Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: Five Star Final (1931)
- Standing:Nominated for Best Picture of 1931/1932
- Type: Drama, Pre-code
- Other AA Nominations: 0
- Other AA Wins: 0
- Director: Mervyn LeRoy
- Studio/Producer: Warner Bros./First National Pictures and Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)
- Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Marian Marsh, H.B. Warner, Anthony Bushell, George E. Stone, Frances Starr, Ona Munson, Boris Karloff, Aline MacMahon, Oscar Apfel
- Production Notes: Cinematography by Sol Polito,Based on the play by Louis Weitzenkorn and adapted for the screen byByron Morgan and Robert Lord
- Viewing Order: 21 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson), the managing editor of a tabloid newspaper, is a man of principles…but who also is need of a steady paycheck. He hopes to steer the stories his paper prints away from the sensational and scandalous and into more respectable territory. Unfortunately, scandal is what sells and he comes under pressure from the paper’s mercenary owner Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel), to resurrect the 20 year old story of acquitted murderer Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), who killed her boss after he impregnated her and then refused to marry her. He goes along with Hinchecliffe’s idea to publish this as a retrospective serial, against the advice of his external conscience, his secretary Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon), who is secretly in love with him and wants to steer him right by convincing him of how devastating this story will be for Nancy and her family. Randall, feeling an obligation to his job and knowing that this will be the story the paper needs to boost their sales, continues with the plan.
Reporters on the case gathering evidence are sexy, but ruthless Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson) and cowardly and unprincipled T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff). They discover that Nancy Voorhees is now Nancy Townsend, after marrying goodhearted Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner), and together they have raised Nancy’s daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh) with no knowledge of her mother’s past or her true paternity. Jenny is on the eve of marrying Philip Weeks (Anthony Bushell), a young man from a wealthy family whose parents are overly concerned with social image and status (if you didn’t sense impending angst yet, you may begin now). Soon, the paper begins to leak the story, including Nancy’s new identity, and she and Michael frantically attempt to keep the information from their daughter and her soon-to-be husband and in-laws. They appeal to Hinchecliffe and Randall to stop publishing the story, to no avail.
“There are so many other things to print,” Nancy begs. The truth of this hits hard as you stare at the desperate woman whose life will be turned upside down by one story and the editor surrounded by stories who can’t see the deep ripple effects each is bound to cause their subjects when they hit the newsstand.
Randall will soon realize what he’s done, but he’ll be too late…
The performances in this film were absolutely electric when meshed together. There were times when I felt ready to dismiss certain actors’ performances as overly theatrical and better suited for the stage, only to have them convert me with an extremely natural and effective look, gesture, or moment. Nearly every actor and character, from Edward G. Robinson’s leading role as Randall to Marian Marsh’s innocent daughter Jenny, had a moment to shine in this film.
Robinson had really hit his stride by this point and was a popular draw for gangster and dramatic tough guy roles throughout the 1930s. I was completely shocked to find out that Five Star Final was Aline MacMahon’s film debut as she is completely fantastic in this role and, alongside with Robinson, gives the most effective overall performance. While it’s apparent that Ona Munson is acknowledged as the dish and MacMahon as the plain one, I found MacMahon’s look striking and her star potential palpable. It’s a genuine shame that she would never reach the top echelon of fame where she should have ended up. She would spend most of her career in supporting roles playing teachers, nurses, and other helpful but thoroughly asexual roles.
As for Ona Munson, best known today as Gone With the Wind’s sassy but sympathetic madam Belle Watling, she only appeared in about 20 films in a career that lasted about 20 years. When you do the math, that’s not much, though she also spent a good chunk of her time on Broadway.
Boris Karloff is strangely out of place in this film full of fast-talking newspaper men with his languid British accent, as if a butler from an upper crust family decided to moonlight as a reporter; yet this adds more to the narrative than it detracts and ensures that Karloff stands out. When he made Five Star Final, he was on the cusp of the career he would be most known for, starring in Frankenstein that same year only to go on to become one of Universal’s predominant horror stars alongside Bela Lugosi.
Behind the Scenes:
The film was based on the 1930 play of the same name by Louis Weitzenkorn, who was a reporter and tabloid newspaper editor before he became a playwright. This inside aspect gave the film (and play) credibility and it was heralded as the most realistic onscreen look at tabloid journalism to date.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture
The popularity of the film was due in large part to its performances, in particular that of Edward G. Robinson’s, which was universally applauded. However, the film was also seen as an exquisitely realistic and tragic portrayal of man’s inhumanity. “Convincing” and “powerful” were words used frequently used to describe it. It managed to hit on a deep, emotional level while also not fully dragging audiences down into an abyss, by way of carefully injected moments of humor.
How does it hold up today?
Though critics and audiences tend to tip in Five Star Final’sfavor, it was still compared unfavorably (by several Rotten Tomatoes critics and etc.) to previous newspaper themed nominee The Front Page, which was found to be a better film of the genre (I completely disagree).
Still, the exploitive nature of tabloid journalism is relevant today, even though newspapers themselves have been replaced by other mediums…
- IMDb rating= 7.2 out of 10 (with 1,637 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 91% fresh by critics (10 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 76% fresh user ratings (out of 247 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1931/1932 Best Picture?
Five Star Final versus the actual Best Picture winner this season, Grand Hotel, is much like 1927/1928’s Best Picture battle between Seventh Heaven versus Wings. While I completely understand why Grand Hotel won, Five Star Final strikes a deeper emotional cord and is powerful on a less flashy, but just as potent scale. In short, this question deserves deeper thought…
*UPDATE: See my full 1931/1932 ranking here