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After the smash hit Little Caesar Warner Bros. scrambled to find appropriate movie roles for their instant star Edward G. Robinson. One of the most popular was 1931's Five Star Final, a hard-hitting critique of the yellow tabloid newspaper racket. Director Mervyn LeRoy would helm the studio's most celebrated socially conscious exposé film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. This earlier denunciation of exploitative journalism is not as polished, but it's put over with conviction and acted by an interesting cast.
Robinson's Joe Randall, the city editor of the New York Gazette, is unhappy because he respects good journalism, but knows that keeping his job means dishing out trashy, exploitative "human interest" stories, preferably with pictures of pretty young women. Randall's venal boss Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) instructs Randall to build circulation by reopening a twenty-year-old murder case. Nancy Vorhees (Frances Starr) shot and killed a man who made her pregnant, but was exonerated because of her condition. Randall hires sleazy operative-reporters Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson of The Shanghai Gesture) and T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff) to insinuate themselves into Vorhees' apartment in search of an exploitable angle. In disguise as a minister, the unctuous Isopod visits Vorhees, now Mrs. Townsend, and hits pay dirt: Townsend's grown daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh of The Black Room) is about to marry Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell), the scion of a prominent manufacturing family. The innocent Jenny knows nothing of her mother's unfortunate background. She thinks her stepfather Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner) is her biological father.
Joe Randall reluctantly throws the Gazette into high gear with editorials expressing shock that "the daughter of a murderess" is daring to marry into a good family. Devastated, Nancy and Michael Townsend appeal for reason and mercy, but neither Randall nor the heartless Hinchecliffe will take calls from family members. Randall intends to print a photo of Jenny that Isopod has acquired, and blast the story out in a special edition, a "Five Star Final".
Five Star Final's approach is rather dated, even for 1931. We're given altogether too many "poignant" scenes of Jenny and Phillip dancing and laughing, unaware that their lives are being ruined. Jenny's parents squirm with anguish when Phillip's cold-hearted parents condemn their daughter and declare the wedding impossible. Back at the sleazy newspaper, Joe Randall directs his unscrupulous reporters with an attitude of professional calm, despite the moral misgivings of his loyal (and secretly loving) secretary Miss Taylor (the soulful Aline McMahon, in her first film appearance). Ona Munson's provocative Kitty functions as a reporter but behaves like a cheap call girl, while Boris Karloff's genuinely creepy Isopod skulks about like a sexual pervert. Randall warns Kitty not to get into a car with Isopod, and sure enough, we hear that he's practically attacked the woman in a cross-town taxi ride.
The drama grinds on like an old-fashioned Morality Play, complete with tragic suicides -- which the reporters rush to photograph. The final act then turns into a debate in Randall's office. The spineless Hinchecliffe's idea of good journalism is to sponsor a dangerous taxicab race across downtown Manhattan. He tries to skirt responsibility for all the misery he's caused, while his pals congratulate Randall on the Gazette's big surge in circulation. The oratory pays off with Edward G. Robinson's impassioned attack on his boss's methods and yellow journalism in general. "We're all murderers!" Randall shouts, and then does what liberal heroes tend to do after becoming complicit in evil -- he quits. This is of course preferable to Randall continuing to organize character assassination for profit, but an ethical journalist wouldn't have tormented the Townsends in the first place. A practical man wishing to atone would hang on to his job and put a stop to Hinchecliffe's predations. Five Star Final narrows on a social evil everyone can understand, and drives its message home with a sledgehammer.
Of course, this "serious" exposé doesn't examine the causes of the growing public interest in sordid tragedies and sleazy sex -- a thirst undoubtedly encouraged by racy Hollywood films! Warner Bros.' social comment movies were the best of the 1930s, even if they sometimes were a bit fuzzy when it came to facing hot issues.
Boris Karloff almost immediately became famous as the Frankenstein monster. H.B. Warner had already played Jesus Christ in The King of Kings and would make an equally indelible mark as the druggist Mr. Gower in It's a Wonderful Life. Young lead Anthony Bushell does his best to hide his English accent. He would soon star with Karloff in the horror opus The Ghoul. Much later, Bushell became an acting and directing associate of Laurence Olivier, and directed the Hammer horror film The Terror of the Tongs. Although Edward G. Robinson's unhappy editor is the film's central character and gets to deliver the film's final moral judgment, Five Star Final functions like an ensemble piece, and seemingly spends more time with the suffering of the innocent Townsends.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Five Star Final is an almost immaculately restored transfer of this seldom-shown WB title. The sharp picture and clean audio can't have looked all that much better when the show was new. The disc includes an equally good-looking trailer that exemplifies Warners' curious house style for coming attractions, a blend of animated artwork and scene snippets assembled from unused alternate takes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Five Star Final rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.