Five Star Final has its place among a bevy of real-world Journalism movies as perpetuated by Hollywood in the Pre-Code era. Probably equally important is director Mervyn Leroy, who at this point in his career was about to be tackling some of his most pointed material including I Am a Fugitive From a Chang Gang and Three on a Match, which if not totally vying for social realism, certainly blended it liberally with melodrama to instill a social message.
It should be noted before the war over Citizen Kane, famed magnate William Randolph Hearst took offense at this movie, whether or not it was outrightly aimed at him or not. Regardless, it hit close to home. I’ll let you be the judge.
This paper happens to be called the Evening Gazette and it’s anchored by editor Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson), though he’s not introduced for several minutes, remaining an unseen figure. Instead, we are given a clear sense of the rest of the framework built around him.
One of his story peddlers Ziggie (George E. Stone) has a perfect name to go with his line of work. His latest shenanigan involves taxi races through downtown, a cinch to drum up some surefire news.
Aline MacMahon is Robinson’s world-wearied social conscience. In other words, his secretary, who is secretly devoted to him even as the paper goes to seed. Full disclosure, I’ve always maintained a lingering affinity for MacMahon based on her general affability and her prowess in both comedy and affecting drama. Here she strikes a steady medium.
It’s true the modern newspaper game is all about mass circulation and with it all sorts of gimmicks and salacious material to grab people’s eyes. Sensationalism is the name of the game to go with lady models buried in the back of the papers. It might be vulgar, but it works wonders. Mr. Hearst was probably well-aware of it.
This is what Randall is fighting against. At first, we have the sense he’s trying to run a tight outfit — he’s a grade-A journalist — but the pressure from upstairs makes him cave and play the way they want it.
The top man, Mr. Hinchecliffe, doesn’t want their editorial integrity to suffer in so many words, but he wants to position themselves to capture more readers. It’s the old game. Sensationalism and smut sell. It takes a lot less effort and integrity than honest, human-centered journalism, and it’s more profitable.
In a sense, Robinson is at home wheeling and dealing, bustling around amid the chaos, getting on the horn and chomping on his cigars as people come in and out. He thrives on the energy. We come to understand his favorite words to fill out a story are “blah, blah, blah.”
The world itself is engaging — the characters who inhabit it in the office and walking the beat — but the film strays in its moralizing plotline. They’re looking to drudge up a story now 20 years old by getting people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.
By coincidence, the woman (Frances Starr) — now terribly respectable and married to an affectionate man (H.B. Warner) — watches her vivacious young daughter prepare to wed the man of her dreams. Everyone is deliriously happy though a land mine from the newspapers looks to totally decimate her salvaged life.
It’s Randall who set it off at the behest of his superiors because when he wants to be, he has a wily acumen, stooping to every trick in the book. One of his handy stooges is the marvelously-named Isopod. No man is right for the role but Boris Karloff — a once aspiring minister who was summarily booted out and ended up in the paper racket instead. Now he uses his religious training to get into people’s confidence.
It works much the same for Mr. and Mrs. Townsend. There’s something about his formidable voice where his sinister tone becomes unctuous in the company of his callers. He is ready to wheedle them for information, and they oblige, completely vulnerable in the fangs of such an insidious wolf in minster’s clothing.
When the Five Star Final edition comes out at 11:30 one night, the obvious trajectory of their story is sealed. In a world still reeling in the wake of the stock market, the character assassination they are assailed with seems just as hopeless. It’s not something the paper can redact or recant nor do they plan to. It’s lucrative news even at the expense of human lives.
In the final moments, there’s another meeting of the minds. Mr. Hincheclife is flanked by his Yes Men with Randall behind his desk. They are all complicit. A bitter daughter bursts in on them lambasting them for the irreparable harm they’ve caused. She beseeches the omnipotent cowards — all the cogs in the system — to conduct an act of God, by raising the dead. Of course, they can’t. They can only look on ruefully. Totally implicated and utterly guilty. The indictment is fierce and wind-ranging.
Robinson’s the one man who seems to acknowledge his part in it. While he can’t repair this mess, he vows never to become a slave to circulation again as he and his best girl shake off the dust of the crummy establishment. It’s swelling with this sentiment, but the point has been made. Five Star Final is not always elegant but between the lively characterizations and the mordant subject matter, it’s difficult to ask for more from the movie.