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Don Siegel, director of such hard-hitting pictures as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Killers (1964), Coogan's Bluff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), got his start in narrative films with a sentimental, low-key short at Warner Bros., Star in the Night (1945). Siegel (1912 1991) started his film career as a humble film librarian at Warner Bros. in 1934 and worked his way up to a job in the special effects department under Byron Haskin. By 1939 Siegel was in charge of montages at the studio, creating the specialized sequences in films which use rapid cuts, dissolves and overlapping sound and images to advance the story. From 1939 to 1943 Siegel created montage sequences for many important pictures, including The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Now, Voyager (1942), Casablanca (1942), and several others.
Don Siegel was given his chance to direct in 1945, with a two-reel short written by Saul Elkins (from a story by Robert Finch). The narrative is simple and straightforward; it is a retelling of the Nativity story, from the point-of-view of a Scrooge-like, jaded man with little use for the Christmas holiday. Set somewhere is the US Southwest, three cowpokes are riding out of town with armloads of toys that they bought to impress a sales girl. They see a bright star on the horizon at dusk and head for it. The star is a light that Nick Catapoli (J. Carrol Naish) bought second-hand from the Star Picture Palace to attract costumers to his isolated motel and eatery, the Star Auto Court. A down-on-his luck hitchhiker (Donald Woods) stops by, hoping for a hot cup of coffee a token of goodwill, considering that it is Christmas Eve. But Nick will have none of it: "What-a you talk, goodwill? There's-a no such-a thing. You see that-a sign? It cost-a me plenty money. Even-a second-hand cash. I can't a-buy 'em with goodwill I can't a-buy nothing with goodwill, see?" The hitchhiker tells Nick that the true meaning of Christmas is peace, and brotherhood, and love. But Nick must deal with one motel guest (Virginia Sale) who complains about the noise of carolers; another, Mr. Dilson (Irving Bacon), who complains about the shirt-cleaning service that Nick uses; and a couple of travelers (Dick Elliott, Claire Du Brey) who demand to be fed a hot meal. Nick's patient wife Rosa (Rosina Galli) tries to be a calming influence, but Nick is obviously at the end of his rope as the travelers make another needling demand - for extra blankets for their already-warm cabin. The selfishness on view in this little roadside microcosm changes dramatically when a young couple, Jose and Maria Santos (Tony Caruso and Lynn Baggett), arrive looking for a room but there is no room to be had.
Siegel had no need to put his montage expertise to use in this film; the story is told in a simple style. Siegel lets the dialogue and acting take center stage, though cinematographer Robert Burks provides some very effective images. (Burks was also just beginning his career. Star in the Night was only his fourth film; in the 1950s he became the favorite cinematographer of director Alfred Hitchcock, and won the Oscar® for his work on To Catch a Thief in 1955).
Star in the Night was Don Siegel's only credited short as director. He also directed a propaganda short for Warner Bros. in cooperation with the War Department called Hitler Lives (1945), but this did not carry a director credit. Interestingly, both films won Oscars at the 1946 ceremony. Star in the Night won the Oscar® as Best Short Subject, Two-reels, while Hitler Lives won in the Best Documentary, Short Subject category. That same year, Don Siegel directed his first feature film - The Verdict (1946), starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.
Producer: Gordon Hollingshead
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Saul Elkins, story by Robert Finch
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Film Editing: Rex Steele
Music: William Lava
Art Direction: Roland Hill
Sound: Dolph Thomas
Cast: J. Carrol Naish (Nick Catapoli), Donald Woods (Hitchhiker), Rosina Galli (Rosa Catapoli), Dick Erdman (Cowboy), Lynn Baggett (Maria Santos), Johnny Miles (Cowboy), Tony Caruso (Jose Santos).
by John M. Miller