Newspapers and reporters were a very popular trope in early talking pictures. And no wonder — not only did the stories usually involve the same sex, crime and scandals that real newspapers (and their readers) thrived on, but many early film writers started out as journalists.
One of the top examples of the genre, of course, was His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Five Star Final, made nine years earlier, is just as cynical but is less forgiving of its reporters and more stark about the consequences of their actions.
This pre-code film, starring Edward G. Robinson as a newspaper editor who goes against his own ethics in order to raise his paper’s circulation, is based on the play of the same name written by Louis Weitzenkorn, a former newspaperman. Asked by his publisher to put more scandals in the paper, editor Joseph Randall unearths a 20-year-old murder case where a woman named Nancy Vorhees shot her unfaithful husband and was acquitted, although it was widely admitted she did it, partially because she was pregnant at the time.
He assigns an unscrupulous reporter to pretend to be a clergyman; the reporter visits the family and finds out that the woman is now happily remarried, and her 20-year-old daughter Jenny (who knows nothing of her mother’s past) is about to be married to the son of a well-off factory owner.
Nancy Vorhees (now Taylor) and her husband realize that the “clergyman” was a fake, and desperately try to get the story quashed, terrified that their daughter’s impending marriage will be stopped by her fiance’s snobbish parents.
The end (highlight following paragraph to view)
Nancy Vorhees tries repeatedly to call the publisher of the newspaper to stop the story; she finally talks to Randall, who has his secretary hang up on her. She calls again, and he tells her that nothing will stop the story. Distraught, Nancy commits suicide by taking poison; when her husband comes home and finds her body in the bathroom, he prevents his daughter and her fiance from finding out and then, when they leave, takes the poison as well. When the suicide is discovered and sensationalized in the papers, the fiance’s parents order him to desert Jenny, but he refuses, and when Jenny finds a gun and takes it to the newspaper office, intending to kill the editor and publisher, he stops her. Disgusted by his own actions, Randall quits the newspaper, followed by his secretary.
How it’s pre-code
Only in the cynicism and frank talk of its reporters and editors about the sex and scandals that they are covering.
T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)
None to speak of. There is some frank language about the various populations that the readership is made up of; one reporter discusses a contest for the best cabbie in which the pre-arranged winners will be “an Irishman, a Jew and a Wop.” And Randall talks about how the readership up in Harlem diminished “when we stopped printing Jack Johnson’s love confessions.”
While the storyline here is pretty predictable, and the dialogue sometimes cliche’d, this one is worth watching just for the performances of the actors. Edward G. Robinson is wonderful as the cynical but conflicted editor, and Aline McMahon shines as the secretary who tries to bring him back to his better self. Boris Karloff is a bit over the top as a sleazy reporter, but Francis Starr as the tortured Nancy Vorhees is very fine, and Marian Marsh as Jenny is impressive in the scene where she confronts the newspapermen.
This isn’t something that is easy to find, but if you do come across it, Five Star Final is worth checking out. (Apparently, it was remade in 1936 as Two Against the World with Humphrey Bogart in the Edward G. Robinson role, but set in a radio station rather than a newspaper.)