erik lundegaard

Wednesday February 07, 2024

Movie Review: Five Star Final (1931)

Robinson, finally cast in a starring non-gangster role, but someone else steals the show.


It’s got one of those great character intros, like Rick in “Casablanca,” where we keep hearing about the guy without seeing him. He keeps getting built up by others. When we do finally meet tabloid newspaper editor Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson), after about 10 minutes of screen time, he’s washing his hands in a speakeasy bathroom. The speakeasy and hand-washing are both symptoms of the same problem: he hates his job. The speakeasy dulls whatever the soap can’t wash away.

This was the first non-gangster starring role for Robinson after he hit it big with “Little Caesar,” and maybe as a result it was beloved by him. In his autobiography he calls it one of his favorite films. “I loved Randall because he wasn’t a gangster,” he wrote. “I suspect he was conceived as an Anglo-Saxon—to look at me nobody would believe it—but I enjoyed doing him. He made sense…”

Yes and no. From the opener, you get a sense of a man trying to drag his newspaper out of the muck. “Randall’s getting too swell for the chewing gum trade,” is one comment from the New York Evening Gazette’s head of circulation. (I love “chewing gum trade.”) The business side wants sensationalism and he’s giving them League of Nations cables. But circulation is down. Sales are down. “Our weak spot is the editorial department! Randall needs a good jacking up!”

Those are the battle lines, drawn early. The trouble? We never see Randall trying to go highbrow. He’s pressured to do a low-rent thing, does it, and people get hurt. That’s the movie.

Besides, by the time he shows up, we’ve already been introduced to someone way more interesting.

The efficient, sardonic secretary who knows more than her boss, and maybe loves him a little, was a kind of 1930s Warner Bros. staple, wasn’t she? I guess I’m thinking Joan Blondell in “Footlight Parade.” And here.

Here, she’s Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon), no first name, and she immediately stands out. It’s partly her lines and partly the way MacMahon says them. The people around her are a bit broad. Chicago flapper Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson), for example, shows up, vamps a bit, pours herself into a chair, and talks up how the publisher, “Mr. Hinchcliffe” (Oscar Apfel), wants to hire her. “What I meant about Mr. Hinchecliffe is that he knows that I've had a lot of experience in Chicago,” she says. “Yeah, you look it,” Miss Taylor responds, accepting her as a fait accompli but dispensing with her. 

But it’s the back-and-forth with young gofer Arthur Goldberg (Harold Waldridge) that takes things to another level.

Arthur Goldberg: Sufferin’ Moses, but Mr. Randall's got a lot of women.
Miss Taylor: Arthur Goldboig, ain’t you got no religion?
Arthur Goldberg: Gee, the way you say that, I ought to change my name.
Miss Taylor: Don’t you do it, kid. New York’s too full of Christians as it is.

“Five Star Final” is based upon a play by former New York Evening Graphic editor Louis Weitzenkorn, and was adapted by Robert Lord and Byron Morgan, so you wonder who came up with the “Christians” line and how it was allowed to stick. It’s so great. The pre-code era certainly helped. Three years later, no way Joe Breen is letting that line through. You wonder how many great lines got killed between 1934 and 1966. Or to today.

More, though, it’s the unforced way MacMahon says it. She says it with camaraderie, like it’s a little secret between her and little Arthur Goldboig. It’s almost maternal. Plus, she never stops working. Through both conversations. She’s taking phone calls and filling in notes in a kind of rolodex for her boss. Everyone else shows up, ta da, like they’re in a play, and annunciates like in a play—like the lines are the job. She has a job; the lines she does for free.

And this was her first movie? Just who is Aline MacMahon?

Turns out: An early practitioner of the Stanislavski method of acting, soon to be known simply as The Method. She learned it in the 1920s, became a star on Broadway shortly thereafter, married a well-known architect, Clarence Stein, and, after Hollywood tapped her, commuted between New York and LA. In the mid-1930s, Warner Bros. kept pairing her opposite Guy Kibbee, including as the maternal, cynical Trixie Lorraine in “Gold Diggers of 1933.” In the 1940s, she was nominated for an Oscar for “Dragon Seed,” with Katherine Hepburn and Walter Huston. In the 1950s, she was blacklisted. She’s also the subject of a recent book by John Strangeland: “Aline MacMahon: Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting” (University Press of Kentucky). A 2023 review of Strangeland’s work, as well as an appreciation of MacMahon’s, can be found in The New York Review of Books, for those who subscribe.

Anyway, you can’t help but notice her here. She’s the most natural actor with the best lines.

The plot revolves around resurrecting a 20-year-old murder case, in which a woman, Nancy Voorhes, killed her boss after he impregnated her and reneged on marriage. It was a bit scandal but she was acquitted, and Hinchcliffe figures the public will want to know what happened to her. Randall, who covered the case as a reporter, isn’t exactly highbrow here. He works the phones, then assigns Kitty Carmody and handsy reporter T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff, in one of his last roles before “Frankenstein”) to figure out what’s what, then goes to wash his hands again. Miss Taylor? She’s leaving for the day. But she offers this parting shot about the whole nasty business:

I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman.

 Man, I wish I’d had that line in my back pocket in 2016.

For a Chicago flapper, and a handsy ex-priest, Carmody and Isopod make not-poor reporters. They quickly find out Nancy Voorhes is now Nancy Townsend (Frances Starr), wife of Michael (H.B. Warner), and an upstanding member of society living uptown. Hubby knows about her sordid past but her child, Jenny (Marian Marsh), doesn’t. Jenny also thinks Michael is her biological father. And as luck would have it—at least for the tabloid business—Jenny is days from a big wedding to Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell) of the hoity-toity Weeks family.

Once the tumblers of the plot begin to fall into place, the movie gets a lot less interesting. They run with the story, circulation jumps, but Nancy is scandalized. She finds out before her daughter and works the phones to try to rein in the rest of the story (it’s supposed to be a series), but no one will take her calls. Finally, Miss Taylor forces the call on Randall, who, distracted and guilty, tells her the story is already out. Then we get melodrama: Nancy kills herself, off-stage in the bathroom, and her husband finds the body. When Jenny and Phillip show up, giddy about their upcoming nuptials, he keeps the news from them, and after they leave, moving and speaking slowly, he joins his wife in death.

It's Kitty Carmody, climbing through the living room window with a photographer, who finds the bodies. Big story for the five star final—the last paper of the day. Except now the scandal threatens to engulf the entire newspaper since they come off so badly. We get a big confrontation in Randall’s office. A distraught Jenny shows up with a gun, demanding to know why they killed her mother. Randall, guilt-ridden, tells her she was killed for circulation and almost dies for voicing the truth. But Phillip Weeks, ever loyal, prevents Jenny from committing the crime and they leave to start their own life. Then Randall tells off Hinchcliffe and leaves with Miss Taylor. And in the final shot—reminiscent of the final shots of the silent film “Chicago”—the headlines that caused all the trouble are seen being washed away into a storm drain. Yesterday’s news.

King of druggists
Life moved fast back then. For the filmmakers, I mean. Louis Weitzenkorn’s play debuted on Broadway on Dec. 30, 1930, and this movie hit theaters in September 1931. So rights were bought, the play adapted, director chosen, people cast, filming done, publicity created, etc. etc.—all in nine months. Probably why the framing of the play—set scenes, from which people come and go—is very play-like. Not much of an attempt to open things up. 

Something else I learned while besides all that stuff about MacMahon? The good-guy husband of Nancy Townsend who takes his own life is played by H.B. Warner, who was perhaps the most famous silent-era Jesus, in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings” (1927). But that’s not his most famous role to contemporary audiences, since, 16 years after this, he played Mr. Gower, the druggist, in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Which means … Mr. Gower was Jesus.

“Five Star Final” was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and, again, it’s not bad before it descends into melodrama. It’s about the media tsk-tsking as it sells sex. That kind of hypocrisy will last beyond newspapers.

The great Aline MacMahon, and a line for the ages.

Posted at 08:28 PM on Wednesday February 07, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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