Just like the tabloids of today, every now and then some old scandalous case is slapped across the front page just to sell copies. That’s how the Gazette operates here in Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final. With the competitive circulation dropping, publisher Hinchcliffe (Oscar Apfel) pushes the editor, Randal (Edward G. Robinson) to run a more sensational story. Randal decides to dig up a twenty year old murder case, where the actions of the murderess, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), were found justifiable. Since then she has been living a quiet life of anonymity, with her daughter, Jenny (Marian Marsh) who knows nothing of the murder or the true identity of her father.
The Townsend family (Nancy’s new last name that helped her hide twenty years ago) is about to have a joyous celebration. Tomorrow is Jenny’s wedding to Phillip (Anthony Bushell), a sweet upper-class boy. This is everything Nancy could have dreamed for her daughter, born just after her trials.
When Randal sends one of his reporters, Isopod (Boris Karloff) to get some dirt straight from Nancy’s mouth, Isopod disguises himself as a minister in hopes of seeming more trustworthy. Just after Nancy welcomes an appointment with the phony minister (trusting he has some ties to Jenny’s wedding), she reads in the Gazette that her story will be featured again. Desperate to save her daughter’s wedding, she confides in Isopod, asking if he could try to reason with the newspaper not to run the story. It’s only too late when she realizes she’s trusted the wrong person with her secret. Printed on schedule, her name is smeared through the mud again, along with Jenny’s, resulting in heartbreaking tragedy.
It’s established early that this isn’t a newspaper that plays fair. When they get a whiff that one news stand isn’t putting the Gazette on top, they vandalize the old man’s stand. It’s a dirty trick that lets us sever any allegiance we could have had with the paper
One interesting detail I found in Five Star Final, is the role of alcohol. Set in the era of prohibition, speakeasies seem to be the main hangout for the Gazette’s employees, from reporters to secretaries. Booze seems to be the lubrication that helps them regularly run these stories that end up ruining lives. Showing only our villains touching the outlawed liquor reinforces the negative image of alcohol that helps the law.
Five Star Final is a good film that gets us interested in this seedy world within the Gazette right away and then pulls our heart with Nancy’s story. It has a smart split-screen phone conversation scene that I’m sure was quite the technical achievement in it’s day. Problem is, the ending climax is gone in a flash, watch it and you’ll see that you don’t even have time to gasp before it’s snuffed. Then things turn to preachy speeches before giving us one last great moment. Even with this one Achilles heel, the film is still worth a watch for any classic film buff, and available on YouTube.
“They don’t throw you out of speakeasies… they carry you out!”