The circulation man sends a couple of thugs to the Third Avenue newsstand because the Gazette is getting buried under copies of the other New York tabloids. The vendor tries to stand up to the “no goods” but the moment he voices opposition the hoodlums brandish buckets of mud that they actually sling across the stand, soiling papers and all. Their tactics are reminiscent of those used by James Cagney a few months earlier in The Public Enemy, but in that movie Cagney played a gangster smacking around a man pouring the wrong kind of beer in a speakeasy. In Five Star Final the strong-arm orders originate from a legitimate business, albeit one that bends rules and morals whenever necessary to their bottom line. The mudslinging metaphor is as quick as it is heavy-handed and no time is spent dwelling on the actual vandalism.
This early sequence is recalled at the very end of Five Star Final when a street sweeper pushes piles of dirt over a copy of the Gazette, the paper we’ve watched ruin whatever reputation it had ever had over the previous ninety minutes.
Edward G. Robinson plays Randall, managing editor of the Gazette, a man who has risen through the ranks to wind up in charge of a paper so low in his own estimation that he refers to his publisher, Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel), as the “Sultan of Slop.”
The circulation boys have got in Hinchecliffe’s ear and convinced him to resurrect a sensational twenty-year-old murder case in which the killer, the former Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Robinson keeps the mud and dirt of Five Star Final in mind by scrubbing his hands throughout, very purposefully trying to rub them clean in a practice that is more obsessive compulsive than germophobic. It is after receiving the biggest shock of the movie, a shock that alters Randall’s view of his profession, that he soaps up heavier than ever before and our focus looms on those hands doing all they can to rub themselves clean.
Randall might not respect his boss, the story or his readers, but he's a hardboiled newspaperman who carries out his assignment for wages. His secretary, Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon), opposes the Voorhees story from the start and winds up being recognized by Randall as his “visible conscience” after the story brings real life tragic consequences.
“She had a right to kill that man,” MacMahon's Taylor says of Voorhees, adding, “we’re putting her on trial again.” She is the only member of the Gazette that we meet who isn’t a journalist by profession. She can see the consequences that those too deeply involved in the story are either willing to ignore or, more cold-bloodedly, exploit.
After twenty minutes we move to an apartment at 184 West 172nd Street, why so specific I do not know, to see the Voorhees murder story almost immediately begin to turn lives sour.
After being cleared of murder charges Nancy Voorhees had a daughter, Jenny (Marian Marsh), who was likely conceived by the man who Nancy killed, though that is never spelled out. Shortly after Jenny’s birth Nancy married Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner), who Jenny had always believed to be her real father. The Townsends had been happy for twenty years and as the Gazette soon discovers they are currently very excited over Jenny’s impending marriage to Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell), a charming young man from a well-to-do background.
It’s Phillip who reads aloud from the Gazette a teaser about the coming Nancy Voorhees story. Twenty years of happiness is soon shattered with shocking results.
Five Star Final was a hit play on Broadway after opening December 30 of the previous year. The playwright, Louis Weitzenkorn, was a newspaperman himself who based his story on an old boss at the New York Evening Graphic who had caused similar tragedy after dredging up an old murder story. In the wake of The Front Page, which had also preceded Five Star Final to film, journalists were typically snide in being forced to report on the success of yet another play showing their business in a less than virtuous light, but were forced to admit it was worthy of the praise.
The play starring Arthur Byron, soon to be a very familiar character actor in movies throughout the 1930s, closed its hit run in June 1931 after 175 performances. The movie had already been filmed by that time and had its premiere at New York’s Winter Garden Theater that September 10. Five Star Final set records at the Winter Garden and was a smash hit with reports of it being held over in theaters throughout the country. Later it would be recognized critically as one of Film Daily’s ten best movies of the year and also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture the following year.
Director Mervyn LeRoy, just thirty, yet already beginning to eclipse the “boy wonder” phase of his career, named Five Star Final as his favorite of the movies he had directed to that time. Granted, that was then a short list, and LeRoy’s statement was probably made to help back the film, but he and star Edward G. Robinson did already have gangster classic Little Caesar behind them and, after all, the “boy wonder” tag hadn’t been bestowed until young LeRoy had begun making his mark. Robinson remembered the movie fondly even towards the end of his life, writing in his autobiography that because of the Randall character, “I’m able to say that Five Star Final is one of my favorite films” (126). Robinson was especially pleased at the opportunity to escape playing another gangster.
To give a better idea of the success of Five Star Final in its own time, the movie was often sandwiched between better remembered classics Little Caesar and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang when mentioning the success of Mervyn LeRoy. Together they form an otherwise unrelated trilogy of hardhitting social films that lifted LeRoy to the top of his profession.
Robinson’s electric performance and a few creative flourishes, most notably the split screen employed during Nancy Townsend’s desperate phone call to the Gazette, elevates Five Star Final above many seemingly stagier adaptations from this period. Still, it’s hard not to notice that nearly the entire movie takes place in just three locations: Robinson’s office, the Townsend living room and the local speakie. A few key overly theatrical performances, especially by Frances Starr and H.B. Warner as the Townsends, hammer home the realization that this was a stage adaptation. Starr is completely out of her element and you can see why Five Star Final was just one of three movies she appeared in at this time before heading back to Broadway.
The peaks and valleys of Five Star Final become glaringly obvious upon repeated viewings. Edward G. Robinson’s star performance begins to tower over all of the other actors, except perhaps Aline MacMahon, who in her film debut leaves you wanting more (and soon enough there'd be more of almost exactly the same in The Mouthpiece).
The chatter out of Robinson’s office leaves you wishing that the entire movie were set there, especially when contrasted with the Townsend apartment, where if often feels like an amateur playhouse, at least until Marian Marsh steps in to liven up the place. H.B. Warner, as her father, doesn’t seem quite comfortable with talkies yet, though he gets no help from Frances Starr, who I found practically unbearable as Nancy Voorhees. I wasn’t around to see a stage play in 1910, but what she gives is what I expect I’d get. Warner on the other hand does manage to excel in little moments of silence, especially his tender good-bye to Marsh just before he exits to join his wife. Anthony Bushell isn't very exciting to watch, but he does take a hell of a smack across the face from David Torrence, who plays his father, so I won't be too hard on him.
Also excelling in silence is Boris Karloff, who provides a handful of terrified expressions that linger with you, along with a few leers at Ona Munson that successfully put over his Isopod as sexually depraved. Still, I felt he was a bit miscast here, though his refined British accent often puts me off in these contemporary urban set stories. Munson, by the way, is very good as sort of an alternate-Warner's version of MGM's Anita Page. She'd return to the stage after Five Star Final, but achieve a slice of screen immortality during her next spate of Hollywood films, when she played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939).
The still green Marsh, just 18 and fresh off of major recognition as Trilby in Svengali, is often frustrating to watch in Five Star Final. Her unsteady performance alternates between pain-inducing and gripping, even varying line to line in her big final scene, which thankfully ends on a high note for the young actress. As she builds to anger Marsh just isn’t any good, but when that anger peaks into full hysteria she steals the room even from Robinson! There's an electric moment there that made me willing to forgive anything that bothered me before it. What makes it all work is that her character has every right to her outrage and, even if she’s tossed off a few clunkers, we’ve grown to like her, especially thanks to that silly dance she was doing while her parents' world was crumbling.
Five Star Final drags in a few spots and probably could have been ten or twenty minutes shorter. That said Robinson’s character really brings the newspaper world to life. He gets a few assists from George E. Stone’s fast-talking contest editor, Ziggie Feinstein, who’s pretty much all showman with just a pinch of reporter tossed in. The movie is also peppered with references to race, ethnicity and sex, which become all the more apparent should you bother to sit down and watch the remake.
In 1936 Warner Brothers released Two Against the World, a.k.a. One Fatal Hour, a bloodless retelling of Five Star Final that sucked all of the atmosphere out of the story. Newspapers were out this time in favor of the radio, but despite this potentially intriguing switch in media there is very little hint of any actual journalism taking place. While the acting is more refined the lines are defanged, leaving us very little to care about in this cardboard world. Humphrey Bogart is tolerable in the Robinson part, but whereas Robinson was a dynamo who seemed born to play the editor in Five Star Final, Bogart does what he can with a script that’s had all of the most interesting lines cut out.
Five Star Final is available for purchase as a Made to Order DVD-R from Warner Archive. Two Against the World has never been available on video, which seems somewhat telling for a title starring Humphrey Bogart! Each of these Warner Brothers titles play on Turner Classic Movies, the former more often than the latter.
For other views of Five Star Final, each of which is positive, check out John McElwee's coverage at Greenbriar Picture Shows posted just after the 2010 DVD release; Danny's "Like" at his Pre-Code site from earlier this year; and Caftan Woman's even more recent piece posted during the Journalism in Classic Films blogathon a few months ago (at which time I wrote about Lee Tracy in Clear All Wires!).