Five Star Final Is On The Streets
Five Star Final is recently out from Warner Archives and well worth getting. This 1931 precode was an attack on dingy tabloids of the day and pulls not its punches. Viewers forget how hard-hitting these WB compacts could be ... sheer number of them make us take for granted the whole lot. Ace In The Hole gets credit for things Five Star Final did earlier and with barer knuckles. I wondered how much advertising Warner theatres bought in the sort of papers they attack here. Were important business relationships jeopardized for calling out publishing muckrakers? Five Star Final is really more a case of muckraking the muckrakers, narrow being the gulf between Warners and institutions they targeted (contract players doubtless saw themselves as barely better off than Paul Muni's Fugitive On A Chain Gang). Topical themes were ideally suited to the early 30's when movies flew in and out of town like newsreels. Relevant today ... gone for good tomorrow. If Five Star Final creators could come back and see us mulling their handiwork in 2010, I doubt they'd believe it. Were tabloid abuses so rife as indicated here? The topic seems ripe for further exploration, based on wild and wooly exploits of Edward G. Robinson's Five Star staff. I'd guess such a tough and unschooled breed of reporters are long gone too, their having learned to spell and write, as Clark Gable puts it in Teacher's Pet, one lousy letter at a time. Were drunks and hopheads without even high school diplomas really able to bang out copy with alacrity suggested here?
Directors at WB remind me of speed typists at a precode city desk ... seventy minutes an hour and don't spare the tempo. I guess their modern equivalent is television, only 1931 oarsmen got twenty hours out of workdays before unions made softies of crew folk. Think how much more we'd accomplish relieved of food and sleep as Warner employees were. Five Star Final production stills shown here reveal a lot. With luxury of time he didn't have, director Mervyn Le Roy still manages tricks of a sort that needed planning and no small creativity. He was a starter-out then and needed rest less than advancement up ranks, so how else to let them know you're here than barreling through a programmer with ultra-sped pace, split-screen gymnastics, and hard-hitter speeches to make curtains billow? Given continued momentum like this through the thirties, LeRoy would be secure aboard critical pantheons, but sure as most careerists ease off with age and prosperity, so too would he with less demanding pageantry of MGM specials once success enabled moving over there.
I know these set and crew stills were as staged as drama they were filming, but note how dark the joint seems. I particularly like ones where everybody's "relaxing" between takes, as accounts confirm there were few moments of that. Being photographed during breaks was nothing more than continuation of the work. These "candid" captures had to be set up carefully as scene stills and both consumed players' time well beyond shooting of features. I've read how studios obliged stars to haul columnists and interviewers along to lunch as well. Time was seldom wasted on privacy. Folks often tripped on cables because employers wouldn't burn lights not needed ... when they did switch on, it was to roast soundstages with actors basting like turkey. For that nova shining down on Edward G. Robinson (above), I wonder what sort of vision problems he experienced then or later in sacrifice to his art. Many times a precode dweller removes his/her jacket, you know he/she's going to be (visibly) drenched underneath. Few shirts remain dry through an entire scene. Toward causes of realism they're to be admired, even when it undercuts glamour a bit. Five Star Final and others off Warner assemblies convey more a feel of real working people as opposed to performers, so drama plays more believably, at least to the extent of daily struggles chasing a buck. There's no period in movies more effective than the early 30's for plugging us into hard times depicted.
Edward G. Robinson's screen character was the ideal do-what-he's-gotta-do hustler of precode cesspools. Actor enough to find depth even in six shallow reels (though Five Star Final differs for being longer, at 89 minutes, than most WB fillers), Robinson tired (maybe too soon) of playing what he was best at. The type-casting was his fault really for being so effective as survivor of undertows his public faced daily. Some describe him as frog-faced and such even less flattering, but still there was something about that visage people liked regarding. As with the senior Chaney, Robinson leads seldom had lives save work he was invariably good at (editor, gang leader, shark hunter, meat packer), but given our interest was greater in an action sphere, he was welcome always on marquees, and no actor was so dynamic once time came to square account with opponents. Neither had Eddie equal for putting across moral outrage even as he wrecks innocent lives in Five Star Final. Robinson conveys quiet intelligence no matter shouting that expresses it. He's one of those for whom you'll watch an indifferent picture just for his toplining it (I recently did ... Illegal). A bonus and one that alone endorses Five Star Final is combination of Robinson with immediate pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff, the latter scaling heights that should have pegged him for top character work from there on. Glad as I am he'd do a career largely of famous monsters, still there's wondering how Karloff might have prospered at rich supporting (and maybe leading) parts had horror ones not devoured him. At the least, I'd have predicted eventual Academy recognition, something BK had no chance attaining so long as he was identified with chiller pics.