Thursday, December 2, 2010

Five Star Final (1931)

The newspaper business took a beating on stage and screen during the late 1920s and early '30s in plays and films like Ink, Man Bites Dog, Front Page Woman, Chicago (remade in 1942 as Roxie Hart), and most famously The Front Page. The height of the press' infamy was epitomized by the ghastly snapshot of murderess Ruth Snyder dying in the Sing Sing electric chair on January 12, 1928. Working for The New York Daily News, reporter Tom Howard strapped a cheap camera to his leg. Just before the juice hit Snyder, Howard bent forward, pulled his pant leg up and clicked the pic of the husband-murdering 33-year old sighing "Goodbye, cruel world." James Cagney's Danny Kean pulls the same stunt in Picture Snatcher (1933).

One of the angriest of the yellow-journalism productions was Louis Weitzenkorn's play Five Star Final. Time reviewed its opening on Broadway like this, in an unsigned piece dated January 12, 1931—interestingly, three years to the day after Ruth Snyder's execution: "Five Star Final is this season's newspaper play. But, unlike its more cynical predecessors, it is an earnest paean of hate directed against tabloid journalism. The play has undeniable vitality and provides a good deal of technical information on the inner workings of a gum-chewer sheetlet."

The play and film should be technically accurate. Author Weitzenkorn was at one time editor of the New York Evening Graphic (nicknamed by more responsible journalists the Porno Graphic). The Graphic was the most sensational of all the tabloids during its brief existence between 1924 and 1932. It went out of business because an editor tried to clean up its image and New Yorkers quit buying it. Weitzenkorn began his career as a reporter for the New York Times in 1919. He died in 1943 when he managed to set himself on fire while making a pot of coffee—a tab story if there ever was one.

Five Star Final was adapted for the screen by Robert Lord and written by Byron Morgan. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, it was nominated as Best Picture of 1931 (losing to Grand Hotel).

In the movie, the Evening Graphic has become the Evening Gazette. The picture opens as a pair of goons on the paper's staff trash news kiosk because the owner refuses to put the Gazette on the top of the newspaper stack. These guys are not aiming to help win a Pulitzer. In the Gazette offices, the paper's owner Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel, who appeared in 163 films from 1929 to his death in 1938) complains about Editor-in-chief Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson) printing cables from the League of Nations instead of featuring photos of girls in their underwear. "We're losing the bubble gum trade," Hinchecliffe snaps, and Randal responds by calling his publisher the "Sultan of Slop." The argument is ongoing and seemingly without end.

"There's some guys who furnish the manure and some guys that grow the flowers."

Soon a reporter-hopeful comes to Randall. She's Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson, Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind), a sexy little trick from out of town. "He knows I've had a lot of experience in Chicago," she boasts to Randall's secretary. Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon ) glares back "Yeah, you look it."

The next time editorial meets to plot out where they want the paper to go in the days ahead, the subject of a recent love nest murder comes up, which reminds someone of the 20-year old Nancy Voorhees case, in which a cute young stenographer fell in love with her boss and ended up pregnant. When he refused to marry her, she killed him. Randall agrees to run a serial rehash of the case as a cautionary tale. If a girl gets into trouble, it's decided, the paper should interview her mother. If the mother had told daughter the facts of life, this will be a warning to daughters. If she hadn't, it's a warning to mothers. Either way, the paper has performed a good deed for society.

Randall wants to introduce every installment of the story with a few paragraphs from a clergyman, so he calls on the Rev. T. Vernon Isopod, and this is where Boris Karloff enters the picture.

Isopod is one of Karloff's most unusual characters. He now works for the paper but was once a divinity student who got kicked out the seminary for sexual misconduct similar to that of Nancy Voorhees' old boss. He wears a black suit and hides behind empty eyes. "You're the most blasphemous looking thing I've ever seen," Randall tells him. "It's a miracle you're not struck dead." He's oily and unctuous, as sincere as a cut-rate mortician, but can hardly keep his eyes off of Kitty Carmody's legs. (Later, the two of them will share a ride and Kitty tells Randall, "I rode in a taxi with him and I darn near don't have any skin on my knees." Randall asks sarcastically if the two were praying together.)

Passing himself off as a real minister, Isopod talks his way into the apartment of Nancy Voorhees, who is now Nancy Townsend (Frances Starr). When he enters the flat, his eyes dart around as if he's trying to memorize every detail. He's not sure why Nancy and her husband Michael (H.B. Warner, who played Jesus in the silent King of Kings) agreed to see him, but soon figures out that they think he's connected to the wedding of their daughter Jenny (Marian Marsh, Trilby in Svengali) to the socially elite Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushell, Ralph Morlant in The Ghoul) the next day.

Isopod solicits information from the Townsends they would never willingly give a reporter, and even makes off with a photo of Jenny. As soon as he leaves, the parents realize what they've done. They know that if Nancy's past is publically dredged up, it will ruin Jenny's chances for marriage and happiness. No one, not even Jenny, knows Nancy's story.

When Isopod returns to the office drunk, his eyes are heavy and deader than ever. His lisp is slurred. "This murderess," he manages to get out, "is marrying her daughter to an innocent boy. I was shocked!"

Pleading on behalf of the two newly-weds-to-be is of no avail and Nancy and Michael can't face the future. Isopod, who is corrupt to his core, comes up with the idea that the Gazette can pay Jenny for permission to turn her mother's tragedy into a faked "My Story by Nancy Voorhees" 1st person narrative.

The film's final shot is of a copy of the paper, bemucked in a gutter.

Karloff is in the opening credits as the eighth lead, but his significance to the plot and general atmosphere of newspaper hypocrisy and sleaze is invaluable. His patented gauntness and Uriah Heepish servility—repeated 15 years later as Master George Sims in Bedlam—add a touch of genuine creepiness to an essentially realistic story. You come away from the film not only despising the paper for what it's done to the Townsends, but for hiring people like Isopod to make certain it gets done. This is one of, incredibly enough, 16 movies Karloff made in 1931, including a 12-part serial, a Wheeler and Woolsey farce, and that little monster flick over at Universal. And to think that some folks don't even watch 16 films in a year.

"My wife has good taste," Karloff once told the press. "She has seen very few of my movies." Hopefully, Five Star Final is one of the exceptions.