Like Galli, Elliott was mostly uncredited in the 240 films he appeared in from 1933 to 1959. He would appear in 11 episodes of TV’s The Andy Griffith Show. Erdman would mostly receive credit in his film roles. Like Elliott, his career would also end on a TV sitcom, in this case, Leonard on Community.

Overall, Star in the Night is a well-acted and well-directed short which has aged well. If you need a short take on the Nativity, then this is not a bad speedrun of the story. For a modern retelling of a story that is 2000 years old, it is worth a view, especially if your time is short around the holidays and you need a reminder of what the season is really all about.

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