Five Star Final, 1931. 6/10

Great premise and some big stars for this tabloid journalism drama. Edward G. Robinson is gutter-level editor Joseph Randall. In an effort to boost sales, his paper digs up an unresolved, decades-old murder case, implicating Nancy Townsend (Frances Starr), and affecting her family, husband Michael, daughter Jenny, and Jenny’s fiancee Phillip Weeks (H.B. Warner, Marian Marsh, and Anthony Bushnell).

Crack (cracked?) reporters on the story are Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson) and the wackily-named T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff). The paper’s owned by Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel); R.T. Brannegan and Robert French (Robert Elliot and Parnell Pratt) are advertisers.

The tone’s set right off with a mob-like intimidation of a vendor who’s not sufficiently promoting the Gazette. At a meeting with the advertisers and Randall, the bigwigs decide to dig up the unsolved Voorhies murder (involving Nancy Townsend/Voorhies). There’s nonstop rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, a good bit of it from Randall’s secretary, Miss Taylor (Aline MacMahon). Annoying editor Ziggy (George Stone) urges Randall to take the paper into murkier waters.

Hinchecliffe is now giving in to the low-brow consensus. “Yeah” says Randall, the Gazette’s been “too much like a newspaper.” Isopod has just been taken on (I didn’t think Karloff was ever this young). Apparently, Nancy had shot a lover who refused to marry her when she became pregnant by him. Anyway, the Gazette teams Isopod with Kitty. “I want to whoop this up!” is Randall’s final instruction. Why does everyone talk so fast?

At the Townsend’s, Michael gets a call from Isopod, who’s posing as a clergyman; ironically he’s presumed by the Townsend’s to be the officient for Phillip and Jenny’s wedding. Randall sums up Isopod’s appearance with “you’re the most blasphemous looking thing I’ve ever seen.” Back at the Townsend’s, Phillip is reading in the Gazette about the Voorhies case, the significance of which he’s completely unaware.

Later, Michael and Nancy talk about the issue, and, innocently, decide to bring it up with “Dr.” Isopod. He asks leading questions about Jenny. “The bride, ah, yes.” So, Nancy confides that she’s indeed Nancy Voorhies, not only that, they give up Phillip’s name. After Isopod leaves, they immediately realize their mistake. Back at Randall’s office, he goes over with Kitty how to follow-up. Miss Taylor figures that Nancy has “suffered enough.”

Back from a boozing time-out, Isopod fills in Randall about the “unsuspecting boy” about to marry into mysterious murderer’s family. Randall goes into overdrive with excitement, barking out orders. Now Ziggy calls out a raid on another uncooperative vendor. At this point, the mystery is when are Jenny and Phillip going to get clued in. Phillip’s parents come calling, regarding the breaking news: “my son is not going to marry the daughter of a murderer” says Mrs. Weeks.

Now, Michael has the rather desperate idea of talking to the real clergyman. Well, Nancy shows her naivety, thinking she can just talk to the paper, that is, to Hinchecliffe or Randall. Naturally, no one really wants to talk to her. Randall finally does, though. He tells her it’s too late, the paper’s already out. Michael comes home to find that something’s happened to Nancy.

Well? Is she dead? why keep her fate a secret? Phillip and Jenny come, go, and then Kitty shows up with a photographer. Kitty calls Randall, and, finally, we discover that both Nancy and Michael are dead, both apparent suicides. Phillip’s parents inform the shocked couple that the wedding’s off; but Phillip, insulted by their patronizing attitude, tells them off.

Then, we see Randall, greatly drunk, commiserating with the bartender. Miss Taylor shows up, Both Hinchecliffe and the cops want to see him. Next up at the Townsend’s is the undertaker–seems like everyone wants a piece of the action. Jenny finds a gun… Back at the Gazette, Randall has an about-face; he tells Hinchecliffe “those people committed suicide because we dug up that old story.”

Isopod has the condescending idea to basically white-wash the deal by paying off Jenny. Unfortunately for these guys, Jenny appears, and gives an accusatory speech to them; newly-reformed Randall admits that they’re all culpable. Phillip prevents her from killing anybody. Ok, I get it. The paper, thanks, in large part to Randall, permanently stigmatized a family, and as good as drove two people to suicide. That’s all implicit, more than that, obvious. A slight bit of remorse from Randall would be enough, as he’ll have to live with this the rest of his life. It’s over-the-top sanctimonious. That’s the script’s fault, not the actors’. Quite possibly, in the very dark world brought out here, Randall’s sense of fairplay was pasted-on like a band-aid.

The principles here give very good performances, especially Robinson, who’s at his cynical best. The melodramatic revelation of the suicides and Randall’s reaction was tedious and time-consuming. I’d much rather have found out more about the actual murder that ignited the media feeding-frenzy.

This is one movie that would benefit from some flashbacks. We don’t know anything about the circumstances of Nancy’s relationship with Jenny’s real father. For that matter, Nancy’s character seems so harmless, and one-dimensional, that’s it strains disbelief to accept that she could’ve ever killed anyone. As a consequence of ignoring the back story, and because Randall is the central character, Jenny never really deals with the fact of her origins, or her mom’s history.

Among the Gazette clan, only Miss Taylor is decent. It might have been more interesting to give her a larger role, so that she’s something of an influence on Randall. Instead, he spends the entire movie building a wall of wisecracks around her. Randall’s instant transformation wouldn’t awkwardly just happen if the change were more gradual, as it might slowly dawn on him that Miss Taylor is right.

The movie started off firing on all cylinders, but eventually got stuck. We’re sort of lingering around the Townsend’s bedroom just waiting. Strangely, for all the jibber-jabber at the Gazette office at the end, nothing really happens there either.

Farmermouse thought the speakeasy was pretty cool, so he gives this six newstands. 6/10

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