Five Star Final

Five Star Final PosterIt’s tough to pass up a movie made in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson as a fast talking newsman. Five Star Final, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, does not disappoint, but it does surprise. This pre-code gem takes an unflinching look at the yellow tabloid journalism rampant in its own day and the ways in which the press ran rough shod over the public in the name of news (read, circulation). This is, of course, not an unfamiliar debate even today (hello, Murdoch).

Edward G. Robinson is Joseph Randall, city editor of New York City tabloid The Gazette. Cajoled into engaging in sensationalism by publisher Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel), Randall digs up the Nancy Voorhees 2o year old murder case, turns a team of unscrupulous Gazetteers on the story, and inevitably tragedy results. Five Star Final, in addition to the always superb Robinson has a stellar supporting cast, including Ona Munson as floozy turned newsgal Kitty Carmody, the eternally creepy Boris Karloff as drunken scoundrel “Revered” T. Vernon Isopod, and Aline MacMahon as Randall’s long-suffering and long disapproving assistant Miss Taylor.

Edward G. Robinson in Five Star Final

The opening sequence says it all about the current state of journalistic affairs – a newsstand owner is strong armed by a gang of toughs to display copies of The Gazette front and center. As a shot across the bow, the message is unmistakable. The news business is a business, and it’s about circulation numbers, copies sold, and trumping the other guy. What news is not about is the public good, accurate reporting, or context. Sell, sell, sell is the watchword and publisher Hinchecliffe and his henchmen editors know how to do this – be as sensational as possible. Randall, as city editor, has his reservations. It seems he’s made inroads into more serious and substantive reporting, focusing on public policy and city politics, but those inroads have cost circulation numbers.

My quibble with Five Star Final lies with Randall’s personal conscience and his motivations to violate what he knows to be true. There’s a lot of telling and very little showing revolving around these issues. I’m told he was being more serious about his reporting, but I never see it. I’m told, at least by implication, that he’s uncomfortable with the persecution of Voorhees, but he deploys his gang of unscrupulous “reports,” including the morally repugnant Isopod, with some verve. Randall is a newspaperman through and through, and entirely caught up in the chase. Once he takes as a given that Voorhees is fair game, she’s, well, fair game. But Randall’s tumble from some higher plateau to the proverbial gutter is unexplained.

You sit there like a visible conscience. – Randall, to his eternally disapproving assistant Miss Taylor

Five Star Final, Edward G. Robinson, CastWhat I love about Five Star Final is the slow snowball effect that takes hold when a group of people take one irrational idea as a given and run with it. Again, once it’s decided that the long past Nancy Voorhees murder trial, charges of which she was acquitted by the way, is decreed fair game they all run with it. The Gazette reporters are all engaged in good-soldier-following-orders syndrome. Each man and woman plays a tiny part in resulting tragedy, but so tiny that each can feel absolved of actual guilt. This is the way things are, and isn’t it a shame. In the end, despite the death and destruction that has been wrought, reporters, editors, and publishers all agree that it would be a fine idea to answer Nancy’s poor daughter $1000 (no, make it $1200!) for an exclusive. It’s almost a palpable relief that none of them have the cojones to make the offer to her face when she shows up in the newsroom, even before she points a loaded gun.

Five Star Final is a pre-code movie and parts of it are very shocking in that pre-code sort of way. From violence at the newsstand, to double suicide, to cub reporter and photog snapping pics of a corpse in the tub, there are many details to shock a lifetime of Hayes shielded viewing. But what is most shocking is the relevant parallels Five Star Final runs to today’s headlines. When you think of Rupert Murdoch’s gang of reporter thugs erasing the voice mail messages of missing 13-year-old Millie Dowler and giving her parents the false hope she was still alive, you realize how little moral ground has been gained in the intervening 70 years. “Five star final” refers to a moment in time when urban centers like New Your City had multiple competing tabloids with multiple competing editions rolling off the presses all day. The final edition of the front page game with the notation “Final” and five stars. That kind of competition for dollars bred an unsavory set of practices, and are we doing any better now with a 24 hour television news cycle, desperate to survive newspapers, and a fractured news markets hungry for eyeballs?

To see Five Star Final, you can keep an eye out for airings on TCM, buy the dvd at Amazon, or soldier through a six part playlist on YouTube.

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About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on September 7, 2011, in Drama, Genre, My Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Always nice to see a mention/tag for Aline MacMahon. Not many performers were able to have equally successful careers in both film and and on stage simultaneously, and not only drama but musicals and comedy as well. Her beauty was a bit too unusual for Hollywood (reminds me a bit of Illeana Douglas who did some guest-hosting for Robt Osborne on TCM recently), but on stage she was described by the legendary ascerbic critc Alexander Woolcott as having “extraordinary beauty, vitality and truth.” She had the lead role in a 1934 (I think) film, “Heat Lightning,” shown on TCM not long ago, and worth watching in whatever format is out there. “Five Star Final” was her first film (in her early 30’s) after ten years on Broadway, and she continued to work in theater and to make movies up to the early 1960s — one of her last roles was in the final film made by Judy Garland, “I Could Go On Singing” (1963) a very underrated Garland movie.

  2. Thanks for the scoop on Aline MacMahon. It’s appropriate that “Five Star Final” was her first film, as it’s my first time seeing MacMahon perform. She delivered silent disapproval so masterfully in this one. I’m quite anxious to see more of her work, so I’ll dig up “Heat Lightning.”

  3. There’s a woman in the film, I think an extra. She has a crackly voice and says “Good Afternoon.” She is at the telephone switchboard and has blond hair. Her accent is very New York. I love that part. It sticks in my head. I say it several times even when it isn’t afternoon. Please tell me her name? I can’t find it anywhere. Thanks

    • Snippets of telephone operators are one my favorite things about these kind of movies. The operator in question is a classic, with that look and that voice! And the operator in question is the lovely Miss Polly Walters. If you take a look at her film credits in IMDB, you’ll see she was something of a professional uncredited “telephone operator.”

  4. EG Robinson is worth every minute in anything. I believe he made a vow to himself and in his contracts to always look immaculately dapper and stitched down. No one dresses like Edward G. ~ adds so much appeal that when you are staring at his stitching and wondering how the threads feel and pondering the hidden pockets and his shirts — any weakness in the story line is miraculously filled in. The guy is magic.

    Pre code movies – which is why they coded them – Freedom to show actual ugly social problems. Today would be Indie or leftist. lol The best actors came from precode and lasted for decades. Cagney; Blondell; Edward G; Stanwick; even Bogart. I will take the PreCode art form anyday. The nastier the better. This one’s a stinker tho in the points you made. Except EG Robinson and his clothes. And newspaper machinery always makes good B&W drama.

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