Teeming with oodles of Gaelic charm and imbued with its director’s inimitable wit and humanity, The Last Hurrah (1958) ranks among the finest – and woefully underrated masterworks – in John Ford’s illustrious oeuvre. The subject is only superficially political; that is to say, based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor – itself, a very transparent homage to Boston’s 4-term mayor, James Michael Curley. Yet, at its crux, The Last Hurrah is far more interested in telling the tale of a great man’s inevitable decline and defeat; Frank Skeffington, played with superior intelligence and uncharacteristic warmth by Spencer Tracy. Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay deconstructs this seemingly unrepentant political animal, driven by ego perhaps, though arguably, with his heart always in the right place as a benevolent pater to his loyal constituents and devout cronies alike. And although well-oiled, the machinery behind Skeffington’s reelection campaign is hardly predicated on the time-honored ‘win at all costs’ graft and ‘spin-doctored’ media manipulations that today seem to have entirely run off with even the notion of politics as a higher calling to serve one’s community; instead, supplanted by the greedy understanding it can become a vocation, expressly exploited to one’s own advantage.
Rich in spirit, Frank Skeffington is otherwise a relatively poor man; risen through the ranks on the ether of the oft popularized American dream. In ‘honest’ political terms, this means he is a vessel to his people. In one of the most understatedly eloquent moments in the film, Skeffington takes his nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) on a walking tour of the old neighborhood; a dingy tenement and tight back alley that was home, not only to Frank, but also Adam’s father-in-law; now, the embittered and highfaluting, Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey); also, his eminence, the Cardinal Martin Burke (stalwart, Donald Crisp) who, in more recent years, has distanced himself from Frank and his political ambitions. Like all great leaders, Frank Skeffington is buffeted by self-righteous and fame-seeking usurpers, newspaper editor, Amos Force (John Carradine) and banker, Norman Cass Sr. (Basil Rathbone); each anxious to tear down Skeffington’s mantle of quality. Both lack integrity, politicizing Skeffington’s own as an affront to the city’s future prosperity – or rather, their inability to dictate to it from the sidelines as a puppet regime. For that, these enemies turn to political virgin, Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons); an empty suit, reporting to be the new ‘everyman’, but with his head decidedly filled full of lies and dead air.
Ford pauses a moment here, just enough to pin his audience on their nostalgia for another time and a way of life that, like all having since passed before it, seems more richly satisfying and sweetly familiar. Thematically, Ford is drawing on a bottomless wellspring for inspiration. The Last Hurrah is a picture of such moments, loosely strung together to buoy the ‘re-election’ narrative. This is really the film’s backstory, not its primary focus. And Ford, a master storyteller, stealthily peels away the various layers of double-talk and hyperbole to slowly reveal the winning side. Alas, the winning side is not the one that wins the election; rather, he who graciously admits defeat, seemingly without dismay or a bitter heart. Herein, Spencer Tracy illustrates the gravity of a man’s life’s work in the political arena; the tenacity required to navigate through these proverbially shark-infested waters, manage the daily duties with a firm hand and clear-eyed view from on high, never talking down to those responsible for securing his office, but thoroughly unwilling to surrender even an inch to the backroom backstabbers who would deny him his place in the sun. Make no mistake; Frank Skeffington is a political animal, though undeniably the lesser of two evils facing voters at the polls.
In preparing his movie, John Ford was challenged by an injunction from James Michael Curley, not on the grounds the movie might demonize his reputation, but rather, because Curley had sincerely hoped some film company would take an interest in doing a ‘legitimate’ bio-pic based on his real experiences in the political arena. The suit came to not; settled out of court, reportedly for a meager $42,000. And Ford, conscious of the fact politics and cinema rarely made for phenomenal box office, worked diligently to ensure The Last Hurrah remained more centrically a character study than an exposé, in the process, managing to bring his production in $200,000 under its initial $2.5 million budget. Curiously, The Last Hurrah does not seem to suffer from Ford’s penny pinching. If anything, it has the look of a stately, if atypical, Columbia movie from the period, its greatest asset, a superb cast; most of them old-time alumni, appreciative to work with the old master one more time. Tracy’s performance is undeniably the standout. But he is flanked on all sides by some of the most respected names in the industry; the crème de la crème from Hollywood’s golden era, looking older and, perhaps, slightly frayed around the edges, yet nevertheless capable of commanding the screen.
In retrospect, it is one of Hollywood’s supreme ironies Spencer Tracy did not make the grade for a Best Actor Academy Award – not even a nomination! Historically, AMPAS has had a dodgy track record honoring noteworthy performances. While it may be argued the market then was saturated with such outstanding contenders, herein, the snub seems particularly unfair; Tracy marginally moving beyond his iconographic star presence, permeating this characterization with sentiment and sincerity; also a hint of playful petty larceny. His Frank Skeffington is neither the perfect politico nor entirely altruistic in his motivations. Four terms in the coveted hot seat, how could he have remained thus? But Ford’s direction, Nugent’s screenplay, and, Tracy’s performance all conspire to paint a portrait of a man unbowed, either by the weight of his office or by the necessary machinations forcedly observed and frequently equalized against the principles of his finer nature. Late in the movie’s second act, Skeffington explains the art of the compromise to his nephew’s wife, Maeve Sugrue Caulfield (Dianne Foster) as knowing ‘what the people want’ but also ‘what you can settle for’; perhaps, the most succinct, yet factual definition yet made to define politics: the sideshow that thinks it is the whole circus.
Caught in the crossfire of Skeffington’s reelection bid is nephew, Adam Caulfield, torn between familial loyalties, particularly as Rodger is one of Skeffington’s most vehement adversaries, and, the mayor’s blindly devoted ‘everyman’, Ditto Boland (Edward Brophy) – arguably, the novice of the piece destined to be stripped of his wide-eyed optimism. Skeffington, a widower, who daily places a single fresh rose at the foot of his late wife’s portrait, prominently hanged in the front hall of the mayor’s mansion, is saddled with a devil-may-care for a son, Frank Jr. (Arthur Walsh); oblivious to practically everything except a good time and far more interested in preening glamor gals and golf than his father’s embattled race for a fifth term. Without belaboring the point, Ford casts a jaundice view on children born to privilege; their thoroughly misguided selfishness and inability to grasp at any reality without parental codependence – especially monetary support.
After an ebullient main title, featuring a torch-lit processional in support of Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), our story begins in an undisclosed ‘New England’ city. Skeffington, a devout Catholic and a widower, who rose to prominence from the Irish ghetto, announces his plans to run for a fifth term as the city’s mayor. Until now, Skeffington’s most valuable asset has been his own political savvy; figuring out ways to exploit the machinery of his ward heelers to do his bidding while maintaining an ever-loyal Irish Catholic constituency. While rumors of graft have swirled around his administration for years, Skeffington’s reputation remains Teflon-coated, despite some heady opposition from Protestant Bishop Gardner (Basil Ruysdael), ruthless banker, Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone) and curmudgeonly newspaper publisher, Amos Force (John Carradine). His Eminence, the Cardinal Martin Burke (Donald Crisp) has also shied away from Skeffington’s cause, backing the candidacy of one Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons), a cherub-faced young Catholic lawyer and war veteran with virtually no political experience.
At present, Skeffington’s nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) is a sportswriter for Force’s paper. His father-in-law, Roger Sugrue (Willis Bouchey), is among those who bitterly oppose Skeffington; his venom frequently driving a wedge between Adam and wife, Maeve (Dianne Foster) whose loyalties are understandably divided right down the middle. Plucking Adam from his relative obscurity, Skeffington invites him to partake in this final election, purely as an unobstructed inside observer. He may cover the story from any perspective that suits his fancy; Skeffington laying down some ground rules as to how the modes of campaigning have shifted in his own time; from a hands-on approach to meeting the people, shaking hands and kissing babies, to the more prolific, but clinical, approach of building an audience through mainstream medias outlets like radio and – more importantly, television. Asked by Adam to quantify the reason why his publisher should so despise Skeffington, Frank explains how in years gone by Adam’s grandmother worked as a housemaid in Kaleb Force’s grand manor; accused of stealing a few overly ripe bananas and publicly cast out as an ingrate. The pall of this inconsequential thievery has forever colored Amos Force’s opinion of the Skeffingtons.
Skeffington launches into his ‘last hurrah’ preferring to pursue old-fashioned politics, attending numerous rallies, luncheons, dinners and giving speeches that incur Force’s ire. Skeffington’s influence is such that when he elects to attend an unpopular old friend, Knocko Minihan’s wake, what ought to have been a quiet gathering for bereavement is suddenly transformed into a three-ring social mixer; even bringing out Skeffington’s opponents, like the bombastic, Charles J. Hennessey (Wallace Ford) in a show of faux communal support. Adam is frankly appalled by the orchestration of these events until one of Skeffington’s insiders, John Gorman (Pat O’Brien) points out without such attendance the deceased’s widow, Gert (Anna Lee) would have been left almost penniless by expenses incurred. Instead, the outpouring of sympathy – however manufactured – has come with a flood of donations, Skeffington quietly donating a cool $1,000 to the cause without publicizing it.
After Norman Cass’ bank turns down a loan for the city to build a housing development, Skeffington crashes the exclusive Plymouth Club to confront him, Force, the bishop, and other members of the social elite who are presently at luncheon. Bishop Gardner is likely amused by the intrusion; Skeffington playing hardball with Cass, accusing him and the rest of the gentlemen seated at his table being opposed to the clearance of slums in Ward 9. The confrontation quickly escalates after Skeffington is told it is his municipal administration that is hampering this development; Cass suggesting he clear his conscience by clearing out of city hall to make way for new blood. But Skeffington challenges Cass on his uppity blue-blood heritage. The city is being made to suffer because its civic-minded authorities are not of the same class or religious background as the Mayor and that is all. They are the ones holding Skeffington’s administration, and, by extension, the people hostage, not the other way around. Frank vows to push the housing development project through, with or without their help and furthermore, he threatens its’ grand opening will be on the most distinctly Irish of all national holidays: St. Patrick’s Day.
Not long afterward, Skeffington taps into an idea how best to humiliate Norman Cass; by appointing his dimwitted son, Norman Jr. (O.Z. Whitehead) as the city’s new Fire Commissioner; a post for which he is neither suited nor even modestly capable of defining, hence creating a public spectacle of himself, surely to chagrin the family name. Norman Sr. is outraged, considering Skeffington’s bluff a crude and shabby attempt to force his hand on the housing loan. But Skeffington forewarns he has no quam about leaving Norman Jr. to his own devices, to stumble and fall and embarrass himself thoroughly. Cass is over a barrel and knows it. He uses the Mayor’s phone to immediately put the load through; also, to contact Amos Force, offering absolute backing of Kevin McKluskey’s campaign. The next day, Adam takes notice of the Plymouth Club, decked out in red, white and blue as the official campaign headquarters for Kevin McKluskey. However, in attempting to portray McKluskey as the all-American everyman with fresh ideas, the initial launch of his campaign platform hits a major snag when a scripted (though, supposedly spontaneous) interview on live television goes hopelessly awry. The dog hired to portray the family pet misbehaves and will not stop barking, causing Kevin to badly mangle his speech, while Mrs. McKluskey (Helen Westcott) is stricken with a paralytic bout of stage fright.
Cass had sincerely hoped Bishop Gardner would endorse McKluskey’s candidacy. But Gardner refuses, pointing out he would rather support a wily rake than a naïve fool. His Eminence, the Cardinal is equally disappointed by the lad’s performance, also morally outraged to discover a very large portrait of himself prominently hanging above the fireplace and featured in the TV interview, thereby giving the illusion the Cardinal is supporting McKluskey’s bid. Alas, McKluskey is no more a politician than he is a garbage man, incapable of knowing his own mind because he has never fully invested himself to learn about the issues at stake. He can be easily bought and manipulated – exactly the sort of Mayor both Cass and Force hope for to use to their own advantage.
As a show of pleasant protest, Skeffington has his torch lit campaign parade, complete with open top car and marching bands, pass slowly by the Plymouth Club, allowing Force and his cronies to quietly observe the spectacle in all its’ flourish. Afterward, Adam brings ‘Uncle Frank’ over to his house for dinner; an impromptu surprise for Maeve who is, at first, moderately reluctant. Almost immediately, Skeffington lays on the charm, his seasoned way with a kind word, the quintessence of authenticity. Maeve is completely won over, if not by the compliments; then, certainly by Skeffington’s art of the compromise. The election enters its final round, the voters going to the polls and Skeffington riding a crest of popularity he fervently believes will leave him comfortably ensconced in the Mayor’s mansion for a fifth term. Tragically, after some promising early returns, the tide turns against him. McKluskey sweeps the polls with unanticipated force, leaving Ditto distraught and in tears. Ever the pro, Skeffington invites the press in for a gracious consolation speech.
Afterward, refusing Adam’s invitation to return to his house for a post-election powwow, Skeffington instead takes a stroll past the Plymouth Club before heading home. The results have hit him harder than he anticipated. He suffers a stroke and collapses on the stairs. The next afternoon, Skeffington’s loyal campaigners rally at his home; Ditto fielding telephone calls and bouquets of flowers brought to the front door by devoted well-wishers, including Gert Minihan. Dr. Tom (William Forrest) advises complete bed rest. Frank is to see no one except his immediate family. Unhappy chance for Skeffington, his son has yet to grasp the gravity of the situation, preferring to stay out all night and only breeze in to check up at a glance on his old man. Adam steps in as his surrogate, the son Frank ought to have had, and Maeve rushes to be with her husband. Regrettably, she is accompanied by her father, who cannot wait for Skeffington to expire. But even Roger is bewildered to discover both Bishop Gardner and the Cardinal at Skeffington’s bedside. As Dr. Tom prepares for the worst, Roger cruelly mutters with utter malevolence, “I’m sure if he had it to do all over again, he’d do things differently” to which Skeffington, weak but still very much alive, proudly reiterates, “The hell I would!”
It is the penultimate moment of farewell for Spencer Tracy’s beloved and uncompromising politico; director John Ford, sparing us the exact moment of Skeffington’s passing with a beautifully composed metaphor in its place; Maeve and Adam descending the grand staircase, Adam pausing a moment on the landing before the portrait of Skeffington’s dearly departed wife to replace the softly wilted single rose as his Uncle Frank always did as a gesture of his enduring fidelity in their marriage. The last shot is as symbolic of the great man’s sudden absence; the staircase, lights dimmed, ascended in silence by a steady stream of Skeffington loyalists in half silhouette, their heads bowed. Ford’s artistry herein is faultless: a master craftsman, so confident in his ability to stir the heart and mind in tandem, so utterly secure in his storytelling decisions to convey all the funerary drama, sadness, etc., that he denies us its obvious aftermath in tears; replaced by impressionistic glimpses of what more genuine mourning involves.
Like all Ford’s greatest masterpieces, The Last Hurrah is immensely satisfying on an emotional level. Despite his own outwardly curmudgeonly façade, I suspect John Ford was a rank sentimentalist at heart; perhaps a man who masked his own tenderness behind those dark lensed glasses and perpetual scowl, chomping on his smelly cigar - a stone face by design - meant to prevent the outside world from recognizing what an ole softy he truly was. Without question, those who knew him best and readily appeared in his pictures, were both fond of the man and eager to come when he called. They did their best work for him too. In retrospect, The Last Hurrah is a perfect marriage between Ford’s storytelling prowess, perfect performances and Frank S. Nugent’s first-class screenplay. On its own, portions of the dialogue might be considered maudlin or, on occasion, too theatrical. Yet, put into the mouths of such skilled thespians, these same words becomes almost Shakespearean in nature, full of fire and music. The Last Hurrah might just as easily become heavily weighted toward the politics in the piece. But Ford, a man of deeper wellsprings than most his contemporary critics gave him credit for, exercises great restraint herein. He is impervious to rank schmaltziness, yet susceptible to the good cry. The finale to The Last Hurrah allows the audience just such a release. Critical praise for the film was immediate and nearly unanimous, Variety (the showbiz Bible) leading the charge, labeling The Last Hurrah “a classic of Americana”. Even so, the picture proved a financial disappointment, losing more than $1.8 million.
I’ve dug back a bit for this one. In the old days when Sony had yet to fully annex Columbia Studios via marketing, The Last Hurrah appeared as part of their signature ‘Columbia Classics’ DVD line. It bears mentioning herein that Sony has always taken the high road where film preservation and restoration is concerned. Despite being released to home video during DVD’s infancy in 1998, and even more impressive when critically compared to today’s level of expectations in hi-def, The Last Hurrah on standard DVD holds up remarkably well: impeccably, in fact. The anamorphic B&W image is crisp and solid with barely a hint of age-related dirt orscratches. Film grain is consistently rendered and there is a level of fine detail, particularly startling in close-up that is nothing short of astounding. Bottom line: Charles Lawton Jr.’s cinematography looks magnificent. While I would respectfully champion Sony to reissue The Last Hurrah to Blu-ray with God’s speed, realistically, I cannot imagine how much better it might look in 1080p. The DVD is quite simply that good! The audio is Dolby Digital mono and equally as impressive. Skeffington’s night parade, as example, has an unanticipated aggressiveness. The one unforgiveable sin: no extras, except for a trailer. Personally, I’d like to see Criterion get a hold of this one and do an ‘extra features laden’ special edition. The Last Hurrah is certainly deserving of such a treatment. For now, this DVD rates my highest level of recommendation.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)