|Five Star Final|
1931 Theatrical Poster
|Directed by||Mervyn LeRoy|
|Produced by||Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)|
|Written by||Byron Morgan|
|Based on||1930 play|
by Louis Weitzenkorn
|Starring||Edward G. Robinson|
|Edited by||Frank Ware|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures|
Five Star Final is a 1931 American pre-Code drama film directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Edward G. Robinson, Aline MacMahon (in her screen debut), and Boris Karloff, about the excesses of tabloid journalism. The film was written by Robert Lord and Byron Morgan based on the 1930 play of the same name by Louis Weitzenkorn; the title refers to the contemporary practice of newspapers publishing a series of editions throughout the day, marking its final edition front page with five stars and the word "Final." "Five Star Final" is also a font introduced during World War I and favored by newspapers at the time for its narrow type.
Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was greatly offended by the film, which he interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on him and his operation, giving it negative reviews in his papers and putting pressure on theaters not to show it.
Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson) is the managing editor of a tabloid newspaper; everyone on The Evening Gazette knows that when he can’t be found he is in the washroom, washing his hands, over and over and over. He has been trying to get the paper “on the up and up,” reduce the sensationalism and improve the reporting, but circulation has dropped 20,000 (to 306,000). When owner Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) plans to boost the numbers with a retrospective series on a 20-year-old murder, hoping to revive the scandal, Randall reluctantly agrees. He covered the original story (for a now-defunct newspaper) about a stenographer, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) who shot her boss after he reneged on his promise to marry her. Her pregnancy won the jury’s sympathy, and she was acquitted.
Unaware of impending doom, Nancy is now married to Michael Townsend (H. B. Warner), an upstanding member of society, and her daughter, Jenny (Marian Marsh), who believes Townsend is her father, is about to marry the son of a socially prominent family, Philip Weeks (Anthony Bushell).
Once he accepts the assignment, Randall throws himself into it, using every trick he knows. To dig up dirt about Nancy, he assigns an unscrupulous reporter, "Reverend" T. Vernon Isopod, who masquerades as a minister and wins the confidence of the bride's parents on the eve of the wedding. They have read the headlines in the paper promising a series on the murder. Nancy reacts with horror at the renewed interest in the scandal she had put behind her. In a tragic turn of events, believing Dr. Isopod to be an assistant from the church where the young people are to be married, they confess to Dr. Isopod their concerns that Nancy's past will come out and ask for his help. They even give him a picture of her.
Michael realizes just before Isopod leaves that he really knew nothing about them, and that they have made a horrible mistake. With a terrified Nancy embracing him from behind, Townsend phones the church...
Randall ‘s secretary, Miss Taylor (Aline McMahon) is so disgusted that she goes to Corcoran’s, the local speakeasy, and gets drunk. Randall returns to his office to find her sitting on the edge of her desk “like a visible conscience.” She tells him what she thinks of the whole affair, and his answer makes it clear that after seeing so many papers fold, he is thinking of his survival in old age. Isopod comes in late, drunk and brimming with information. Randall hesitates for a moment when he sees the picture of Nancy. Then he swings into action, fueled by a shot of whiskey, mocking up a photo layout. The full story will have to wait.
Randall sends Ziggie and Carmody to cover the Townsend apartment. Philip’s parents (Evelyn Hall and David Torrence) arrive full of self-righteous indignation. They leave. The Townsends, hoping that if they can stop the full story from coming out they will forestall the notoriety that the Weeks fear and thereby save the marriage, make separate appeals for help. Mr. Townsend goes to Dr. Bevins, the rector of their church, who promises support, and Nancy phones the paper. In a heartrending montage, her calls to the owner and eventually to Randall are bounced back and forth, framed by inane business issues. Miss Taylor forces Randall to take the call, and a distraught Nancy begs Randall, for the sake of her innocent daughter, to back away from the story, but he refuses, telling her the story is on the street. She kills herself by taking poison in the bathroom. Her husband comes home and discovers her. He conceals the fact from Jenny and Philip and, with his wife’s body in the next room, answers the ringing telephone and pretends to have a conversation with her. He persuades the young couple to go ahead to the church. He will “join her mother. “ After they leave, he goes into the bathroom and does. Carmody and Ziggie climb into the apartment from the fire escape. When they open the bathroom door, Ziggie is horrified but Carmody keeps her cool, tells him to take the picture, and calls Randall. He switches her to the city desk for the 5 star final.
The next day, with paper boys hawking the headlines of her parents’ suicide outside, Phillip's parents tell Jenny the wedding will be called off. Phillip arrives and defies them. Randall is in Corcoran’s, where he has been drinking for 3 hours. Miss Taylor comes in to tell him a police inspector is waiting for him. He feels like a murderer. At the office, he calls the night desk and tells them to drop the story.
A diffident Hinchecliff is frightened of the bad publicity that may come from the inquest, but French and Brannigan are thrilled at the upsurge in numbers and want follow Isopod’s suggestion that the paper offer Jenny $1200 for the right to tell her Mother’s story (which no one really knows). Randall refuses. Miss Taylor announces Jenny, who has slipped away from the apartment where Phillip has been standing by her. All except Randall are afraid to see her. Over and over, Jenny demands of the men there “Why did you kill my mother?” Randall gives her the honest answer: “We killed them for Circulation.” She points the gun at Randall but Philip appears just in time to keep her from pulling the trigger. Holding the weeping and distraught young woman in his arms, Phillip, his voice filled with icy contempt, delivers a chilling speech that ends: “You’ve grown rich on filth and no one’s ever dared rise up and crush you out.“ He turns at the door, gun in hand, promising that if his wife’s name is ever mentioned in the paper again, he will hunt them down.
A guilty Randall denounces Hinchecliffe at length and resigns. Miss Taylor comes in, beaming, to write the resignation. While Randall is washing his hands, the phone rings. The night city desk has news of a “love nest killing” a murder/homicide. He tells them to take the story to Hinchecliffe “and shove it up his....” throwing the phone through the glass office door on the missing word. He runs out and a smiling Miss Taylor, who's been in love with him for years, follows.
A copy of the Evening Gazette, with the headline “Suicide victims buried” is swept away down a filthy gutter, disappearing instantly in the muck.
The film is full of one-liners, jokes, asides, slang and double-entendres, with the sexual, social, ethnic allusions spinning by like pages on a press running at top speed. From top to bottom of the newspaper’s hierarchy, boosting Circulation is the only good. Examples include: office boy and would-be reporter Arthur Goldberg (Harold Waldridge) wondering if he should change his name; Hinchcliffe’s plan to put a moral and educational spin on covering rape; Contest Editor Ziggie Feinstein’s (George E. Stone) dangerous—and crooked—relay speed race involving 1,000 taxis driving four abreast (“only 100 people will die”); firing a flat-chested woman reporter and hiring a well-endowed replacement (Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson ) ) who will be able to “ vamp stories out of shyster lawyers.” Carmody scoops the picture of the Townsends lying dead in their bathroom.
Cast (in credits order)
- Edward G. Robinson as Joseph W. Randall
- Marian Marsh as Jenny Townsend
- H.B. Warner as Michael Townsend
- Anthony Bushell as Phillip Weeks
- George E. Stone as Ziggie Feinstein
- Frances Starr as Nancy (Voorhees) Townsend
- Ona Munson as Kitty Carmody
- Boris Karloff as T. Vernon Isopod
- Aline MacMahon as Miss Taylor
- Oscar Apfel as Bernard Hinchecliffe
- Purnell Pratt as Robert French
- Robert Elliott as R.J. Brannegan
- Cast notes
- This was the first film that Marian Marsh made under that name: she had previously appeared as "Marilyn Morgan".
- Aline MacMahon made her film debut in Five Star Final.
The film was based on the play written by Louis Weitzenkorn after his stint as editor of Bernarr MacFadden's New York Evening Graphic, a sensationalist tabloid of the 1920s. The play ran for 175 performances on Broadway in 1930-1931.
Producer Hal B. Wallis wanted the press room set to appear authentic, and sent Warners' staff members to make sketches of two actual newspaper offices to aid in the design of the set. The film was in production from April 14 through May 11, 1931.
The movie was made the same year as Little Caesar, Robinson's breakthrough film. Cast member Boris Karloff also broke through with his iconic portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein later that same year.
According to Warner Bros records the film earned $665,000 domestically and $157,000 foreign.
Awards and honors
Five Star Final was nominated for an Outstanding Production Academy Award in 1931/1932 at the 5th Annual Academy Awards (Outstanding Production is known today as 'Best Picture'), and was named by Film Daily as one of the Ten Best Films of 1931.
- Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 13 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
- TCM Notes
- The Chief by David Nasaw, pp. 445-46
- TCM Full synopsis
- Allmovie Plot synopsis
- Stephan, Ed Plot summary (IMDB)
- Five Star Final at the Internet Broadway Database
- IMDB Box Office/Business
- TCM Awards
- Allmovie Awards