One of the most gripping and powerful of all newspaper dramas, Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final (1931) is a movie that has virtually fallen through the cracks despite being centered on a blistering indictment of tabloid journalism and built around one of Edward G. Robinson’s most compelling performances. Why? I suspect the reason extends all the way to its title. I mean who today even knows what a “five star final” is? Who remembers when newspapers were important enough to warrant multiple editions—from the early “bulldog” edition to the five-star final edition of the title—during the day? That’s a pity because Five Star Final is a terrific movie—hard as nails in its refreshing and often very funny pre-code dialogue and uncompromising in its depiction of the callousness and hypocrisy of the tabloid press. Using the story of one such paper dredging up an old murder case and destroying several lives in the process, the film takes no prisoners where the fourth estate is concerned. As such, it’s still relevant 80 years later.
The film is based on a play by Louis Weitzenkorn who had been an editor for the New York Evening Graphic in the 1920s, which perhaps gives the work a feeling of authenticity. Do not, however, get the impression that the film is in any way stagey or stagebound. It does to a degree have a theatrical feel, but that’s mostly in the way scenes are often structured as a series of entrances and exits. Stylistically, it’s quite the equal of the best pre-1932 works of Rouben Mamoulian, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and James Whale. It’s easy to forget—thanks to his later, more hidebound work—that Mervyn LeRoy was an adventurous and exciting filmmaker whose films had an impressively hard-edge to them. His camera is extremely mobile and he’s not afraid to experiment. Notice the dramatic use of split-screen in the scene where the distraught Nancy Voorhees Townsend (Frances Starr) tries to talk to either editor Randall (Robinson) or publisher Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel).
LeRoy is also unafraid of symbolism. Some of this—especially the business of Randall constantly washing his hands and the film’s ending shot—probably seem a little on the heavy-handed side today. All the same, they retain a certain power of a kind that is all but lost in modern film. The modern reticence—the fear of being obvious—is not invariably a plus. Sometimes the obvious very effective and exactly what’s needed. There are other times, however, when the symbolism is remarkably subtle. Consider the understated pose of Miss Taylor (the wonderful Aline MacMahon in her film debut) on the line, “I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.”
Also notable is the film’s brisk pre-code dialogue that allows for some still surprising lines, as when Miss Taylor asks the office boy, “Why Arthur Goldberg, ain’t you got no religion?” “Gee, the way you say that, I oughta change my name,” he responds. “Don’t you do it, kid. New York’s too full of Christians as it is,” she advises. Or the moment when promotions specialist Ziggie Feinstein (George E. Stone) explains his taxi cab race—“I’m gonna let an Irishman, a Jew, and a wop win.” And then there’s Boris Karloff (a couple months away from Frankenstein making him a star) as the paper’s religion editor T. Vernon Isopod—a drunken lecher (“Don’t ride in taxi cabs with him,” Randall warns one woman) who was kicked out of divinity school for implied sexual degeneracy. Three years later none of this would have gotten by.
But the overall thrust of the film is of the kind of social reform for which Warner Bros. was well known in the 1930s. The climactic scene—which I won’t discuss here—has an admittedly theatrical feel to it. It’s not helped by the casting of stiff-as-a-board Anthony Bushhell in a key role (the very British Bushell always seemed out of place at Warners), but he’s not enough to strip the scene of its very real, very raw emotional power.