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Monday, August 16, 2010

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.


Blogger la peregrina said...

There's no period in movies more effective than the early 30's for
plugging us into hard times depicted.

I think you explained to me in that sentence just why I love these early Warner Brothers movies . There is a also an energy to them that makes them fascinating to watch. If I was forced to watch movies from only one decade I would pick the thirties. Five Star Final is one of the reasons why.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

gotta get to the theatre early so I can see Come Clean!.. ;o)
I didn't know MGM shorts ran with Warner features...

4:05 PM  
Blogger Chellis610 said...

I discovered this Pre-Code gem on TCM and already own the Warner Archive DVD! It's amazing its is not as celebrated as other films of the period. The performances are on target (who was Frances Starr who played Nancy Townsend, and why didn't she become a bigger name?), and still packs a powerful message today.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I saw this at a National Gallery of Art screening in D.C. (for free!) a few years ago, and was just blown away. That said, I hesitate to pick up the DVD as I know it's just not going to compare with seeing it thrust on the big screen with a like-minded crowd.

@Christopher: while block-booking was the norm, any theater willing to meet the price could get any studio's shorts, cartoons, etc.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Edward G. Robinson's performance in Five Star Final is included by John DiLeo in his 100 Great Film Performances You Should Remember -- But Probably Don't. One swell book, with a lot of excellent little-known choices like Robinson.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

I often think of the heat on the sets of those '30's production stages when I watch a film set in a cold climate and everyone is wearing a heavy coat (a good example is The Thin Man). It must have been stiffling.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, I just watched the trailer for this film a couple of days ago. (It's included with the "Warners Night at the Movies" extras on the "Little Caesar" DVD.) Always a bit dicey making a decision to view based on a trailer ... but this one definitely left me wanting to see the picture. (Karloff has a brief couple of seconds in the trailer -- uncredited, of course.)


1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incidentally, from 1937 through 1942 Robinson starred, with Claire Trevor, in a weekly radio drama called "Big Town". He plays the crusading editor of a leading newspaper, with Trevor as his star reporter. Not exactly a rehash of "Five Star Final", but he must have been glad to do something that wasn't a straightforward gangster. You can hear one of the episodes here (the others are from the 1948 revival starring Edward Pawley):


4:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon e-mails about on-set conditions ... Part One ...


Great! That's about as condensed a review as I can give you.

I like the way you point out how hard people worked in those days. Those hours are doubtless dead accurate. And they also worked six-day weeks! Sunday off, then back into the meat grinder bright-and-early Monday. "I Walked Like a Zombie"! The unions were a godsend, and an older pal of mine told me that it was not until 1958 that they finally got the producers to give them Saturday off as well as Sunday.

I love those behind-the-scenes photos, even if they were staged, and you're probably right that they were. However, they obviously record the actual set, the actual equipment, etc. The impressive D.P. Sol Polito is visible in a couple of them, along with LeRoy. It's interesting that for all the power of those lights, it's nothin' compared to what happened when Technicolor came in! Then, they moved in the broad arcs! Jesus, it must have been brutal. In fact, they called some of those lights 'brutes'. I was fascinated when I first got into my trade and saw some of the lighting equipment on sets at Universal, and then later WB. It looked exactly like the paraphernalia you see in the older on-set production photos, and you know what? It probably was! The heat generated by set lighting on a typical '70s TV show being shot at Universal (and I worked on ones like "Quincy" and "Kojak") was considerable. Many actors would start to 'bloom', as makeup artists called it, as soon as they hit the other side of those lights. You were kept busy policing them and blotting them with tissue or dousing them with powder. In the '30s, you know, they still used greasepaint, the real deal. Heavy, opaque, and very water resistant, and a good thing, too, with actors and actresses alike no doubt sweating buckets. The wonder is that you never see it in the films! Never! I also often wonder how mere spirit gum, which was a very tenacious glue when first employed but would rapidly break down and 'crystalize' as the hours dragged on, causing mustaches to start flapping and wig blenders to lift, still managed to get the job done for decades, being used well up into the '60s on films like the "Planet of the Apes" series, etc. Eventually the innovations begun by Dick Smith began to introduce viable improvements upon the venerable spirit gum and today it plays a much, much reduced role in adhering things to actors. Most of them are glad about that, too! Very few actually "liked" the alcohol solvent, the strong smell of the resins, etc. I did, but I didn't have to wear the miserable stuff! I once had an interview with Roddy McDowall involved, for a projected character makeup he needed to wear, and he had one condition only: please, no spirit gum! He said his years of being 'Cornelius' had made him permanently allergic to it.

4:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

More from Craig Reardon about Hollywood make-up, cameras, and Boris Karloff! ...

A company named Mole-Richardson manufactured stuff for all the studios, and they were still in business up to a few years ago, I believe. I'm not an authority, but I've seen that 'MR' logo on equipment for 30 years, together with their signature muted plum paint job. At Universal, there was still a fully-stocked 'camera department' when I was there at first in 1977, all of them Mitchells, still seeing daily service photographing TV shows. Features were of course wild cards, but some used the Mitchells, while others used the newer, sexier Panavision Panaflex cameras. But...Universal in time sold all this stuff off. (To say nothing of Moviolas I used to hear loudly clattering away editing TV fare, in what had formerly been the makeup department near the front of the lot. And I heard stories from people who started in movie effects about the same time I started in makeup that their beloved optical printers wound up pushed to the curb, too. The digital revolution transformed everything about 'post' production.) You know, I believe the largest incandescent lighting fixture on a set was called a 10K, and that's for what you think it is: ten thousand watts of power! For one light!! No wonder these movie lots had their own power generating plants on the lot. In fact, when I worked on the first season of "Deep Space Nine", we were literally a corridor away from the humming generators Paramount had had in continuous use since who-knows-when, sending out juice to the entire lot. Who knew from EMFs? And the second Warners makeup department (a rather pathetic affair! I'm told it had formerly been the photo studio and darkroom for making publicity photos and portraits) was only one wall away from huge power towers and generators! Hope I don't have a growing brain tumor from working in there for many consecutive weeks on this or that project! (The original makeup department is still on the lot, or rather the building is, but its for production offices now; it's directly across the thoroughfare from the second one. I say the second one as if it's still there, but it isn't. It was razed years back to expand and modernize the electric generating equipment.)

I love Edward G. Robinson, and as for Boris, well, forget about it! I've been in love with him for 47 years, ever since I first saw a copy of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" (well, not the first time---! But the first time I ever bought one!----in 1962.) I agree that he could and should have had more varied roles, and could have done as well as any great number of British imports who flourished in such roles in those decades. But, as you say----the public had taken him to their bosom as their favorite bogey-man, and that was that. It's funny, I was watching the incredibly tedious "A & C Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" the other night when my wife and daughter got back from an errand. Interrupted in the midst of a guilty pleasure! They watched, but my wife just couldn't stay the course! My daughter hung in there, though, and she actually asked me that question, John: "Did Boris Karloff only play monsters?" And I had to reply, "Well, yes, he actually did, honey, with very, very few exceptions. He was really typed for life in that kind of part." Yet, he beats the pants off Anthony Hopkins' narration of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (the beloved cartoon 'special' vs. the be-hated Jim Carrey movie), and there's no doubt he was good at comedy in the very few chances he got. He also apparently got great notices for his work on the Broadway stage in "The Lark" and a play called "The Linden Tree"----as well as his Captain Hook (oops, VILLAINY again) in "Peter Pan"; but, we'll never know about those, now!


4:12 PM  

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