Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) owns a tabloid paper, the New York Evening Gazette, and the paper’s circulation numbers are down. Hinchecliffe wants big numbers, so he insists that managing editor Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson) make some changes to the paper’s content.
Randall decides to create a scandal for his paper by revisiting a twenty-year-old murder case in which Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) shot her husband after learning that he was unfaithful to her. Randall sends one of his reporters, Isopod (Boris Karloff), to pose as a clergyman and befriend Nancy to get some scoop.
Unsuspecting Nancy wants to keep her past hidden. She’s now happily remarried, living under a different name, and preparing for the wedding of her daughter (Marian Marsh). Devoted secretary Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon) warns Randall to leave the story alone, but he goes ahead with it anyway, with dire consequences.
Mervyn LeRoy directs 1931’s Five Star Final. The film is based on a play of the same name by Louis Weitzenkorn, adapted for the screen by Robert Lord and Byron Morgan.
Five Star Final is one of those films where every performer just knocks it out of the park, completely. Karloff is a total slimey sleazeball in his role as a reporter, nearly as creepy as he is in any of his much-loved horror flicks. Marian Marsh is an emotional powerhouse near the film’s end. Even Anthony Bushell, in the relatively small role of fiance to Marsh’s character, has a fantastic confrontation scene with his on-screen parents.
Adding to that, Frances Starr is heartbreaking in the role of a tabloid scandal’s victim. All she wished to do was move on with her life, live happily with her husband, watch her daughter marry, become a grandmother. Randall’s disregard for the impact of digging up her story twenty years down the road is so irresponsible and damaging.
As for that “most versatile” star (per the film’s promotional materials), Edward G. Robinson, he’s fantastic to watch as usual. His character of Randall is a very interesting one. He has brought change to the paper. In one early scene, it is mentioned that he has tried to make the Gazette a more serious paper, refusing to publish pictures of women in their underwear. (So pre-code!) However, when Hinchecliffe comes calling for bigger numbers, Randall seems to have no moral issue with taking on the Voorhees story and potentially ruining multiple lives. “I’ve been in this game too long to be ashamed of myself,” he proclaims in one scene. He tried to make the tabloid into a legitimate paper but readily gives in to the fast-paced nature and excitement of covering and creating scandal. His conscience does reemerge by the end, but it’s too little, too late.
Miss Taylor, portrayed very effectively by Aline MacMahon, is Randall’s virtual opposite. She calls the story a “crucifixion of a woman” and lets Randall know that she doesn’t agree with his decision to pursue the story. The film on the whole wrestles with this idea of numbers versus ethics, condemning the Gazette and the heartless Hinchecliffe.
As newsroom pictures go, I can easily count Five Star Final among my favorites. Telling a story that remains relevant in the 21st century, the picture is packed with drama, a gripping watch from start to finish.