Five Star Final (1931) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Edward G. Robinson, Marian Marsh, H.B. Warner (89 min.)
Edward G. Robinson's hard-boiled tabloid editor has a crisis of conscience when his publisher demands he resurrect a 20-year old sex and murder scandal as a circulation stunt. His self-loathing battles his cynicism after he sends a failed divinity student (played by Boris Karloff one of his last roles before Frankenstein) to callously wreck the lives of a happy family.
The 1920s had been awash in one gutter press story after another, culminating in the printing of a photograph sneaked by a reporter at the moment of a notorious murderess's electrocution. Warner Brothers' brash social issue films shared a fast-talking energy with their gangster movies. Five-Star Final was based on a play by the former editor of the New York Evening Graphic, nicknamed the "porno" Graphic, for the tone of its stories; "produced by swindlers for suckers."
"He waited ten years for a break, this Boris Karloff, who is the
year's movie sensation. He has been a farmer, a truck driver, a day
laborer. Read across the page how success finally came to him."
Just as we now live in the Kardashian Age, the 1920s was flooded with sordid tabloid exposes. There were the famous Hollywood scandals; comic Fatty Arbuckle was implicated in a starlet's death, director William Desmond Taylor's murder embroiled two popular actresses, clean-cut Wallace Reid died of drug addiction. Mae West was tried for obscenity for writing and performing in her play, Sex, although she was not indicted until after the premiere of The Drag; whose third act employed real drag queens in a staged wild party. "Peaches" Browning was a mercenary young girl whose extremely public marriage and divorce from an older man with a taste for nymphets fought for space with the murder charges against Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray, accused of murdering her husband. A news photographer with a camera secretly strapped to his ankle immortalized the moment of her excecution.The Great Depression lurks just off-screen in many Pre-Code movies. Pre-Code refers to films made between 1930-34, before the Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced. An industry group, like the one that assigns movie ratings today, hoped to stave off a threat of government censorship. The Hays Office was responsible for censoring films and had a long list of things they wished to erase from the screen. Sex and violence, of course, primarily the former, but also economic despair, lawbreaking, (including Prohibition) assertive women, ethnic diversity and racial equality. Thomas Doughtery's book Pre-Code Hollywood presents a fascinating view of the censorship issues of the early 1930s.
One image that disappeared from movie screens after 1934 was the recognizably Jewish character, of whom there are two in this film, and the casual use of Yiddish. It's no secret that anti-Semitism was prevalent in the US before WWII. All but one major movie studio was run by Jewish moguls, and the largely Catholic Legion of Decency felt Hollywood (by implication Jewish) morals were tainting the country, and sought to impose their standards on what was largely a Protestant nation. When the talkies came in, much Broadway talent migrated West. Show business has always attracted disenfranchised minorities; at that time, primarily Jewish and Irish, and they brought their melting pot mentality to the movies. James Cagney, another of Warner Brothers big stars, although not a star in this film, was Irish. But he grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in NYC and spoke Yiddish fluently. The story goes that the Warner Brothers were dismayed to discover this when they thought they were having a private Yiddish conversation in front of him about his new contract, and he let them know, in Yiddish, that he understood. In the early days, Cagney ad libbed Yiddish phrases into some of his films.
Edward G. Robinson, born Emmanuel Goldenberg, was Jewish, so he didn't have the luxury of being so casual about identity politics. George E. Stone, born Gerschon Lichtenstein in Poland, plays one of these Jewish characters in Five Star Final, Ziggy Feinstein. Family lore says he is a distant cousin, so I like to think of him as my personal link to classic Hollywood.
Warner Bros Studios was a factory, churning out 52 pictures a year. Players worked day and night, 6-7 days a week. Printing more than one take had to be oked by the head of production. But, in most cases, Warners rough edges have aged better than MGMs glamour. Studio policy stated: "A scenario must have the punch and smash that would entitle it to be a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily. "
Ad inside front cover of The New Movie Magazine, October, 1931
As William M. Drew points out in At the Center of the Frame, a wonderful book of interviews with actresses active in the late silent and early sound eras, adapting hit plays was not unusual. Five Star Final was based on a play by former newspaper editor Louis Weitzenkorn. The staging was unusual though, since there were 20 scenes played out on a trisected stage. The startling split screen technique used in one sequence of the film, where a mother pleads on the telephone with the managing editor on one side and the publisher on the other, was played up in the studio publicity. But, the composition derived from the original staging, and was merely adapted by director Mervyn LeRoy.
Thirty-seven year old Edward G. Robinson exploded onto the screen as the snarling gangster Little Caesar, earlier in 1931. Randall, the hard-boiled self-loathing tabloid editor is a subtle character compared to his star-making turn earlier that year. The same director, Mervyn Le Roy, did both, although in six months his style transformed from the static Little Caesar to the rat-a-tat pace of Five Star Final. Perhaps, he learned from a play, that was trying to compose scenes like a movie, how to keep a movie from looking like a play.
A few other cast notes...H. B. Warner, who plays Michael Townsend, played Christ in the silent King of Kings a fact that audiences would have brought to the film. Frances Starr as his wife, the wronged Nancy Voorhees was a famous star of the New York stage, beginning in 1906. She made only three films in the early 30s. Boris Karloff was in 18 films in 1931, seven between Five Star Final and Frankenstein. Randall's lovelorn secretary is played by Aline MacMahon, whose tart intelligence enlivened many Warners films. Eighteen year old Marian Marsh was just beginning her film career. She was advised by both Robinson and MacMahon to save her energy for her tour-de-force scene at the end, and not dissapate her emotional strength in rehearsal.There has always been a seeminly unlimited supply of bland starlets to play movie ingenues. Marsh is not one of them. Her accusation scene is chilling, and she more than holds her own against more experienced players.
Publisher and media mogul William Randolph Hearst hated the early 1930s cycle of anti-yellow journalism films, considering them a personal attack. Five Star Final seemed more personal than most, since both the play and film referenced Hearst's New York Mirror's 1926 reopening of a notorious unsolved murder case from 1922. The tabloid had claimed new evidence, there was an arrest and a trial which resulted only in anguish and humiliation, thanks to the Hearst paper's "careless disregard for fact and an insatiable thirst for blood." (Pizzitola). Five Star Final's unscrupulous publisher, Hinchecliffe, seemed to Hearst a caricature of himself. His attempt to have the film banned ended in failure.
The conflict between morality and money was a common one in the social consciousness films that Warners made in the 1930s. The film's publicity highlighted that "a noted California justice" claimed "the strongest editorials in the country are not in the newspapers but in the talking pictures." Significantly, this film makes tabloid readers complicit in the sleazy editorial policy of the fictional Gazette; the same readers who made up the movie's audience. Like internet trolls, the paper's staff is confident in their anonymity, until a confrontation forces them to face their sins. The plot hinges on a concept as quaint as the candlestick phones everyone is barking into, that a person can, and perhaps should, feel shame.
Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion and Propaganda in the Movies is the title of Louis Pizzitola's book on William Randolph Hearst's romance with Hollywood. Check out the great website at www.hearstoverhollywood.com.
Photograph of Boris Karloff from Hilda Price's 1932 Movie Star Scrapbook. FiveStar Final Mervyn Le Roy gossip, film review and photo of Marian Marsh modeling one of the "Six Social Hours of the Debutante's Day" in red Lyons velvet and gold metallic cloth from the December, 1931 Silver Screen.
c. moviediva2001RevisedNovember 2002September2016