Five Star Final
It’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.
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
What 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?
Posted on September 7, 2011, in Drama, Genre, My Reviews and tagged Aline MacMahon, Boris Karloff, drama, Edward G. Robinson, Five Star Final, Mervyn LeRoy, news, newspaper, Ona Munson, Oscar Apfel, pre-code. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.