In the last decade of his career, John Ford produced and directed this ode to crony politics, with Spencer Tracy as an old-fashioned mayor who uses underhanded ploys to do right by his constituents. Tracy is backed by a veritable army of supporting actors, neatly orchestrated in Frank Nugent’s screenplay. We’re talking scores of John Ford stock company players; it’s like old home week, with Ford in firm control.
The Last Hurrah
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date September 18, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Basil Rathbone, Pat O’Brien, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Edward Brophy, John Carradine, Willis Bouchey, Basil Ruysdael, Ricardo Cortez, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh, Carleton Young, Frank Albertson, Anna Lee, Ken Curtis, Jane Darwell, O.Z. Whitehead, Charles B. Fitzsimons, Arthur Walsh, Bob Sweeney, William Leslie, Danny Borzage, Richard Deacon, James Flavin, William Hudson, Roy Jenson, Harry Lauter, Mae Marsh, Tom Neal, Jack Pennick, Clete Roberts, Charles Trowbridge, Helen Westcott.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Film Editor: Jack Murray
Written by Frank S. Nugent from the book by Edwin O’Connor
Produced and Directed by John Ford
John Ford’s late-career filmography yields a number of personal favorites; I’m partial to the jokey Donovan’s Reef and can’t believe that his intense 7 Women hasn’t been on home video since the laserdisc years. Slipping back a bit, one must reach for auteurist arguments to make a case for a show like Gideon of Scotland Yard. Somewhere in the middle is 1958’s The Last Hurrah, a best-seller adaptation that Ford produced at Columbia. It doesn’t have the vitality it ought to, but the things that work well in it seem to spring directly from Ford’s personality — nobody can say that he wasn’t in control of all aspects.
We’re told that Spencer Tracy was not the first star approached for The Last Hurrah. Tracy had health problems and sometimes caused difficulties with his star demands. After signing for Robert Wise’s Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), he balked at filming on location and was quickly replaced with James Cagney. The Last Hurrah kept Tracy comfortable on Hollywood sound stages and at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank. He and John Ford had worked together only once, long before in the prison picture Up the River (1930). Tracy carries the show well, clearly energized by his demanding director. Is it an inside reference, when Tracy’s politician character refers reverently to his late wife as ‘Kate?’
Screenwriter Frank S. Nugent softens and broadens the less sentimental book by Edwin O’Connor. The mayor of ‘a New England City’ Frank Skeffington (Tracy) is a traditionalist — he maintains an open door policy with his constituents, who come by the dozens each day to ask favors. Skeffington decides to run for election once more, fully aware that changing politics may have made him obsolete. A full office of advisors, cronies and ward heelers help him pursue votes. Frank invites his nephew, sportswriter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) to observe the campaign. He throws a full Irish wake to help a penniless widow (Anna Lee), but Caulfield notices that the main reason is to promote his candidacy. The mayor’s opposition is a Protestant gang led by old-money millionaire Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone) and the mean-spirited newspaper publisher Amos Force (John Carradine), who hate the Irish and have a personal grudge against Skeffington’s ‘corrupt’ reign. Frank’s methods don’t have the full approval of the Cardinal (Donald Crisp) either — he blackmails the Cass banking interests into supporting his social programs. But Adam Caulfield notes that his uncle’s old-school political maneuvers aren’t to line his pockets, but to do good for the community.
Perhaps the definition of an Old Auteur’s Movie, The Last Hurrah gives John Ford ample room to promote his highly sentimental look at crony politics. The traditional system, in which the mayor and his appointees controlled all city jobs and funding had been notorious in years past for graft, corruption and election fraud. With Tracy in the part, the paternalistic Frank Skeffington comes off as a benign, lovable rogue. To make the political alternative to Skeffington seem unacceptable, Ford changes several main points of the source novel.
Talk about a curmudgeon — Ford definitely has it in for a younger generation that he characterizes as total fools. O’Connor’s observer Adam Caulfield is the one exception, because he accepts Skeffington’s wisdom almost without question. Ford changes Caulfield from a cartoonist to a sober sportswriter, complete with pipe; it’s not at all a good look for Jeffrey Hunter. The other three young men are presented as clowns to be ridiculed. The Cass syndicate’s young candidate McKluskey is not the idealistic veteran of the novel, but a rank idiot. He’s played by Maureen O’Hara’s brother Charles B. Fitzsimons, who would later produce Sam Peckinpah’s first feature film The Deadly Companions. Skeffington quietly indulges his only son Frank Jr. (Arthur Walsh), a flea-brained girl-chaser. For his nastiest political trick, Frank humiliates his arch-enemy Norman Cass by nominating Cass’s even more brainless, useless son Norman Jr. (O.Z. Whitehead) to the job of Fire Commissioner. Ford must have hated young people; hardly anybody in this film under age fifty possesses a functioning brain.
But the film has no shortage of sentimentality. Ford’s enormous stock company has deep roots and the scores of small roles in this picture allow him to hire practically every older character actor still standing. The picture may not have expensive sets or production values, but the cast list is a mile long. At least thirty actors have significant dialogue. Only Joseph McBride could tell us how many were related in some way to John Ford. There are so many name actors on screen, often eight or more at a time, that the casting call must have been like the last scene in On the Waterfront, where the dockworkers’ foreman opens the big doors and shouts, “Everybody works today!”
Jeffrey Hunter is dutiful but uninspiring as the faithful nephew. Pat O’Brien, James Gleason, Carleton Young and a welcome Ricardo Cortez are Skeffington’s closest cronies. Born Jewish in New York, the great Cortez altered his image to become a Latin lover type, so it’s nice to see him allowed to play something closer to his actual roots. Other politicos, publicists, newspapermen and city official characters get short shrift; familiar faces Willis Bouchey, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh and Frank Albertson appear in bright little vignette scenes, but are ultimately lost in the shuffle.
The real standout, and a good example of Ford sentimentality well played is the old favorite Edward Brophy’s ‘Ditto’ character. With his broad smile and enormous eyes, Brophy makes an adorable good-luck sidekick. Ford must have liked Brophy, as he grants the old comic actor a signature moment in the film’s last shot, not unlike that given Lee Marvin at the close of Donovan’s Reef. With its veritable mob of scene-stealing vintage character actors, The Last Hurrah bears comparison to, and is superior to, Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. I think Ford’s longtime assistant director Wingate Smith arranges Hurrah’s Screen Actors’ Guild mob better — no individual ham is allowed to upstage his fellows.
Ford’s women haven’t progressed since the silent days. Columbia contractee Dianne Foster (The Brothers Rico) has second billing but fewer than a couple of minutes’ screen time, barely long enough to be introduced. Ford stellar fixture Anna Lee plays an unimaginatively conceived ‘worthy Irish widow.’ The great Jane Darwell is once again tasked to become a human jack o’ lantern, cackling away at a wake.
Ford’s messy, sarcastic view of politics is just as broad as that seen in his The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For crowd scenes we’re given one curiously lifeless parade, followed by an impressively realistic scene where the Skeffington faction waits for the election returns to come in. Carradine and Rathbone are cardboard figures against whom Skeffington seems another Abraham Lincoln. Frank’s grace in adversity is so pronounced, that when he says he’ll run for governor (apparently an unrealistic goal) we don’t think him a deluded fool.
Had Nugent and Ford found a way to end the show sooner The Last Hurrah would have made a pleasing exit. Nope, the story dawdles on a full two reels while various characters again tell us how wonderful was that great politician Frank Skeffington. The Last Hurrah’s Frank joins The Long Gray Line’s Marty Maher and Wings of Eagles’s Spig Wead as Ford’s idea of ‘the kind of great man America doesn’t make anymore.’ Ford alternates scenes that revealing their considerable flaws, with sentimental scenes that insist that they’re unsung heroes.
Ford had nothing but praise for the younger generation of military men, but he has nothing but contempt for Frank Skeffington’s younger political rival, a grinning ignoramus. The show’s most exaggerated scene is devoted to McCluskey’s use of TV to reach 1958’s voting public. Even though McCluskey and his wife are laughably terrible and phony on screen, the gambit works. The ad reaches many more people than Skeffington can with his rallys and personal appearances. Was the scene inspired by Richard Nixon’s checkers speech, or were pitifully inept political TV appearances a common occurrence? The incompetent McKluskey TV ad doesn’t convince in movie terms, especially after the highly sophisticated analysis of American media politics seen in the previous year’s A Face in the Crowd.
An old dog unable to learn new tricks, Skeffington just doesn’t believe in TV, so dooms himself to the graveyard of old politicians. Viewers likely thought that the lovable, camera-friendly Spencer Tracy could have won any office in the land hands down. We forget that, long before the word ‘telegenic,’ hugely popular old-style politicians from the ’20s and ’30s sometimes came across in old newsreels as total stiffs, or awkward party animals.
In the end The Last Hurrah is a reasonable Spencer Tracy movie and a testimonial to John Ford’s utter control over a movie set. Even when thirty faces are jammed into the screen, the focus is always exactly where Ford wants it to be. Heaven help the sorry actor who tried to enhance his part!
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Last Hurrah is a pristine encoding of this studio-shot John Ford offering. It’s just as modest as his Republic production The Sun Shines Bright, filmed with mostly flat lighting on standing sets. The Columbia Ranch back lot is used for the film’s rather generic parade, and the green areas with the pine trees remind us that the same two blocks of green lawns served as Washington D.C. exteriors for Columbia’s equally frugal Earth versus the Flying Saucers. That California sun beats down really hard in Massachusetts.
The IMDB identifies the film’s well-integrated soundtrack as studio library music from a host of composers. The skill employed by the music editor can be heard in TT’s isolated music track. Twilight Time gives us an audio commentary by the house team of Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs. There’s plenty of John Ford factoids to discuss, not to mention the opportunities to make cinematic connections between the director and his battalion of actors. There’s a genuine ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ game to be made here: hey, Ricardo Cortez worked with John Ford once before as well, in 1932’s Flesh. Who in the cast worked with Ford the most? Anna Lee, perhaps?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Last Hurrah
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Audio commentary with Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 7, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson