The Witness Chair (1936)

The body of businessman Stanley Whittaker (Douglass Dumbrille) has been found in his office, gun in hand and next to a typewritten confession that he’s guilty of embezzlement.

Lieutenant Poole (Moroni Olsen) and his assistant (Fred Kelsey) initially assume that the death is a suicide… but after closer examination, foul play is suspected.

But who is the culprit? Could it be James Trent (Walter Abel), the company VP who was being framed in the embezzlement scheme? Or was there another motive?

The Witness Chair was directed by George Nicholls, Jr. The film was written by Rian James and Gertrude Purcell from a story by Rita Weiman.

The Witness Chair‘s opening is very effectively mysterious. The first few minutes are completely free of dialogue, with Whittaker’s secretary Paula sneaking her way out of a building — the very same building where the body is later found. It certainly looks suspicious!

(Image via TMDb)

Cue the newspaper montage when someone other than Paula, Jim Trent, is arrested for Whittaker’s murder. Because the viewer sees Paula leaving the office sneakily in the opening, we believe Trent to be innocent.

Still, we have no clue what Paula’s motive would be, which helps keep the viewer hooked. The film feels a bit static in the middle but picks up a lot in later courtroom scenes, with plenty of yelling and arguing in the final act as Trent’s daughter takes the stand.

Harding has an intensity to her that makes for a high-impact performance in the role of Paula, and suits the tone of the film very well.

There are also a few highlights of the supporting cast: Hilda Vaughn, in a small uncredited role as the cleaning lady who finds the body; Billy Benedict offering up some comic relief as the Western-movie-loving, constantly singing office boy; and Margaret Hamilton as Whittaker’s bookkeeper.

It’s a good thing that the supporting roster is packed full of talented character actors, and that Harding does so well in her role (despite the fact that she apparently hated this film). With a nonexistent score and unremarkable cinematography, it’s up to the cast and script to do all of the heavy lifting.

Luckily, both cast and script do a decent job of it. The film’s resolution is interesting, taking a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward the character eventually revealed as the killer. (The culprit gets a proposal at the end of the film rather than a conviction!)

While not a remarkable thriller or courtroom drama, The Witness Chair offers a little bit of mystery and is a decent time-passer, with fine performances.

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