1931 was the breakthrough year for Edward G. Robinson. January of that year saw the release of Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar in which Robinson established himself as one of the premiere gangsters in filmdom, a portrayal that stands solid to this day. Later that year Warner Bros. with whom Eddie G. was contracted released Smart Money directed by Alfred E. Green, the only film to co-star Robinson and the other top-notch gangster type, James Cagney. In September of that year audiences saw and loved Robinson in Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final in which the actor, still a relative newcomer to the movies, proved he had much more than menace to offer. In fact, in Five Star Final Edward G. Robinson exhibited the kind of range that would make him one of the most admired actors of the golden age and beyond.
Tagline: With the most versatile actor on the screen today…Edward G. Robinson.
Five Star Final depicts the machinations at a tabloid newspaper, The New York Evening Gazette. Robinson plays Joseph W. Randall, the editor of the paper who under pressure from his publisher, Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) decides to publish a series on a murder that took place two decades earlier. The murderer was a then young woman named Nancy Voorhees who was acquitted after shooting the man who got her pregnant and then refused to marry her. Churning up the details of the murder, which had splashed all over the tabloids, means destroying Voorhees’ life after she’d gone to great lengths to start anew as well as destroying the life of her daughter who’s about to marry into a prominent family.
Joe Randall is clearly disgusted with Hinchecliffe, the assignment at hand and with the exploitation inherent in the newspaper business, but he does the job anyway assigning unscrupulous reporter Isopod (Boris Karloff) to dig up dirt on Voorhees and her family. The results are devastating across the board.
Five Star Final, which refers to the final edition of daily papers back in the day, is based on a play by Louis Weitzenkorn, which opened at the Cort Theatre in New York in 1930. The Evening Gazette, the newspaper in the story was based on the real-life New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid paper published between 1924 and 1932 where Louis Weitzenkorn worked as a reporter and editor. Byron Morgan wrote a terrific screenplay for the movie, which not surprisingly was extremely well received by audiences and critics. The movie was nominated for Outstanding Production, as the ‘Best Picture’ category was called then losing the award to Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel. While I love Goulding’s movie I think Five Star Final stands up better today due to its theme, which is perhaps even more prominent today. The movie has the pre-code sensibilities we love as well as the signature dialogue of the era and a fantastic fast-paced tempo that doesn’t let you down. I love the editing by Frank Ware as well. The first five minutes of the movie alone set the stage with a hefty montage introduction of the cut-throat world we’re dealing with. By the time we meet Joe Randall we know what he’s up against. Mr. Robinson then raises the bar in artistic fashion as he would do for five decades.
Edward G. Robinson was a natural, an actor with a style all his own. We know about his extraordinary voice, one of the most easily recognizable in filmdom, which makes every single line of dialogue he speaks an attention grabber. For me even more unique than the voice is the actor’s physicality making his every movement a deliberate statement. For example, while the cold and calculating world of tabloid journalism and its players are introduced without restriction in the first few minutes of the movie we know how Joe Randall feels about the dirty business by the way he washes his hands as soon as we see him, an act he repeats later. This would normally be a run-of-the-mill act, insignificant by most standards. But in this movie and for this character it means a lot more – a symbolic attempt to wash away the dirt from Randall’s life, the muck he’s forced to wad through every day as the editor of the sensational The Evening Gazette. When you watch the movie take notice of this – a man trying to use soap and water to wash away some of the blood and guts he’s served up for the sake of a Five Star Final. Perhaps even cleanse his soul.
There’s also a scene toward the end of Five Star Final during which Eddie G. gives me chills. The tragedies they’ve caused are over and Randall is telling Hinchecliffe how he’ll have to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life wishing that the publisher too is awakened in the middle of the night for the rest of his life as he no doubt will be. Hinchecliffe tries to reason with him, but Randall cuts him off, tells him to get out. Disgusted Randall turns his back to Hinchecliffe who attempts to say one more word and, “GET OUT” comes from Randall with such force that we are prone to flinch. His pain. His shame. The deep self-hatred Randall feels at that moment is palpable. Of course I’m not condoning what he’s done. In some way he’s worse than Hinchecliffe because he knows better. Always has.
Five Star Final doesn’t mince words about the newspaper business, about the dirty people and their dirty deeds and because of that the movie still delivers quite the punch nearly 90 years after it was made. The statement on yellow journalism as depicted here is made stronger by Karloff’s Isopod, a former minister who exploits the title of “Reverend” when he visits people in search of information for The Gazette. Put simply Isopod is a low life. He’s quite the opposite of The Monster to whom Karloff ascribed such pathos later that same year.
The rest of the supporting cast in Five Star Final is terrific as well. I love Aline MacMahon as Miss Taylor, Randall’s secretary who’s been in love with him for years and serves as a constant reminder that he knows and deserves better. Other notable faces include Marian Marsh who plays Jenny Townsend, Nancy Voorhees Townsend’s daughter. Frances Starr plays Nancy Voorhees and the great H. B. Warner plays the loving father and husband in this sordid tale. The entire cast and crew list is available here and I’m sure you’ll recognize several of the names. A special shout out has to go to Polly Walters for her portrayal of a hilariously annoying phone operator. The movie’s pace comes to a halt every time we see and hear her answer the phone. Also, Ona Munson gets our attention as Kitty Carmody who is hired by Randall as a reporter thanks to her buxom talents. You may know Ona from her portrayal of Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind 8 years later.
Clearly I strongly suggest you take a look at Five Star Final, a pre-code that packs a punch and my pick for Edward G. Robinson day, which kicks off TCM’s Summer Under the Stars (SUTS) festival. Visit the galleries dedicated to SUTS for details on Robinson, Karloff (who gets his own day later in August) and the rest of the 31 days worth of stars. I pick my favorites for most days in a roll-call post here.
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This post is submitted as part of the ‘Summer Under the Stars’ blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Be sure to visit her site throughout August to access submissions on the stars and movies featured on TCM.