In 1911, a pregnant secretary named Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr) shot and killed her boss and lover. It was quite a scandal at the time but, twenty years later, it has largely been forgotten. Nancy has married a successful businessman named Michael Townsend (H.B. Warner) and is a respected member of society. Her daughter, Jenny (Marian Marsh), has no idea about Nancy’s past and believes Michael to be her father. Jenny is now engaged to marry the handsome and rich Phillip Weeks (Anthony Bushnell).
Everything seems to be perfect but you know what they say about perfection.
Bernard Hincliffe (Oscar Apfel) is the publisher of a struggling tabloid newspaper. He is frustrated by city editor Joseph Randall (Edward G. Robinson) and Randall’s refusal to do whatever it takes to boost circulation. “Why, he won’t even print pictures of women in their underwear!” one of Hincliffe’s assistants exclaims. Finally, Hincliffe orders Randall to publish a series of articles that will take a retrospective look at both the scandal and what has happened to those involved in the years since. At first, the cynical Randall refuses but eventually, he gives in.
He assigns two reporters to crack the story. One of them, Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson) is first introduced showing off her legs and bragging about how there’s no way that she won’t be hired to work at the newspaper. (By the way, if anyone ever remakes Five Star Final and needs someone to play Kitty, I am ready and available.) The other is the incredibly creepy T. Vernon Isopod (Boris Karloff). Isopod was a divinity student until he was arrested on a “morals charge.” Now, he pretends to be a minister as a way to fool people into revealing their deepest secrets to him. Kitty and Isopod dig into the life of Nancy and Michael. The stories appear on the front page. Suicide and melodrama follow and Randall is forced to finally take a stand.
Released in 1931, Five Star Final was nominated for best picture but lost to Grand Hotel. Seen today, Five Star Final is undeniably stagey (it was based on a play) but it’s still a compulsively watchable melodrama, featuring good performances and a lot of memorably snappy 30s dialogue. Five Star Final is one of several films about journalism to have been nominated for best picture. Most of these films — like All The Presidents Men, The Front Page, and this year’s front-runner, Spotlight — have featured journalists as heroic seekers of the truth. Five Star Final, on the other hand, plays more like a pre-Code version of Network set at a newspaper. It’s a deeply angry film and, when Randall finally tells off Hincliffe, it feels like the 30s equivalent of Peter Finch shouting that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Finally, the best part of the film, for me, was Boris Karloff as the sleazy Isopod. Karloff made Five Star Final right before he played the creature in Frankenstein and it’s interesting to see him play a totally different type of monster here. If I had to choose which character is scarier, I’m going with T. Vernon Isopod.