TCM Pick of the Month: Pre-Code

I was so pleased to see that Five Star Final (1931) was airing on TCM as part of the network’s “Star of the Month” spotlight on Edward G. Robinson. I’ve had this film (on VHS) in my collection for many years, but it’s a lousy copy and, as a result, I’ve only seen it once or twice. Before selecting it, I didn’t recall much about the story’s specifics, but I clearly remembered that this is one heck of a pre-Code and a first-rate offering from Robinson. Choosing it as this month’s TCM pre-Code pick was a no-brainer!

The plot involves the efforts of a single-minded newspaper owner to boost his paper’s sagging circulation – by any means necessary. Turns out that his primary necessary means is to publish a series of articles focusing on a young woman, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), who fatally shot her boss 20 years earlier because he refused to marry her after getting her “in trouble.” The jury declined to convict the woman because she was expecting a child, and she went on to get married and disappear from public view. As fate would have it, the newspaper is revisiting the case on the wedding eve of Nancy’s now 20-year-old daughter, who neither knows of her mother’s criminal past, nor that her mother’s husband is not her father.

Randall cannot wash away his sin.

Spearheading the serial is managing editor Joseph Randall (Robinson), whose previous attempts to lift the paper above the popular sensationalist muck have led to its current failing state, and who has now left his high ideals by the wayside in order to keep his job. (“I’ve been in this game too long to be ashamed of myself. I’m gonna be one newspaper man that gets out of this business with enough money to give me a decent old age,” he explains.) Randall’s ruthless management of the story is so contrary to his deep-seated inner convictions that he is obsessed with frequently washing his hands, as if trying to scrub away the dirt in which he’s found himself surrounded. When the first article in the planned series is published, the fallout results in a string of unimaginable consequences; the last 30 minutes of the film are as dramatic, unexpected, and heart-rending as anything I’ve ever seen.

Boris Karloff ain’t no Frankenstein in this film.

In addition to Robinson, the cast includes Aline MacMahon as Randall’s secretary, who is secretly in love with her boss, but also serves as what he refers to in one scene as his “visible conscience”; Boris Karloff as Isopod, an unscrupulous, hard-drinking reporter (not to mention a rather creepy lecher); Ona Munson as a new reporter on the paper,  who’s not above breaking the law to get her story; and Marian Marsh, as the bride-to-be whose world is about to be forever changed by the newspaper’s revelations.

Within the film’s overall narrative, Five Star Final contains a number of dialogue exchanges that serve as superb representatives of the pre-Code era – the kind of lines that leave you with your mouth open. (In other words, my favorite kind!) Here’re just a few examples of what I mean:

In her first scene, Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson – who you might remember as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind), arrives at the newspaper offices for her job interview for a reporter position, clad in a close-fitting, low-cut dress and three-inch patent leather heels. She informs the managing editor’s secretary, Miss Taylor (MacMahon), that she’d had a lot of experience in Chicago. Miss Taylor gives her the up-down and remarks, “Yeah, you look it.”

Miss Taylor illustrates the job-winning attributes of the new reporter.

In that same scene, after Kitty’s departure, Miss Taylor shares with a young male co-worker that the previous reporter in the position was fired because she was flat-chested. She further offers, “Now they’re going to put this girl on because she’s –“ and she makes a gesture toward her own chest to indicate a voluptuous figure. “Oh, I like ‘em that way, too,” her pal says.

The paper’s owner asks his secretary to retrieve an early draft of the Voorhees article. When she brings it to him, he asks her for her thoughts. Her opinion? “I think the part about the illegitimate child isn’t made quite clear enough.”

The contest manager of the paper has the bright idea to increase circulation by holding a taxicab race throughout the city – and plans to rig it to ensure that “an Irishman, a Jew, and a Wop” win the contest.

There’s a reason why this film attracted lines around the block. Find out why.

And finally, there’s this exchange between Randall and Kitty Carmody, when the latter complains to her boss about her fellow reporter, Isopod:

Kitty: I rode uptown in a taxi with him and I haven’t any skin left on my knees.

Randall: What were you two doing, kneeling in prayer?

Kitty: He was doing the kneeling. I darn near went off the side of the cab.

Five Star Final serves up an unrelenting, scathing indictment on the news media, which is just as timely today as it was nearly 90 years ago when the film was released. Do yourself a favor and check this one out, May 28th on TCM.

You only owe it to yourself.

~ by shadowsandsatin on May 27, 2020.

4 Responses to “TCM Pick of the Month: Pre-Code”

  1. Outstanding.

  2. The shame and lack of empathy seeps from the screen. Like that benighted editor, we need to wash our hands.

  3. It looks interesting too bad we can’t afford TCM anymore. Infinity combined it with a nothing sports channel and are charging ten bucks a month. I don’t understand. It is people my age that really like TCM and most of us can’t afford it.

  4. Edward G Robinson is an amazing actor as far as I know always played the villan? Do you know if he played a hero in anything?

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