Saturday, September 21, 2013

Breaking News: Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon - Five Star Final (1931)



Spoilers abound in this look at Warner Brothers Five Star Final for Breaking News: Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon sponsored by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay's Movie Musings.


Mervyn LeRoy
1900 - 1987

Mythologized, demonized, revered and lampooned, the gentlemen of the press make for good copy.  From real life crusader Nellie Bly who became as famous as her exposes to the fictional Charles Foster Kane who thought it would be fun to run a newspaper audiences are as fascinated with the purveyors of the news as - well, as the newsmen are with themselves.  Newsmen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur created a Broadway sensation and all-time classic with their trenchant comedy full of hard-boiled, wise-cracking reporters The Front Page which ran on Broadway in the late 1920s for 276 performances.  Reporter Louis Weitzenkorn turned his experience on the tabloid New York Evening Graphic into a popular melodrama called Five Star Final starring Arthur Byron (The Mummy) as the conflicted editor Randall and Berton Churchill (Stagecoach) as unscrupulous publisher Hinchecliffe.  Mr. Weitzenkorn obviously had a lot to get off his chest.  The show had a successful Broadway run of 175 performances between December, 1930 to June, 1931.  Before the ink was dry on the Playbill, Warner Brothers released their film version in September of 1931.  The studio and director Mervyn LeRoy had great success with the film which was one of eight nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in its year, the winner being Grand Hotel.  LeRoy directs with great verve, evident from the opening credits over the clatter of the press, the use of split screen, close-ups, wipes and interesting angles which enhance the breathless pace of the dialogue.

No one who works at the New York Gazette is satisfied in their work.  The owner, Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) is displeased with a recent drop in circulation and a conference with his circulation and advertising managers confirms his thinking that his editor Randall (Edward G. Robinson) is to blame for trying to turn the tone of the paper away from the sensational or what Hinchecliffe refers to "human interest".  Apparently, in their long and successful collaboration Randall has tried this sort of thing before, but stenographers and shop girls don't want to read about politics.  Cynical reporters who balk at assignments take the sting out of a day's work by drinking at a local speak.  The speakeasy is the main place of business for contest editor Ziggie Feinstein (George E. Stone) who also delegates the assignments of roughing up newsstands where The Gazette is not featured prominently.  Randall has developed an OCD habit of washing his hands, but they never can get clean enough.  Randall's secretary Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon) loves him and worries over him.  He complains that she sits there like a giant conscience.

Hinchecliffe, in what he thinks is a sure-fire circulation booster, decides to rehash a lurid murder case of 20 years past.  A young and pregnant stenographer, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) had murdered her boss/lover who deserted her.  Acquitted of the crime, she has disappeared into obscurity, but The Gazette is about to change all that.  They will print the case in serial format pointing out the moral aspects as a warning to young women everywhere.  They will cash in.  In the intervening years Nancy Voorhees married Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner) and together they have raised her daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh).  It is a joyous time in the Townsend household as Jenny is shortly to be married to a sterling young man of good family, Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell).

Not ones to regularly purchase The Gazette, it is brought into the Townsend home when Phillip picks up all of the evening papers and they become aware of the notice to watch for the Voorhees serial.  Jenny has never been told of her parent's background and Nancy is devastated by the news that her past is to be dredged up.  With a wedding to take place the Townsend's are not surprised to be called upon by a clergyman who is really a reporter angling for a story.  The despicable Isopod (Boris Karloff) is a two-faced lecher with no morals whatsoever and too late the Townsends find they have been confiding in an enemy.


Desperation overwhelms the unhappy Townsends as they try to keep the story out of the papers and away from Jenny and Phillip.  At The Gazette Randall digs deeper into the story giving it all the experience of years of muckraking.  In addition to Isopod, Miss Carmody (Ona Munson), a go-getter from Chicago, is put on the case.  The angle of the murderess' daughter marrying into the social register makes for a snappy lead.  At the same time he is doing his job Randall is disappearing more into the bottle as the hand washing fails to give relief.  "God gives us trouble.  The devil gives us whisky."  Disgusted he may be with himself, yet Randall persists in carrying out his duty.  "This is one newspaper man who's going to retire with some dough."  

Particularly rough to watch is a scene employing split screen technique where an anxious Nancy Townsend tries to reach Hinchecliffe to beg him not to print the story.  The callous publisher keeps transferring the call to Randall who is no more willing to speak to her.  It is only at Miss Taylor's insistence that Randall does actually get on the line only to tell Nancy that it is too late.  The story has gone to print.  The nervous and exhausted Nancy Voorhees Townsend takes her own life.  In a heartbreaking scene she is discovered by her husband who playfully interacts with his daughter and son-in-law-to-be while hiding the truth.  They are on their way to the church.  Will he be joining them soon?  He tells them that first he will be joining her mother.  The couple's lifeless bodies are then discovered by the enterprising Miss Carmody who breaks into the apartment with a photogapher in tow.  The shutterbug balks, but Carmody gets her way and the picture of the bodies for the front page.

Randall knows himself to be a murderer.  The police want to know how The Gazette got that picture.  The respectable rags jeered.  Hinchecliffe plans a trip to Europe.  Circulation, advertising and Isopod plan a follow-up on Nancy's story in her own words, now that no one is alive to contradict what they may choose to print.  They plan to offer Jenny $1,200 for the name.  Phillip's family calls off the wedding.  They should have consulted with their son first as he refuses to do so.  In a heart-wrenching scene from Ms. Marsh, Jenny, gun in hand, confronts the senior staff, and the creepy Isopod, demanding to know why they killed her mother.  She shames these insensitive men.  Only Randall will answer that it was for circulation.  It is something she cannot fathom.  Phillip takes her away with a warning that if they ever print his wife's name in their lousy paper he'll come back and kill them.

In a final showdown with Hinchecliffe, Randall eloquently and profanely quits the paper.  Miss Taylor, with a quiet happiness, follows him out the door.  "The End" appears on the screen as the story of the suicide is swept into the gutter with yesterday's flotsam and the newsboys hawk the latest love nest murder.

Warners remade Five Star Final in 1936 as Two Against the World starring Humphrey Bogart, setting the story in the world of radio.  I have yet to see the film, but can't help feeling that it will lose some of its crackle minus the pre-code innuendo.  A 1954 television presentation on Lux Video Theatre starred Edmond O'Brien as Randall and featured Joanne Woodward and Liam Sullivan as the young couple. 

In this year of "Rico" in Little Caesar and "Nick" in Smart Money, along with the tortured Randall, Edward G. Robinson cemented his place as one of Hollywood's finest acting talents.  1931 was a watershed year for the career of Boris Karloff who at the age of 44, after kicking around Hollywood for over a decade, would give outstanding performances in this film, in The Criminal Code, and as the monster in FrankensteinFive Star Final features the film debut of Aline MacMahon, the great character leading lady whose career would give audiences such treats as The Mouthpiece, One Way Passage, Heat Lightning, Ah, Wilderness!, The Man from Laramie and All the Way Home.  Thank heavens there was a place in Hollywood for her talent.

Five Star Final is worthy to stand alongside director Mervyn LeRoy's other outstanding "ripped from the headlines" pictures of this era including I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Little Caesar.  His inventiveness and energetic storytelling has held audiences for generations.


35 comments:

  1. I'm not one for remakes, but the script for FIVE STAR FINAL could very easily be updated to 2013, with just a few changes. It's a movie which is just as relevant today.

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  2. I can't believe how many movies I haven't seen in this blogathon...but the good news is, there's lots of great movie watching ahead!

    "Five Star Final" looks fantastic and, as the previous commenter said, still relevant today. Besides, how can you go wrong with Edward G. Robinson?

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  3. I saw this a year or so ago and thought it was a fantastic performance by Edward G Robinson, as an editor who really doesn't want to do the publisher's dirty work, but ends up doing it anyway. Your thorough review brings it all back - great job!

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  4. DD Jr., it is sadly true that bullies of the press still abound today and a remake would not seem strange to anyone who reads a local rag or watches TV news. Have you ever noticed how when the victims of crime are interviewed the reporters say that they have "finally broken their silence", as if there is some obligation to bare one's soul to the press.

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  5. Ruth, you can't go wrong with EGR. He must have been thrilled with this script/opportunity and he flew with it.

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  6. Thanks, Judy. It is quite a memorable performance. When the blogathon was announced, "Five Star Final" jumped to the head of the line for me.

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  7. This is such a great film, fast-paced and tough, with so many memorable performances. I'm always gripped by Marian Marsh in her big scene, when she confronts Randall with a gun, asking over and over, why did they kill her mother - she's heartbreaking. And Aline McMahon is perfect (but she always was!). Thanks for highlighting this film, which should be better known.

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  8. What you say about Ms. Marsh is true. She absolutely brings tears to my eyes.

    You would think the Oscar nomination would have helped cement the movie's reputation. Darn that old "Grand Hotel"!

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  9. CW, Five Star Final is one of my favorite movies, not to mention favorite movies about journalism. It is a real heartbreaker, and Robinson and McMahon are wonderful. This movie builds tension almost unbearably, and brought tears with the suicides that you just couldn't believe really happened. Great job with this one, and great choice for this blogathon.

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  10. Split-screens and funny angles sounds fairly unique for 1931. Does this movie really have that distinctive a visual style?

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  11. Wonderful, CW - EG always rates 5 stars in my book! Great choice for the blogathon. I am a Warners gal from tip to toe, so I'm totally in agreement with ever word!

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  12. Robinson was superb in anything he did. Got to keep an eye out for this one. Great post, catching all the pre-Code grit and daring. Loved it.

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  13. Becky, I know what you mean. The first time I saw the movie I was in shock. It was easy to become totally invested in the characters and to feel their pain.

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  14. Rich, LeRoy truly impressed me with how he kept a great sense of movement throughout scenes which took place in standing sets such as the office, the speakeasy, the family apartment. It kept pulling forward as if you were inexorably heading toward a cliff.

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  15. FlickChick, I'm a 4 star rater, but in my heart I always give 5 to EGR.

    You? A Warners gal? I never would have guessed. Ha. Ha.

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  16. Thanks, JTL. It's well worth the 89 minute investment. I first caught it on TCM a while back, but it's not on the schedule for the foreseeable future. Let's cross our fingers.

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  17. Robinson is excellent in this one, and Karloff's creepiness makes quite the impression. And the scene with the suicides-- yikes! Definitely couldn't do that a few years later. Thanks for the post!

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  18. This sounds great! Edward G. Robinson and Mervyn LeRoy were great 1930's names and did a great job together in Little Caeser. I really need to see this one.
    Thanks for your kind comment!
    Kisses!

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  19. Danny, you could break a thesaurus trying to find enough creepy adjectives for Boris in this role. Impressive stuff.

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  20. Thank you, Le. I hope you get a chance to see the film soon. I know you'll become a fan.

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  21. Wow, I have never heard of this film. But it sounds like a little-known gem...a definite must-see.

    I think Eddie G. was a terrific actor. I have no doubt he was completely stellar in this.

    Thanks for bringing this movie to my attention. I am certainly going to be on the lookout for it.

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  22. Patti, I hadn't heard of the movie until a few years ago. Surprising because of its Oscar nominated pedigree, but so many great ones do fall between the cracks.

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  23. A splendid write-up of a splendid movie. I've always been impressed with Marian Marsh every since I saw her in Barrymore's "Svengali" (1931). Some of her close-ups of her in that movie are staggeringly beautiful. But she was also a good actress, as she shows in her big confrontation scene here.

    Robinson is great, Karloff is great, there's not a wasted scene and it moves like a bullet. Add a storyline which, as others have said, could easily be updated today, and you have one of those 1930s films I would have no hesitation is showing to anyone today, regardless of their age or their lack of interest in Golden Age Cinema. It's that good.

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  24. Kevin, I understand how you feel about Marian Marsh. The scene in "Beauty and the Boss" where she applies for the secretarial job explaining her position, made me a fan for life. In my eyes she can do no wrong and, as far as I've seen, she's always perfect.

    Yes. It is that good.

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  25. OH MY! Have never seen this film and it sounds fabulous! Jotted it down per this fabulous commentary. Love EGR and newspaper stories so it's a can't miss!

    Thanks for introducing me to this, CW!

    Aurora

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  26. I made this the first Blogathon post to read because this is the one I wanted to get--you beat me!

    Echoing most of what's already been said, but definitely one of the best scenes of Marian Marsh's career and the delayed double suicide scene leading to it is both heartbreaking and shocking. Really shocking!

    Karloff really creeps me out as Isopod.

    Enjoyed your coverage, glad you got it!

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  27. Why haven't I seen this? I loved reading your review - sounds like everyone gives fantastic performances.
    Thank you for sharing - I'll make sure I come back and re-read once I've seen it.

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  28. My pleasure, Aurora. I look forward to your thoughts once you've had a chance to see the movie.

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  29. Ah Cliff, great minds ...

    Thanks for being so gracious about the luck of the draw.

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  30. Miss Vicki, I'm pleased that you have been intrigued enough to add "Five Star Final" to your viewing list.

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  31. I've never seen this one, C.W. But it sounds like a doozy of a film.

    Sad to think that this sort of thing still goes on. Add Twitter, Facebook and whatnot and you have an even worse environment.

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  32. So true, Yvette. Gossip and opinion is used to fill up the regrettable 24 hour news cycle.

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  33. I've never seen this one, but it sounds shockingly dark. I'm always up for a good Edward G. Robinson film though, and this sounds like a great showcase for him.
    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!
    Best,
    Lindsay

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  34. Thanks, Lindsay. Congratulations on a fabulous blogathon event. I learned so much from the varied and interesting contributions.

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