Five Star Final is a 1931 American Pre-Code film about crime and the excesses of tabloid journalism. The picture was written by Robert Lord and Byron Morgan from the play of the same name by Louis Weitzenkorn, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Edward G. Robinson, and featuring H. B. Warner, Marian Marsh, Oscar Apfel, Aline MacMahon, Frances Starr, Ona Munson, and Boris Karloff.
The title refers to an era when competing newspapers published a series of editions during the day, in this case marking its final edition front page with five stars and the word “Final.” “Five Star Final” is also a font similar to those often used in newspaper headlines.
The film was nominated at the 5th Annual Academy Awards in 1931/1932 in the category of Outstanding Production, which later became known as the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson), the city editor of a tabloid newspaper, reluctantly agrees when publisher Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) plans to boost circulation with a restrospective series on a 20-year-old murder and scandal, involving a secretary, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), who shot the man who got her pregnant and then refused to marry her. Nancy is now married to Michael Townsend (H. B. Warner), an upstanding member of society, and has a daughter, Jenny (Marian Marsh), about to marry the son of a socially prominent family, Philip Weeks (Anthony Bushell). She reacts with horror at the renewed interest in the scandal she had put behind her.
To dig up dirt about Nancy, Randall assigns an unscrupulous reporter, “Reverend” T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff), who masquerades as a minister and wins the confidence of the bride’s parents on the eve of the wedding. They confess to him their concerns that Nancy’s past will come out, and he uses their information to write a story that Randall prints. Nancy tries to get Randall to back away from the story, but when he refuses she kills herself, as does her husband shortly afterwards. Phillip’s parents pressure him to call off the wedding to Nancy’s daughter Jenny, but he refuses and stands up to them. An enraged Jenny threatens Randall at gun point, attempting to force him to take responsibility for the deaths of her mother and father, but Philip shows up and calms her down. A guilty Randall denounces Hinchecliffe as a hypocrite and decides to quit the paper, as does his secretary Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon), who’s been in love with him for years.
A well told story. One of Robinson’s best films.
The story holds true just as much today as it did when it was made. Powerful newspapers will stop at nothing, it seems, in the name of circulation. Scandal sells. The best scene in the whole movie is when Jenny confronts each of the three protagonists with the question, “Why did you kill my mother?”. Randall, realizing what he has caused to happen, attempts to kill the story, then turns in his resignation. (Or maybe he realized just how much power he held in his hands and wanted no more of it.) This movie shows that the pen, indeed, is mightier than the sword.
Five Star Final (1931) ***
Author: MARIO GAUCI (firstname.lastname@example.org) from Naxxar, Malta
14 July 2005
A powerful, uncompromising early look at “Yellow Journalism” which made a great enough impact at the time to be counted among the year’s best films at the Academy Awards – to say nothing of the rush of similar pictures which followed in its wake, culminating in Howard Hawks’ masterpiece, HIS GIRL Friday (1940).
Edward G. Robinson is re-united here with the director of LITTLE CAESAR (1930), the film that made him a star, and delivers another great performance which is sufficiently nuanced to anchor the somewhat melodramatic plot in reality. Supporting him, among many others, are Aline MacMahon as his long-suffering secretary who’s secretly in love with him and Boris Karloff in a marvelous turn as the most shamelessly hypocritical reporter on the newspaper’s payroll. The cynical, rapid-fire dialogue gives it an edge and an authenticity that’s almost impossible to recapture these days and, needless to say, became one of the key elements in this type of film.
The film features a number of good scenes but the highlights would have to be: the split-screen technique introduced to shut out the former convict, who is now being hounded by “The Gazette”, from having a conversation with either the owner of the paper or its news editor (Robinson); the lengthy and heart-breaking scene in which the female ex-convict’s husband (played by the ever-reliable H.B. Warner) bids farewell to their daughter and her soon-to-be husband without letting them in on the fact that the woman has committed suicide and that he intends to join her soon after; the hysterical tirade at the end by the daughter when she finally confronts the men who have destroyed her life, a brave tour-de-force moment for Marian Marsh (familiar to horror aficionados from SVENGALI , THE MAD GENIUS  and THE BLACK ROOM ) who had so far only rather blandly served the romantic interest of the plot; the final shot of the picture, with the latest issue of “The Gazette” being swept into the gutter by street-cleaners along with the rest of the garbage, thus leaving no doubt whatsoever as to where the film-makers’ true sentiments lay.
Pre-Code Tale Stops The Presses
Author: Ron Oliver (email@example.com) from Forest Ranch, CA
11 June 2005
The muckraking editor of The Gazette revives an old murder case (with a FIVE STAR FINAL) to increase the paper’s circulation.
Movies have long been fascinated with the fast-paced action of the journalistic newsroom and have mined stories about newspaper shenanigans for both comedies & dramas. Here, from First National Pictures, was one of the earliest talkies to have a real success in exploring the medium. The action is fast and the dialogue fits. The film goes further, however, reaching beyond the newspaper staff and focusing on a family who becomes the victim of untrammeled yellow journalism.
Pugnacious Edward G. Robinson gives a vivid portrayal of the unscrupulous editor who slowly begins to develop a soul when he is confronted by the turmoil his decisions have on the lives of innocent folks. Seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, Robinson fascinates as he chews the scenery with his full-throttle performance. The always sterling Aline MacMahon scores as his wise, levelheaded secretary who nurses a secret love for him. Their scenes together are riveting.
In supporting roles, creepy Boris Karloff plays an alcoholic reporter without any morals whatsoever. Wisecracking Ona Munson has fun with her role of a floozy who becomes a girl reporter. Oscar Apfel is good as the paper’s spineless owner. Rat-faced George E. Stone is rather repulsive as the guy who sends out the goons to strong-arm newspaper vendors on the street.
H. B. Warner & Frances Starr both shine as an innocent couple whose lives are made a misery by the rapacious Gazette. Playing their daughter, Marian Marsh has a terrific scene at the film’s climax when she confronts the three newspapermen who destroyed her home. Sturdy Anthony Bushell appears as her steadfast society boyfriend.
Movie mavens will recognize little Frank Darien as an eager undertaker. And that’s blonde Polly Walters as the Gazette’s kooky-voiced telephone operator.