The "Pre-Code" era in Hollywood--which ran approximately from 1930 through most of 1934--has now become so legendary that just about any movie made in that period is looked upon as a classic. Most of the attention given to Pre-Code features revolves around their presumed salacious content, rather than any aesthetic value an individual film may have. If you take away all the salacious content from most of the famous examples of Pre-Code cinema, you really wouldn't have much left.
The storyline of my favorite Pre-Code film is built around scandal.....but the real scandal it covers is the American media. That makes the movie as relevant today as it was when it was first released by Warner Bros. in 1931. FIVE STAR FINAL isn't just a great Pre-Code film--it is a great film, period, and it was even nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.
FIVE STAR FINAL concerns the operations of the New York Gazette, a tabloid newspaper with Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson) as its editor. At the start of the film we see a couple of toughs working for the Gazette asking a newsstand operator why he doesn't have their paper on top of all the others. When the operator refuses to be intimidated by them, the men literally sling mud all over his merchandise--the first example of the film's many uses of metaphor.
As we go into the offices of the Gazette, we see Randall's loyal secretary, Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon) trying to find the editor. Three of the paper's bigwigs, Hinchecliffe, Brannigan, and French, are demanding a meeting with Randall--the paper's latest circulation numbers are down. The three men believe that Randall has made the paper too highbrow for its intended audience--Randall is said to be getting "too high for the chewing gum crowd". Randall is actually at the local speakeasy--and the first time we see him, he is washing his hands, a habit he does throughout the picture. It is an obvious metaphor, but an apt one.
Randall finally returns to work, and is castigated by Hinchecliffe to return the paper to its old ways. Hinchecliffe, Brannigan, and French are portrayed as stuffed-shirt hypocrites--they act as if they are representatives of the public trust, and above the people who read their paper, yet at the same time they want as much sensationalism and lewdness in their product as possible. (Randall refers to Hinchecliffe as "The Sultan of Slop".) Hinchecliffe tells Randall that the paper is going to run a new series of articles on Nancy Vorhees, a woman who was involved in a famous scandal 20 years ago. Vorhees shot and killed her lover, a rich playboy, when the man refused to marry her after she told him she was pregnant. Vorhees was acquitted by a sympathetic jury, and she and her child have managed to stay out of the public eye ever since. Hinchecliffe wants Randall to track down Vorhees and her child and find out what they are doing now.
Randall is disgusted by the assignment, but he goes into it full bore--it's almost as if he is punishing himself by going ahead with it. FIVE STAR FINAL is a major showcase for Edward G. Robinson as Randall. The newspaper editor is a tough guy, but not in the same way as one of Robinson's gangster characters. Despite his all-out effort to get the goods on Nancy Vorhees, Robinson still gives the man enough shadings to show that Randall hates what he and the Gazette have become.
To get information on Nancy Vorhees, Randall sends out a new "reporter", the curvaceous Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson). Kitty's journalistic abilities seem to consist of sweet-talking men into giving her the story she needs. Randall also calls upon one T. Vernon Isopod, played by none other than Boris Karloff (not too long after filming this role, Boris would be hired to play Frankenstein's Monster). The slimy, unctuous Isopod was kicked out of divinity school, and now uses his religious "knowledge" into conning people into thinking he is a man of the cloth.
The present-day address of Nancy Vorhees is discovered--she is now Mrs. Michael Townsend. We are then introduced to Nancy (Frances Starr), her husband (H. B. Warner), her daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh), and Jenny's fiancee Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell). The Townsends are shown to be a pleasant, ordinary family who live in a modest apartment (some viewers may think them to be too goody-goody....but this was probably done to contrast them with the overbearing staff of the Gazette). The Townsends find out that the Gazette is planning to run a series on the Nancy Vorhees case, which greatly worries them, since Jenny has no idea about her mother's past, and does not even know that Michael Townsend is not her real father. Isopod worms his way into the Townsend home by pretending he is a minister (when Randall first sees Isopod dressed as a man of God, the editor exclaims, "You're the most blasphemous looking thing I've ever seen! It's a miracle you've not been struck dead!"). Isopod finds out that Jenny is getting married to Phillip, and gets a picture of the girl from her mother ("...for the church files"). The Townsends wonder why a minister from their local church would not know the names of a couple to be married there soon...and they then realize they may have made a terrible mistake in talking to Isopod.
When Randall finds out that Nancy Vorhees' daughter is going to be married--and to a young man from a high-class family, no less--he pushes the story even harder. Miss Taylor, who acts as Randall's conscience, tries to get him to stop the stories, but to no avail. The Townsends find out that Isopod was a fake, and Phillip's parents show up, demanding that the Townsends call the wedding off. Mr. Townsend decides to go to his church to ask his minister if he can appeal to the Gazette from running the stories. While he is out, Nancy calls the Gazette personally, begging to talk to anyone in charge. Nancy is constantly put off by both Hinchecliffe and Randall (in a nice touch, director Mervyn LeRoy uses split-screens and even triple-screens to visualize the various telephone conversations). When Nancy realizes that the paper will not stop the stories, and her daughter's wedding will be ruined, she commits suicide by taking poison.
Mr. Townsend returns to find his wife dead in the bathroom. Jenny and Phillip arrive, and in a devastating scene to watch, Townsend manages to prevent the young couple from finding out about Nancy's death. After he sends them out (telling them "I'm going to join Mother"), Townsend also commits suicide. Kitty Carmody, with a Gazette photographer in tow, sneaks into the apartment, and finds the bodies of the Townsends. Kitty doesn't call the police....she calls the paper, and yells at her shaken colleague to start taking pictures.
The Gazette puts the photo of the dead Townsends on the front page of a special edition. A distraught Randall goes to the speakeasy to try and drink things off, while a devastated Jenny is told by Phillip's parents that there is no way a wedding can take place now. The look on Marian Marsh's face cuts the viewer to the bone--here is a young woman who was looking forward to her wedding day, and now her parents are dead, and her mother's secret has finally been revealed to her.
Jenny grabs a gun and heads for the offices of the Gazette. There, a depressed Randall is being congratulated by Hinchecliffe, Brannigan, and French on one of the biggest one-day sales in the paper's history. When Randall brings up the topic of Nancy Vorhees' daughter, Hinchecliffe suggests giving the "poor child" $1000. A smirking Isopod thinks that is a generous idea. Jenny arrives, demanding to see Hinchecliffe. Brannigan and French scurry away, but Randall demands that Hinchecliffe and Isopod stay.
What follows next is the highlight of the film, and one of the main highlights of the whole Pre-Code era. Quietly, deliberately, Jenny accuses the men of having killed her mother and father. As the scene goes on, Jenny's voice gets louder and louder, and the movie's editing gets faster and faster. Jenny tells the man exactly what she thinks of them and their paper, and soon she is screaming at them, as quick close-ups of the shocked men's faces are shown. Jenny pulls out her gun, but she is stopped by doing any harm by a just-arriving Phillip, who takes her away.
Randall now takes the opportunity to tell off Hinchecliffe, and quits. A satisfied Miss Taylor follows him out--but it is only a hollow victory. The final scene shows the special edition of the Gazette being swept down a dirty street, along with the rest of the trash.
FIVE STAR FINAL may be a hard-hitting look at the tabloid newspaper business of the 1930s, but it still holds up today. At 89 minutes, it is a bit long for a Pre-Code film, but it moves like lightning, as so many of the early 1930s Warner Bros. pictures did. Directors like Mervyn LeRoy knew how to make a story move, and how to tell it without an excess of extraneous material. FIVE STAR FINAL is based on a play, written by an actual newspaperman who worked on a tabloid similar to the one depicted in the story. There's a lot of talking in this film, but one never feels that the story is staid or boring. A lot of that is due to the fine cast, who handle the many lines of dialogue superbly. One thing I noticed while watching this film again is how many scenes show someone talking on the phone. It would seem that pretending to have a phone conversation would be a simple thing for an actor.....but in FIVE STAR FINAL, the cast here makes a work of art out of it, especially Edward G. Robinson. Aline MacMahon in particular is standout at this--her phone scenes reveal Miss Taylor's cynicism and disappointment at her job, and at the actions of her boss Randall. Miss Taylor has a crush on Randall, and MacMahon conveys this in an understated manner. The actress steals every scene she is in, even though for the most part she is just sitting at a desk.
The dialogue in FIVE STAR FINAL is also filled with those snappy 1930s phrases and one-liners that Pre-Code fans can't get enough of, such as that "too high for the chewing gum crowd" comment. The rhythm and pace of the dialogue matches the rhythm and pace of the movie.
As for all the typical Pre-Code ingredients one expects when watching a film of this type, there's enough of them here. The local speakeasy appears to be where most of the Gazette staff hang out when they are not working, Ona Munson's Kitty Carmody could never exist in a Hollywood movie made a few years later--at least her cleavage couldn't. Boris Karloff's Isopod isn't just a fake preacher, he's also a bit of a pervert as well. In one scene he about twists his neck trying to look at Kitty's legs. Later in the film Kitty complains about having to share a cab ride with Isopod--she tells Randall that she doesn't have any skin left on her knees. (In some ways Isopod is more frightening than most of Karloff's actual monsters.) And then there is the Gazette itself--a "newspaper" which makes today's clickbait internet expose sites look tame.
What, for me, makes FIVE STAR FINAL stand head and shoulders over most other Pre-Code films is the movie's conception of mass media as a destructive force, geared toward all of the baser instincts of its audience. The double suicide of the Townsends is horrific act--especially since the viewer has seen the couple, and their daughter, as decent folk. The beauty and innocence of Marian Marsh as Jenny makes one feel even more emotional toward her fate. In the film the character of Jenny is said to be the age of 20; in real life Marian Marsh was only 17 when she played the role, and she looked younger. Marsh had just starred with John Barrymore in SVENGALI, and many consider that her best performance....but I feel the greatest moment of her career was the climax of FIVE STAR FINAL. Her rage is so overpowering it is almost scary, especially considering that she is almost the symbol of purity. It is the explosive grief of Marian Marsh that I will always remember when FIVE STAR FINAL comes to mind.
As I have stated before, FIVE STAR FINAL would be a great film from any era. Calling it just a Pre-Code movie kind of lessens it. It still remains powerful today....and, unfortunately, so does the American media.