Monday, June 22, 2020

REMAKE AVENUE: Five Star Final, 1931 and Two Against the World, 1936


Mythologized, demonized, revered, and lampooned, the gentlemen and ladies 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.

Reporter Louis Weitzenkorn turned his experience on the tabloid New York Evening Graphic into a popular Broadway melodrama called Five Star Final starring Arthur Byron (The Mummy) as the conflicted editor Randall and Berton Churchill (Stagecoach) as the unscrupulous publisher Hinchecliff.

Mr. Weitzenkorn obviously had a lot to get off his chest as he ripped open the lack of principles in the newspaper game when it comes to circulation and sensationalism. Five Star Final relates the devastating effect on one family needlessly put under the microscope, and the price paid on a man's conscience. 

Five Star Final ran for 175 performances in the 1930/31 Broadway season. Before the ink was dry on the Playbill, Warner Brothers released its film version in September 1931.



The editor of the New York Gazette, Randall played by Edward G. Robinson is in the midst of one of his campaigns to change the tone of the newspaper away from its tabloid success. Publisher Hinchecliffe played by Oscar Apfel needs to remind his editor that "shop girls don't want to read about politics." This conflict has led Randall to develop an OCD habit of constantly washing his hands. Randall's secretary Miss Taylor, played by Aline MacMahon in her first film, loves and encourages Randall. She is his conscience and he knows it.

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 played by Frances Starr had murdered her boss/lover who had deserted her. Acquitted of the crime, she has disappeared into obscurity, but the Gazette is about to change all that. Nancy will become public property in a serial with a lot of moralizing for the young women readers of today. 

Unaware of the publicity headed their way, Nancy and her husband Michael Townsend played by H.B. Warner are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Jenny played by Marian Marsh to a sterling young man of a good family, Phillip Weeks played by Anthony Bushell.

Edward G. Robinson, Aline MacMahon

No amount of begging or pleading can stop the presses. Engaged in the unearthing of "news" are contest editor Ziggie Feinstein played by George E. Stone abetted by the despicable Isopod played by Boris Karloff and Miss Carmody played by Ona Munson. Stone wants to help his boss, Isopod is a two-faced lecher with no morals, and Miss Carmody is go-getter from Chicago. The lives of the Townsend family are just another feather in their caps. Disgusted he may be with himself, yet Randall persists in carrying out his duty. "This is one newspaperman who's going to retire with some dough."

Director Mervyn Leroy tells the story with great verve. The opening with the credits over the rattling of the giant presses, the use of split-screen, close-ups, wipes, and interesting angles enhance the fast-paced dialogue and the emotional storyline.

Particularly rough to watch is the desperate Nancy trying to get Hinchecliffe on the phone. Hinchecliffe keeps rerouting the call to Randall, who is even less interesting in speaking with her. Miss Taylor convinces him it is the humane thing to do, but Randall can only tell Nancy that it is too late. In despair, she takes her own life leading to a chain reaction of heartbreak. Heartbreak which becomes more fodder for the Gazette and more hand-washing for Randall. 

Five Star Final was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards held in 1932. It was one of eight nominees, with the winner of the evening MGMs Grand Hotel. Of the famous and Oscar-nominated pictures of the decade, Five Star Final seems to have fallen through the cracks but perhaps its time has come in the 21st century.



Warner Brothers did a relatively quick turnaround on remaking its prestige picture of 1931. William C. McGann directed the 1936 First National programmer Two Against the World which clocks in at just under an hour compared to the hour and a half run time of the Five Star Final.

"There's only one thing I'm interested in and I don't care how I get it. All I want out of this business is enough money so that I don't have to worry about old age pensions and things like that." So says radio producer Sherry Scott played by Humphrey Bogart in his first lead billing. He works for the United Broadcasting Company - "the voice of the people." The owner of the station played by Robert Middlemass feels that of late, Scott's programming has been leaning toward the intellectual. They only make money when they appeal to those people on the company motto. To that end, he has had an idea to revisit the 20-year-old Pembrook case.

Beverly Roberts, Humphrey Bogart

Scott's secretary played by Beverly Roberts thinks her boss is meant for better stuff, but that message and hope fall on deaf ears. A team is assembled to write a 15 part serial, heavy on the moralizing. Harry Hayden, in his movie debut, plays Dr. Leavenworth based on the Isopod character in the play and earlier movie. He is as phony as they make them but he knows how to dig up dirt and spread the spiritual spiel. Helping with the woman's angle is Claire Dodd as a writer anxious to prove herself.

As in Five Star Final, we find the Pembrook woman living a happy life as Martha Carstairs. Helen MacKeller is Martha and Henry O'Neill her husband. Their daughter is played by Linda Perry and her well-heeled and agreeable fiance by Carlyle Moore Jr. Once the Carstairs hear of the imminent broadcast of Martha's past things happen quickly. Tricked by the nasty Leavenworth, they try to find someone of influence to help them shut down the serial.

The Carstairs, being little people, do not have much luck. The Sims', Edith's future inlaws forbid the marriage, certain their son will abide by their wishes. Mr. Carstairs finds help at last in the minister who is to perform the marriage ceremony. Together, they approach a Broadcaster's Association, who will take the United Broadcasting Company up on charges before the FCC and revoke its license.

The same tragedy befalls the Carstairs as it did the Townsends. Despair leads to suicide and recrimination to Sherry Scott and the UBC. Unlike Five Star Final, the ending of Two Against the World finds Scott grabbing his secretary and leaving his employment after telling the FCC he would like to be their first witness.

The dialogue is as quick-paced as you would expect. The characters are interesting and offer possibilities for the actors involved if they were given the opportunity to develop. It is a lack of character development and colourful subplots that lets the film down. The time and budget put into this quickie, no matter how competently done, does not allow it to reach the height of emotion to be found in Five Star Final. Two Against the World is sometimes shown as One Fatal Hour.

The world of journalism and broadcasting hasn't changed in the intervening years. Every car accident or house fire seems to entitle every local broadcast to intrude on personal tragedies so they can film someone crying. That's news. Perhaps some enterprising producer will take a look at Louis Weitzenkorn's play and update it for the 24-hour news/internet world.


I hope you have found this recent ramble down Remake Avenue of interest. Here is a list of past strolls.












14 comments:

  1. I wasn't familiar with the name HENRY ONEILL so I looked it up on wiki. I saw him in NO MAN OF HER OWN(50) with BARBARA STANWYCK, JANE COWL and RICHARD DENNING. Do you recall that MILBURN STONE was also in the movie as a plainclothes officer?

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    1. No Man of Her Own is one of my favourite noir. I love the novel by Cornell Woolrich and feel the movie did an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere. It is a treat to see Milburn Stone in his movie roles. He was in so many that you never know when he will pop up.

      Henry O'Neill usually was cast as respectable characters with a major exception being Scandal Sheet, 1950 where he played a drunken former reporter. Nice work.

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  2. Five Star Final is a great film, quite hard-hitting in its look at unscrupulous press practices. It's hard to forget Marian Marsh's performance, especially the scene when she confronts the editors, asking over and over, "Why did you kill my mother?" - and no one has an answer for her. I didn't know there was a remake (and w/Humphrey Bogart!), but Warner Bros, maybe more than any of the other golden-age studios, was constantly remaking its films (maybe 'cannibalizing' might express it better!), reusing old script with minor tweaks to make it seem new. You can't say that Warner Bros didn't get the last drop of use out of its stories!

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    1. Marian still gives me chills in Five Star Final.

      Warners certainly knew how to make use of their back files. You never know going in if it is going to be a "new" movie or something with the ring of familiarity.

      I have seen episodes of Cheyenne based on To Have and Have Not, They Drive by Night, and Across the Great Divide.

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  3. Lately I've heard a lot of good things about Five Star Final. I'll definitively seek it out. I didn't know about the remake either, but I'll try to find that too.

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    1. Five Star Final is quite impressive, and demoralizing to make us realize how little people have changed.

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  4. Speaking of newspapers that reminds me of the show LOU GRANT starring ED ASNER. It also had MASON ADAMS as CHARLIE HUME. Mason did eps of MATLOCK and MURDER, SHE WROTE. He played a long-time friend of PERRY MASON in the TV-Movie THE CASE OF THE MALIGNED MOBSTER. I just thought about his first name being MASON and he did a PERRY MASON movie!

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    1. Lou Grant was an excellent show; one of the best focusing on journalism. I remember that Perry Mason movie well. They really fit the bill when you want a cozy mystery and a bit of nostalgia.

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  5. Some of your most intriguing posts are the ones in which you compare two versions of the same works (e.g., play and film, film and remake). This one is especially interesting because of the brief five years between the two movies. I've seen Two Against the World, but haven't caught up with the original yet. Based on your review, that is something I need to rectify.

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    1. Thank you.

      Five Star Final impresses me, the script, the cast, and Mervyn LeRoy's direction. It deserved its Oscar nomination and it didn't deserve to fall through the cracks, so to speak.

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  6. What are some other movies that you like with a journalism theme?

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    1. I keep coming across more of them. The Front Page/His Girl Friday, The Famous Ferguson Case, The Paper, Absence of Malice, All the President's Men, Deadline U.S.A., While the City Sleeps, Call Northside 777, Ace in the Hole, - 30 -, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

      What are some of your favourites in this interesting category?

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  7. I've not heard of this one, but it does sound like it's time has come again. Like you said, it might be time to revisit it for our 24/7 news cycle world.

    Also, at the risk of sounding like one of "those" readers, should "conscious" at the end of the 3rd paragraph be "conscience"?

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    1. Five Star Final is truly worth watching and I hope TCM decides to show it soon.

      PS: I thought I already changed "conscious" to "conscience!" Is my computer taking over like the one in Colossus: The Forbin Project? Geesh! Amendment commencing in 3, 2, 1...

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